A fringe thinker is someone who thinks outside the box. Sometimes they even invent their own box and then think outside of that.
Astronomy and astronautics have certainly had more than their share of these people, who range from the usual UFO nuts and hollow earth enthusiasts to mathematical geniuses who have proved that everything Einstein said was wrong and have the numbers to prove it. In fairness, it might be better to call these people "Independent Thinkers." For the most part, they are absolutely sincere, however wrong-headed they may be. Some are poorly educated, but others are trained scientists — so one sometimes hesitates to dismiss a weird idea out of hand.
Astronomer Patrick Moore described the Independent Thinker as a "genuine, well-meaning person, who is not hidebound by convention, and who is always ready to strike out on a line of his own — frequently, though not always, in the face of all the evidence."
One of the greatest of all the Independent Thinkers associated with space flight was Constantin Paul van Lent, who certainly was never hidebound by convention. Born in Greece in 1905 as Constantin Tselentis, he came to the US where he became a naturalized citizen. He changed his name to the more pronounceable (and more Anglo-sounding) Lent, and eventually the even more impressive-sounding "Dr. Constantin Paul van Lent."
He was a trained mechanical engineer and skilled draftsman who made his living largely by providing the detailed drawings inventors required for their patent applications. Lent had scores of patents of his own to his credit, from toys to atomic-powered rocket automobiles. These included the fabulous "Monocycle," a one-wheeled motorcycle that was actually built and made national news. It's one of the scariest-looking vehicles you'll have ever seen.
Later in life, Lent grew... I won't say bitter, but genuinely saddened by what he felt was a lack of credit given to him and his fellow rocketry pioneers and spent countless hours writing letters to the White House and the National Air & Space Museum in a futile effort to gain the recognition he felt he deserved. He died in 1977, struck by a car as he was crossing a street in New York.
Lent was also fascinated by rockets and the idea of space travel. In the early 1930s he became a member of the American Rocket Society, which had only recently been founded by half a dozen enthusiastic young men (the ARS eventually became the prestigious American Astronautical Society, which is still going strong). He was eventually elected vice-president of the society. In his capacity as an engineer, he fabricated some of the first liquid-fuel rocket motors ever constructed in this country.
In 1944, to help raise money for the ARS, he wrote and self-published one of the first books on rocket propulsion to appear in the US. He went on to publish many more books as well as a long-running journal called "Rocket-Jet Flying." The latter is a gold mine of Lent's extraordinary vision and breadth of interests.
Indeed, there is material for a dozen articles in his books and amazing magazine... and I hope to bring more to io9 readers in the future. His scores of original ideas ran the gamut, from flying saucers to transcontinental rocket mail. He developed innumerable ideas for space travel, including the "landing spike," perhaps the most terrifying method of landing on the moon ever devised. (Although he should be given credit for anticipating a method of crashing needle-shaped probes into the crust of comets that has been seriously considered.)
One of his greatest dreams was the creation of the American Space Foundation, where he hoped to gather all the foremost thinkers of the day. It would have included the world's first space university — which eventually did come to pass in the form of the present-day International Space University, based in Strasbourg, France, though this institution has no direct connection with Lent.
Lent was a prolific author and his books covered subjects ranging from rocketry to economics, from psychology to the art of manhole covers. One of the subjects that most fascinated Lent was the problem of boosting heavy spacecraft into orbit. And he came up with a couple of astonishing solutions.
In one of these, he solved the problem of a rocket having to carry tons of fuel when lifting from the surface of the earth. Lent wrote in 1958:
"To launch a liquid fuel rocket to a given altitude, its tanks must carry that many gallons of fuel. Additional fuel must be taken along to lift the fuel load...This is a vicious cycle which may be resolved launching the rocket not from a zero position but from a rocket launcher... The only real disadvantage in such a system is the fact that such launcher platform must too carry its own fuel... To overcome this apparent disadvantage, the author suggests the utilization of a self-fueling rocket launcher sled. The sled will not carry the fuel but will scoop it up from a trough as it speeds over the sled tracks."
The idea, in short was to have a rocket-powered sled shooting down a track as it scooped up thousands of gallons of rocket fuel from an open trough beneath. If there's any flaw in this idea I certainly fail to see it.
Lent also put a great deal of thought into using giant guns to launch spacecraft. In 1957, he came up with an idea inspired by Jules Verne. A 500-foot vertical shaft would be dug out of solid rock. The bottom 1/4 of the shaft would be filled with "combustible fuel." A concrete cap would plug this and on top of the cap would be the 21 thousand-pound spaceship. The fuel would be ignited by a large detonator made of dynamite. Perfectly aware that the acceleration created would instantly kill his astronauts, Lent suggested they be frozen first.
But this cannon was small potatoes, compared to what he'd proposed a couple of years earlier. He again had a giant cannon bored into the top of a mountain, but instead of using a high explosive to launch his spaceship he planned to use an atomic bomb. At the bottom of a 200-foot shaft 23 feet wide would be a spherical chamber. Suspended from a 50-foot tower in the center of the hollow chamber was an atomic bomb. The remainder of the chamber was filled with powdered steel and aluminum. The spaceship sat on an enormous concrete plug above all this.
When the bomb is detonated "the powdered material turns into metallic vapor; the high speed gases thus produced launching the satellite body or rocket into space." Aware of the problem of friction, Lent planned to overcome this by detonating a second atomic bomb at the top of the mountain. This explosion "will create a vacuum over the cannon's open muzzle and help cut air resistance." Don't laugh, Lent cautioned. "This plan is not as fantastic as it seems. First of all, it is a natural." After all, he explained, the planets themselves are little more than projectiles "launched from the mother sun by means of atom explosions."
Never one to think small, Lent even suggest launching entire space stations into orbit this way.
I don't know what really would have happened when the switch was thrown, but I'll bet anything it would have made a Space Shuttle launch look like a bottle rocket.