A Powerful Idea

The back story

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In 1975, Carolyn Meinel was editing a quirky newsletter, the L5 News , devoted to discussions about space colonization. A common topic was how to get tons of materials into space cheaply, and at the time, one of the most intriguing ideas was to launch them with railguns or coilguns. These would unleash enormous electromagnetic forces to hurl payloads into orbit, in theory much more efficiently than rockets ever could.

Meinel got to witness the first public demonstration of the Mass Driver I, an early coilgun, in 1976. She was hooked. She soon met some of the key electric gun researchers, including Harry D. Fair, a physicist who struck her as being ”optimistic but also intellectually honest,” she says.

In 1985, after Fair took a job at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency overseeing a program on EM guns, he contracted Meinel, an IEEE member with a master’s degree in industrial engineering, as an advisor. That work brought her even closer to the action. ”My job was to visit the contractors working on coil- and railguns, talk to everyone, and find out the real stories, the real problems, and the real results,” she says.

Two decades later, she has poured it all out for the world to see. The result is ”For Love of a Gun,” in this issue.

These days Meinel works as a writer from a small ranch outside Sandia Park, N.M., where she and her husband keep a veritable menagerie: three dogs, three cats, a clutch of trained chickens, two donkeys, and six horses [she’s shown above with the latest addition, a Paso Fino colt named Tiger]. Although much of the work on EM launch now focuses on weapons, Meinel still holds out hope for its use in space. ”Not to knock national defense, but there are greater purposes,” she says.

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