Dr. Robert Bussard, Fusion Power and Interstellar Flight Visionary

Robert Bussard, a giant when it came to interstellar space flight concepts, passed away recently. He was 79 years old. He was best known for creating the concept of the Bussard Ram-jet fusion method for interstellar space travel. His later works involved inventing practical methods for fusion power reactors.

The concept of the Bussard ram-jet is simple, accelerate the spaceship up to 6% c ( lightspeed), unfurl 6,000 kilometers (later revised to 60,000 kilometers) of electromagnetic “wings” or “scoop” to put a negative charge on hydrogen atoms to “suck” them up like a huge vacuum cleaner, compress them down and use the “fuel” to run the fusion reactor and propel the ship to .99 c. The reason being once after the ship reached .06 c, the process would start to be self sustaining.

Later studies of the concept proved the method to be impractical due to the fact that you have accelerate the ship first (that first .06 c is a bitch) and the drag coefficient tended to cancel out what acceleration you got out of it.

But the concept inspired three of my favorite novels; Tau Zero, written by Poul Anderson, Orbitsville by Bob Shaw and A Deepness In The Sky by Vernor Vinge (who also coined the term “technological Singularity). All made the Bussard ram-jet method of starflight an essential plot device. Especially Orbitsville, I loved the flickerwing ships! Even Gene Roddenberry employed the concept on his Starfleet vessels like the Enterprise, the warp nacelles are in fact bussard collectors with linear particle accelerators that strip hydrogen atoms for fuel (anti-protons)!

The renewed interest with interstellar travel is fuelled by the almost daily discovery of extrasolar planets, especially one in particular, Gliese 581d, which may be the first Earth-type extrasolar world discovered. Old tech that has been on the shelf such as Orion (nuclear-pulse/bomb/pusherplate) is being updated (yes bombs, as in nukes!).

Solar sail and laser propulsion are being considered again and last, but probably the most important one, some variance of antimatter propulsion. The form of anti-matter tech that’s showing the most promise and can probably provide the speed necessary is an anti-matter initiated, helium3 fuelled fusion torch. Only a few micrograms of anti-matter is needed to light off the heavy helium3 atoms and once lit, it’ll boost a small payload to 10-15% c easily. Enough for a 30-40 year flyby journey to Proxima Centauri. To get to Gliese 581d in that amount of time would require a real small payload, but one capable of producing a sizable electromagnetic field to protect it from hard x-rays and interstellar dust hitting the field with the power of atomic bombs (all interstellar probes will need shielding).

The idea of a spaceship “living off the land” so to speak was beautiful. You can get up to lightspeed on minimal fuel and once the process started, it was self-sustaining. Too bad engineering reality threw cold water on it.

But that doesn’t diminish Bussard’s vision in the least. His ideas prompted research in finding ways to get practical fusion power to the people, forever banishing energy shortages to the history books. For that he shall always be remembered.

Links about Robert Bussard :

Remembering Robert Bussard

Dr. Robert W. Bussard Has Passed

Fiction using the Bussard Ram-jet concept :

Tau Zero


A Deepness In The Sky

Continuing Work on Dr. Bussard’s Project:

Dr. Robert Bussard’s Polywell Fusor Project

11 responses

  1. Larry Niven also employed the Bussard ram-jet. He also coined the term kzinti lesson; “a reaction drive’s efficiency as a weapon is in direct proportion to its efficiency as a drive.”

    We might do well to remember this.

  2. It’s all moot to me. I don’t even like driving across town, anymore!

  3. Bussard was one of those people who could think outside of the box when it came to esoteric tech.

    He wasn’t a Tesla, but close.

  4. dad2059,

    Thanks for the link. I will add your fine eulogy to the list at CV and PaC.

  5. To me, Tesla was the link that science and religion are seeking for a reconciliation. His research and genius were the closest I’ve ever seen toward revealing the possibilities inherent within the universe.

    Much like that old Stampeder’s tune… “Then Came The White Man”… then came the NWO, and fucked that up!

    Such is life.

  6. Maybe… by studying asteroids “flight plan” + interplanetary gravity field take + optimizing cold fusion technology + automatic interchangeable source of “purpulsion” system + exponential growth of speed… possible.

  7. Say Dad I was wondering, is speed of light constant (disregard the density of medium travel through)?

    I heard about photon, sail (etc) purpulsion system. Well it start very very slow but the speed kicks up upon time in space (zero friction modular). If that so, is ‘Light’ a matter/ element/ anything?

    Also wormhole may not exist in our physical universe, unless Big Bang theory nullified.

  8. I thought your readers would be interested in looking at these energy technologies and EPS’s theoretic base for ball lighting.

    Aneutronic Fusion: Here I am not talking about the big science ITER project taking thirty years, but the several small alternative plasma fusion efforts.

    There are three companies pursuing hydrogen-boron plasma toroid fusion, Paul Koloc, Prometheus II, Eric Lerner, Focus Fusion and Clint Seward of Electron Power Systems

    Vincent Page (a technology officer at GE!!) gave a presentation at the 05 6th symposium on current trends in international fusion research , which high lights the need to fully fund three different approaches to P-B11 fusion

    He quotes costs and time to development of P-B11 Fusion as tens of million $, and years verses the many decades and ten Billion plus $ projected for ITER and other “Big” science efforts

    Here are the links:


    U.S., Chilean Labs to Collaborate on Testing Scientific Feasibility of Focus Fusion http://pesn.com/2006/03/18/9600250_LPP_Chilean_Nuclear_Commission/

    However, short of a Energy “silver bullet” like fusion , Here is a fully DOABLE technology

    Time to Master the Carbon Cycle with Terra Preta Soil Technology;

    The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil technology may
    provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power
    structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.

    The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade in place:

    Terra Preta soils I feel has great possibilities to revolutionize sustainable agriculture into a major CO2 sequestration strategy.

    I thought the current news and links on Terra Preta soils and closed-loop pyrolysis would interest you.

    SCIAM Article May 15 07


    After many years of reviewing solutions to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) I believe this technology can manage Carbon for the greatest collective benefit at the lowest economic price, on vast scales. It just needs to be seen by ethical globally minded companies.

    Even with all the big corporations coming to the GHG negotiation table, like Exxon, Alcoa, .etc, we still need to keep watch as they try to influence how carbon management is legislated in the USA. Carbon must have a fair price, that fair price and the changes in the view of how the soil carbon cycle now can be used as a massive sink verses it now being viewed as a wash, will be of particular value to farmers and a global cool breath of fresh air for us all.

    If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP web site I’ve been drafted to co-administer. http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

    It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of EPRIDA , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who’s back round I don’t know have joined.

    Also Here is the Latest BIG Terra Preta Soil news;

    ConocoPhillips Establishes $22.5 Million Pyrolysis Program at Iowa State 04/10/07

    S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

    A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:

    Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

    for the 2007 Farm Bill


    (…PLEASE!!……….Contact your Senators & Repps in Support of S.1884……..NOW!!…)

    Erich J. Knight
    shengar at aol.com

  9. ITER is big alright. ITER is a big fatass theft of taxpayer dollars, just like every single other publicly-funded fusion ‘program’.

    Each one is a huge fatass black hole sucking down taxpayer dollars that could have been spent on better things than giant corporate welfare programs. Like housing for the people, like guaranteed annual income, like population reduction, like environmental protection.

    It is time to halt these boondoggles before they suck up more precious taxpayer dollars which are so desperately needed to help the ever-growing underclass of people living in poverty.

    The taxpayer is being told to starve so these trojan programs can continue to leech away their livelihoods. Witness today’s ‘Austerity’ programs beginning to spread through Europe and soon everywhere… there will be no money for your children or retirement as the elites are spending every Country into bankrupcy with their Wars and so-called Defense Spending and spending on toxic Fission and blackhole Fusion ‘technologies’.

    From its inception to today, fusion has been a gigantic blackhole welfare program for the rich corporations and their scientistic employees with the starving taxpayer footing the bill.

    No more. Its time to end all public funding for these so-called ‘energy’ programs. If there’s money in it let the so-called ‘Free Market’ fund it. After all, those richie private investors already have trillions floating around that they don’t know what to do with, why don’t they risk their own assets and asses instead of making the taxpayer the victim? Hypocrisy, hypocrisy, hypocrisy.

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