I occasionally mention the only scientific paper that’s ever been published with my name on it. It was about a novel space launch system. It consisted of a long chain of masses extending in a straight line about 150,000 km radially outwards from the Earth’s equator. This chain would be revolving around the equator once a day, and the net centrifugal forces acting radially upwards on it would exceed the net gravitational forces acting radially downwards, and the whole chain would rise. And as payloads were released from the top, new ones would be added in at the base. It would keep working as long as the Earth kept spinning, and could be used to launch millions of tons of material into space into space at speeds that would either drop into close orbit around the Sun, or exit the Solar System. With not a single rocket used!
At the time it was published, in 2005, my co-author told me that somebody else was claiming to have already thought of it. His name was Alexander Bolonkin. And I was never quite sure whether he’d thought of it before me or not, although we exchanged emails in which he (rather kindly) referred to it as “your idea”.
Today I came across one of his publications online. In it there was a description of a similar (but not identical) centrifugal launcher. And there were several other publications of his. One of which was Memoirs of Soviet Political Prisoner. For it emerged that he had been a political prisoner in the Soviet Union for 15 years up until 1988.
He had many awards in the Soviet Union. In 1972 professor Bolonkin was arrested the Soviet Secret Police (KGB) because he read forbidden political literature about freedom and democracy and listen in “Voice of America”. More 15 years KGB tortures him into special prisons, concentration camps, and exile in Siberia.
So I’ve spent the day reading his memoir. Life in the camps was very unpleasant:
Punishment cell represented a torture cell, where a prisoner suffered
not only from hunger (though it came down to starvation and hunger
hallucinations) but mostly from cold. One was placed there in thin cotton
prisoner’s wretched clothes. There was no bunk and the temperature was
low. Wooden plank bed was unfastened from the wall only for 8 night hours.
Chill tormented prisoner’s exhausted organism. It was especially difficult to
survive nights. One had to jump out of bed 5-10 times, do exercises to warm
up a little. It was hard to fall asleep even in warmth on those rough snaggy
plank beds with iron screw-bolts. The food was scanty – 450 grams (one
pound) of raw brown bread. Huge iron close-stool was producing such
―odours which made breathing hard.
The letters he wrote were either censored or rejected by the camp authorities:
Then I made such an
experiment. In our scanty library I found a complete set of Lenin’s works.
KGB thought it might help political prisoners to understand how great
communism was and how wrong they (prisoners) were. I took the volume
with Lenin’s correspondence and began rewriting his letters to Gorkiy (well
known Russian writer), Krupskaya (Lenin wife), Armand (Lenin mistress and
communist revolutionist) and others and gave them to censor as MY OWN. I
didn’t change a word in those letters. Some really long ones were abridged,
some names were omitted. Neither of Lenin’s letters passed the censorship.
All of them were confiscated as ―anti-Soviet, ―slandering, and ―cynical. As a
result I was brought to a psychiatrist, because only a psyche could write such
letters, said KGB. I avoided diagnosis ―mentally incompetent only when I
said that those letters had been copies of unforgettable Ilyich’s letters.
As I was reading it, I was thinking about my own free-and-easy life from 1972 to 1988. I had believed, back then, that the Soviet gulag had largely been emptied. In fact, it appears that it was still in operation as late as 1988. And so when I was holidaying in Portugal, Alexander Bolonkin was probably suffering in an icy punishment cell in Siberia.
And I was also thinking about what sort of mad society it was in which it was forbidden to read or write about freedom and democracy. And about my post a couple of days back in which I wondered whether the ideas of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ had become obsolete in Western society. And whether some day soon I would find myself in a punishment cell – for reading and writing about freedom and democracy.
Anyway, I very much doubt that Alexander Bolonkin was able to think very much about space launch systems while he was a Soviet political prisoner. I’d dreamt up my idea in 1991, and first published it online in 1997. His version of it seems to have first been published in 2005 in a book called “Non-Rocket Space Launch and Flight”. So I seem to have been the first to publish an idea along these lines.
But today, after reading his memoir, I wished that he had been.