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"I do think there is a link in that in both cases, writing fiction or writing a computer program, at any given moment you're focusing on a very specific and particular thing—one word, one line of code, whatever."
- Neal Stephenson

Gravity Assist  
  Using the gravity and orbital speed of a celestial body to change speed and course of a spacecraft.  

These "manoeuvres" were an essential part of the earliest visits to the outer solar system.

In the book, an Earth spaceship by Martian brigands who are determined to get their hands on the Moon's one key resource, radiactum. Radiactum was "the catalyst mineral which was revolutionising industry."

We were at this time no more than some sixty-five thousand miles from the moon's surface. The Planetara presently would swing upon her direct course for Mars. There was nothing that would cause passenger comment in this close passing of the moon; normally we used the satellite's attraction to give us additional starting speed.
From Brigands of the Moon, by Ray Cummings.
Published by Astounding Stories of Super Science in 1930
Additional resources -

The mathematics of the manner in which the orbits of comets were altered by close approaches to planets was known in the late eighteenth century. However, this idea was not applied to space craft until much later.

In the early nineteen-twenties, Walter Hohmann demonstrated that the lowest energy path between any two planets is an ellipse that is tangential to the orbits of both the planets. However, no rockets existed until the 1960's that were powerful enough to generate the initial thrust, and a minimum energy orbit would take thirty years from Earth to Neptune - and forty years to Pluto.

To the best of my knowledge, the concept of "gravity assist" as a means of altering the speed or course of a spacecraft was apparently not discovered by the scientific world until some 20 years after the publication of Cummings' novel. In a footnote A C Clarke indicates the first ref he's aware of was the paper "Perturbation Manoeuvres" by Derek Lawden (Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol 13, no 5, Sept 1954). Lawden is a mathematician, and in the early fifties worked on the optimization of rocket trajectories. It is also reported that a summer intern at JPL in 1961, Michael A. Minovitch, showed that the gravity field of a planet could provide thrust to a spacecraft. He demonstrated that careful design of the trajectory to a target planet could provide a gravity assist to move from that planet to a second planet.

Historians of science still differ on this issue.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Brigands of the Moon
  More Ideas and Technology by Ray Cummings
  Tech news articles related to Brigands of the Moon
  Tech news articles related to works by Ray Cummings

Gravity Assist-related news articles:
  - Gravity Assist Will Help Pluto-Bound Craft
  - The Amazing Gravity-Assisted Journey Of Rosetta

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