Science Fiction

Non-Rocket Spacelaunch – Tether propulsion in fiction

This is the fourth and final part of the tether propulsion article of the non-rocket spacelaunch methods article series. This post will focus on references to the tether propulsion concept in fiction.

The most prominent science fiction novels on the subject include the following:

The Last Theorem

The Last Theorem is Arthur C. Clarke’s posthumously published novel which he co-wrote with Frederik Pohl. The novel describes the skyhook as a means of interplanetary travel rather than simply a means to reach orbit. It is used as a means of transport by athletes and delegates to the “first-ever lunar Olympics”.

The Descent of Anansi

Another interesting novel is The Descent of Anansi published in 1982 by Steven Barnes and Larry Niven. A space station-factory attempts to become commercially independent from its government by exporting super-strong nanowire that can only be manufactured in zero g. Following an attempt to sabotage their first delivery and high-jack the cargo, the intrepid crew realize they can escape the hijackers. Their shuttle Anansi can become a modern day version of its namesake, an African Spider-god by descending to Earth on a thread. The physics of tidal forces are well explained, and the possibilities of orbital tethers to accelerate payloads into higher orbits or de-orbit shuttles without retro-rockets is cleverly woven into an interesting hard science fiction thriller.

The Barsoom Project

The construction of skyhooks, including a space elevator and several other orbital devices for launching craft into orbit and interplanetary travel, as well as decelerating and capturing craft on arrival, is a central theme in the science fiction novel The Barsoom Project, the second book in the Dream Park series, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. The destructive potential of a falling skyhook is also explored, and the potential for this to be exploited by terrorists.

Space tethers are also present in many movies and television series. For example, in the Star Wars expanded universe, skyhooks are common above the planet Coruscant. They are frequently private retreats owned by corporations or wealthy individuals. In the LucasArts video game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed a skyhook is being constructed on the planet Kashyyyk.

Another example is the Turn-A Gundam anime series depicts an ancient hypersonic skyhook which has been maintained operational by nanomachines over thousands of years. An ancient mass driver is also used for transporting space-vessels from Earth’s surface to the skyhook.

In the anime Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040, the three main protagonists arrive at the series’ climactic battle with Galatea in Earth orbit by commandeering a skyhook transit system.

On the military television show The Unit, Sergeant Major Blaine uses a skyhook for his “AIR” extraction during a mission. He carried a duffel bag with an oxygen tank, mask, rope, harness and a balloon in the shape of a rocket with a red tip.

Links to the other articles in this series

Space Elevator:

Tether Propulsion:

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Paul Tomaszewski is a science & tech writer as well as a programmer and entrepreneur. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of CosmoBC. He has a degree in computer science from John Abbott College, a bachelor's degree in technology from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, and completed some business and economics classes at Concordia University in Montreal. While in college he was the vice-president of the Astronomy Club. In his spare time he is an amateur astronomer and enjoys reading or watching science-fiction. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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