They say never meet your heroes. Well, Jerry Pournelle had been a hero of mine ever since I read ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’* as a teenager, and I never met him. Instead I encountered him in the strange, detached way I’ve encountered many great people in the course of my work.
As a showrunner, I sometimes have thirty episodes in production at once. It’s not practical for me to clock up air miles personally interviewing the 200+ people who’ll feature in my stories, so skilled directors do it for me. I equip them with a list of questions, and sometimes scripted lines, for the incredible people who bring my stories to life on screen. The directors bring back the recorded interviews, and I oversee the editing that crafts them into a story. In this peculiar way, I develop a weird one-sided relationship with people I have never met. They answer my questions, perform lines I’ve written for them, but they have no idea who I am.
This was my relationship with Jerry. He was a regular cast member in NASA’s Unexplained Files from season 2 onwards. We initially interviewed him for just one story, but we found out he had something to say about almost everything, and with the knowledge to back it up, so we kept coming back for more. My proxy for interviewing Jerry was the excellent Ian Levison, a veteran director who quickly mastered the art of handling a difficult character.
Jerry was nearly 80 when we first interviewed him. He would forget who Ian was. He would forget he’d agreed to the interview. He would make occasional references to the gun he kept somewhere handy. Ian took this all in his stride (He’s been through worse, but that’s his story). The moment the interview started, the years fell away, and Jerry would go into full flow as a natural storyteller.
The story that led us to Jerry was ‘Project Thor’. In the 1950’s he’d worked as a weapons designer for Boeing, coming up with new concepts to push the limits of technology. Project Thor certainly did that. Jerry’s big idea was a network of satellites equipped with tungsten rods that they could drop from orbit, causing devastation wherever they landed. Fire from heaven. Real-life thunderbolts.
It was a brilliant idea. The rods would require no propulsion. A simple guidance system could put them on target. As a weapon, it was impossible to defend against – too fast to intercept, and no amount of concrete would stop a metal rod falling from space. It also had the advantage of being clean, without the lingering radioactivity of nukes.
Project Thor was picked up for development by the USAF, but eventually abandoned because the cost of carrying the tungsten rods into orbit by rocket was too great. But clever ideas never completely go away. Rocket technology has improved massively since the ‘50s, and in 2011, the USAF budget earmarked a hundred million dollars for orbital weapons development. Was this the rebirth of Project Thor?
Where does sci-fi end, and reality begin? You never knew with Jerry, and that's why I loved his work.
*The dubious libertarian politics were not visible to me as a teen, but it’s still a really excellent first contact novel