The news that Jerry Pournelle died suddenly at the age of 84 was met with sadness in both science fiction and space policy circles, for he was a giant in both fields. His novels, particularly the ones written in collaboration with Larry Niven, helped to bring science fiction into the mainstream. His advocacy for space settlements, space based anti-missile systems and cheaper access to space, pioneered those concepts in the 1980s that redound to this day.

Pournelle’s science fiction

Pournelle’s first novel, “A Spaceship for the King,” made him a breakout writer in the early 1970s and helped to win him a John Campbell Award for best new writer in 1973.

Much of his work took on a military theme. However, Pournelle’s best work was done in collaboration with Larry Niven, another science fiction giant,

“Inferno,” for example, retold the famous poem by Dante, only by sending a science fiction writer to Hell. “The Mote in God’s Eye” was both a great space opera and a first contact novel. “Lucifer’s Hammer” depicted a near Earth object colliding with our planet and its aftermath. The book inspired such movies as “Deep Impact.” “Footfall” was an intelligently written alien invasion story.

Space visionary

Pournelle was also the chair of a group called the “Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy” that met in the 1980s and was heavily influential on President Ronald Reagan’s space policy.

The group was an eclectic assemblage of science fiction writers. They included Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, and Gregory Benford. There were astronauts such as Buzz Aldrin and Pete Conrad, scientists and engineers such as Lowell Wood, aerospace luminaries such as Maxwell Hunter and Gary Hudson, and retired military officers such as General Daniel Graham.

The ideas of the council were incorporated into President Reagan’s SDI program, which sought to end the nuclear balance of terror with space based missile defense systems. Pournelle and his allies were also influential in developing the concept of cheap access to space, which manifested in the DC-X program that flight tested a single stage vertical take-off and landing vehicle.

SDI never came to fruition, thanks in large part to the end of the Cold War. However, space based missile defenses are getting a second look thanks to the threat posed by rogue states such as North Korea and Iran.

The idea of vertical takeoff and landing vehicles has at last taken form, thanks to the work by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The upshot of it is, Pournelle may have gone on that final journey to the undiscovered country, but his legacy is sure to live on.