beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

See You Later, Astrogator!

I wrote a comment on wcg's blog I thought might be worth sharing here.

He was talking about software called Astrogator, whose manufacturer made the following claim:

In 1953, Robert A. Heinlein published a book named Starman Jones. Aside from being one of Heinlein's better juvenile novels, it coined the word astrogator, meaning a person who navigates a spaceship.

This did not ring true for me; I had the impression it was a pretty standard word in Golden Age stories. A bit of googling and n-gram plotting turns up the 1938 story "The Degenerates" by John Russell Fearn:
We took off right on time two days later, and it was certainly a joy to be the chief astrogator of the Stardust.
Willy Ley mentions "astrogator" in the first version of Rockets, 1944, connecting it to the astronomer R. S. Richardson. Now Richardson wrote lots of science articles for Astounding Science Fiction in those days, so I wouldn't be surprised if we found him using the word now and then.

I can push "astrogation" even further back. David Lasser, an editor working for Hugo Gernsback on Science Wonder Stories and other SF magazines, joined with other writers and enthusiasts to found the American Interplanetary Society, from which the AIAA is descended. And in 1931 he published one of the first American nonfiction books about the new science of spaceflight, Conquest of Space.
Just as two-dimensional navigation on the earth's surface gave way to avigation* when men attempted to travel through the air, so in interplanetary travel we must develop an exact science of three-dimensional astrogation through the heavens.
Okay, having demonstrated that I can find multiple citations predating Starman Jones, now I will peek at the answer in the back of the book: the OED SF jargon site.** Yup, their earliest citations for both "astrogation" and "astrogator" point to Lasser's book. Guess I missed the latter; Google Books failed to detect its presence.

Heinlein's Starman Jones does have the virtue of being about an astrogator, and its control-room scenes are most memorable. But "astrogator" was a venerable word, by SF standards, by the time this novel appeared.

* No, Mr. Lasser, actually it didn't; most aviators wound up still calling it "navigation." So did most astronauts.

** Basis for the book Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, edited by Jeff Prucher.
Tags: astronomy, history, science fiction, sf, space
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