Dr. Robert W. Bussard -- physicist, nuclear fusion researcher, inventor of the Bussard ramjet -- passed away last Sunday morning, October 7. The Power and Control blog has further details.
Dr. Bussard invented the idea of the interstellar ramjet in 1960 -- a concept of using magnetic "scoop fields" to collect interstellar hydrogen, which would subsequently be compressed and burned in a nuclear fusion reaction to produce thrust. This idea worked its way into popular culture via novels such as Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (early 1970s), Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series (1980s), and even on Star Trek (late 1980s to 1990s).
In the last years of his life, Dr. Bussard worked on prototype nuclear fusion reactors using inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC). This work was done for the US DoD and the US Navy. When his funding ran out, he gave a talk at Google which became famous over the internet. A copy of his Google talk may also be obtained via a peer to peer network with an application such as uTorrent.
I have watched Dr. Bussard's presentation a number of times over the last year. It is both compelling and inspiring -- a succinct synthesis of the science behind nuclear fusion, as well as Bussard's own research into the development of an IEC fusion reactor. Bussard acknowledges that IEC devices represent a completely different direction than the large, expensive, tokamak-based devices which are the mainstream of current international nuclear fusion research.
The IEC research is based on physics known since the early half of the twentieth century. If fully realized, Dr. Bussard's work promises to effectively end humanity's reliance on fossil fuels. More importantly, it would make possible space drives capable of moving a spacecraft from Earth to Mars in a week or Earth to Titan in 70 days. Such a drive could also be the first stage acceleration system to get a Bussard ramjet starship to the threshold speed where its scoop fields would be able to pull in enough hydrogen to achieve ignition.