Sharp Blue: Project Orion


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In 1958, a group of General Atomic (now General Atomics) scientists and engineers led by Ted Taylor began working on a spaceship propelled by nuclear bombs. Freeman Dyson was one of them. In another history, Dyson, Taylor and the others would go on to explore the solar system in Orion spaceships as large as ocean liners. The first expedition to Mars would have been in 1965. By 1970, astronauts would have been exploring the moons of Saturn. It was not technical problems that cost us this future, or expense, but bureaucracy and politics. In his Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965, George Dyson tells the story of Orion’s physics and politics, and of his father’s dreams of a Space Age that never was.

Cover of Project OrionIn essence, an Orion ship is a hydrogen bomb turned inside out. A hydrogen bomb uses the pressure of the x-ray output from a fission bomb to compress and heat fuel to temperatures at which it can undergo fusion. In an Orion pulsed nuclear drive, small fission bombs are detonated a small distance behind the ship. The x-ray flux from the bomb is used to fire a disc of propellant against a “pusher plate” at the back of the ship. The impact and reflection of this propellant in turn gives the ship a burst of acceleration. One of the fission pulse units is detonated every second or so and the acceleration smoothed by shock absorbers between the pusher plate and the rest of the ship. It sounds crazy now, and it sounded even crazier in the 1950s, but the initial studies showed that it might just work. Furthermore, the performance of an Orion ship would be much, much better in terms of both thrust and specific impulse than both chemical rockets and nuclear thermal rockets.

The combination of nuclear bombs and spacecraft caused most of Orion’s political problems. General Atomic was supposed to be developing civilian uses of nuclear technology. Los Alamos resented any encroachment on their control of bomb design. The USAF loved the concept but didn’t have any need to launch thousands of tons across the solar system. After NASA was formed, it certainly would’ve liked to have launched thousand ton ships to Saturn, but its administrators really didn’t like the idea of using thousands of nuclear bombs to do so. The nuclear rocket researchers inside NASA were already heavily involved with nuclear thermal rockets, which offer only a relatively small performance improvement over chemical rockets. Surprisingly, Werner von Braun fell in love with Orion and was one of its staunchest supporters inside NASA. Not even his support was enough to get the space agency to adopt a launch vehicle powered by nukes though. In its final incarnation, Orion was reduced in scale enough to be launched by a Saturn V rocket or one of the even more massive Nova boosters (which were never built). Landing on Enceladus had drifted beyond our grasp, but even then we could’ve had Mars. Soon, that too was to be a lost.

Dyson describes the struggle against the technical and political challenges facing Orion in an engaging and evocative manner. It is a story full of hope and disappointment, of how physicists could move mountains and bureaucrats not even mole-hills. By the time the Orion project was wound down, the concept looked considerably more plausible than it had in the beginning. It would’ve worked. And NASA still thinks it could still work: EPPP, a new Orion-derived propulsion project has recently begun. Perhaps the Orioneers will live to see astronauts exploring the outer planets after all.

The most striking fact in the book is that the Orion study cost only $10 million over eight years. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (whose spacecraft, Discovery, was an Orion vessel in the first draft) cost $10 million over four years. In 1965, the Apollo programme spent $10 million a day.

The Case for Orion. An article I wrote for Space Daily.

Orion is one of the great "what if's" of the twentieth century. Today, nuclear powered spaceships seem like little more than laughably naive 1950's science fiction, but it might have been otherwise...and still could be. Orion was the code name of a project aimed at discovering the feasibility of spaceships driven by nuclear bombs.

The initial plan called for manned missions to Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970. After seven years of work, the project's technical challenges seemed surmountable, but political obstacles brought the effort to a halt.

Orion's can be launched safely from earth without endangering lives. We should revisit Orion and use it to revive the space age.

There is no reason Orion Can not fly! It just has to be done by a private Corp. that can put a full gravity station in place ( like Disneys 2001), build the Orion Drive first stage(general purpose to mate to various second stage utility vessels) around Lunar orbit, and deep space operations (specifically to the asteroid belt where there is $15,000,000,000,000,000 in minerals) would launch from the Mars Corporate Office (about 30 miles square surface area). This is basically as I detailed to Bushs' "space exploration team", but they did not wish to return my call. Every one wishes to "sit and wait" for the government to pay them to start, while the doers are becoming few and far between.

I do think Orion could be possible. There is nothing that says it can't work. To improve efficientcy, one could use fusion instead of fission.

I think part of the problem was that nobody wants to be the one to suggest placing thousands of nuclear warheads in outer space where they could, in theory, be dropped on other nations at a moment's notice. It would make everyone extremely nervous.

Chemical space rockets and NTR systems aren't powerful weapons in and of themselves, so no one feels threatened by a nation that builds them. Orion, on the other hand, is an orbiting weapons platform practically by default. So even though it would have immense, awesome peaceful applications, it's militarily dangerous enough that nobody's going to trust another nation to build one and certainly nobody's going to trust a private corporation to build one (would YOU trust a private corporation with a large nuclear arsenal?)

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