Orion Ship enters orbit near a Saturn Moon (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2003)
23, 1970 - Transmission released from Orion Project Office:
is Commander Walter Reese on board the USS Einstein. I'm pleased
to say our spaceship has entered orbit around the planet Saturn.
As you can see from the pictures we've been sending back, the
view is magnificent, though a photo cannot do justice to the view
outside our main window. The planet's colors are more vibrant
than can be captured with the cameras and the rings are these
huge plains that seem to be woven out of some delicate, colorful
we will be starting our maneuvers to bring the Einstein to a rendezvous
with Saturn's moon Enceladus. The low gravity will allow us to
actually land on the surface and do some exploring.
time for me to sign off. We've set up tables on the main deck's
centrifuge and the cook has thawed out several turkeys for the
ship's holiday party. They're waiting for me to come so they can
start the festivities. Let me just wish everybody back on good
old Earth happy holidays from myself and the other forty members
of our crew..
Is this an excerpt from some old science fiction
novel written before people realized that man would only have
gotten as far as the moon by 1969 and no further by the end of
the century? No, this is what might well have happened if history
in the early 1960's had gone just a little differently, and a
bold, exciting and risky experiment known as Project Orion had
been allowed to continue.
The object of Project Orion was to build a spaceship
powered by atomic bombs. The idea for this method of transportation,
later known as a nuclear pulse propulsion, started with Stanislaw
Ulam. Ulam was a fan of Jules Verne and recalled how in his book
From the Earth to the Moon Verne proposed using a huge
gun to send a space capsule with explorers to the lunar surface.
While working as a scientist on the construction of early atomic
bombs Ulam found himself, after one test, thinking about how all
the energy released by the bomb could be used to propel something
into a ballistic trajectory, much like in Verne's book. Years
later the Atomic Energy Commission would patent the concept of
nuclear pulse propulsion in the names of Ulam and another scientist,
An Orion Ship
sits on a pad at Jackass Flats ready for a test launch.
A barge in the Pacific was considered as an alternate
launch site. Copyright Lee Krystek,
Nuclear power is an extremely attractive way to
power a spaceship. Rockets with chemical fuels, like those used
in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and now the space shuttle programs,
produce a relatively small amount of energy for the weight of
the fuel. A rocket powered with a nuclear reaction, however, could
produce a huge amount of energy from a very small amount of fuel
in the same way a nuclear bomb produces a huge explosion compared
to a conventional bomb of the same weight.
There are two obvious ways of producing energy by
nuclear reaction. The first is a controlled nuclear reaction,
such as used in electrical production facilities and submarines.
The second is an uncontrolled nuclear reaction such as an atomic
Trying to put a power reactor on a spaceship was
a complicated proposition. A simpler approach would be to use
an uncontrolled nuclear reaction (a bomb) to shoot a vessel into
Absorbers and Bomb Ejectors
Ulam and Everett, thinking about this in the mid-50's,
realized that the extreme acceleration of such a blast would easily
crush any members of the crew to a pulp and even destroy an electronic
guidance system. To solve this problem, they decided that the
ship should be powered by a series of small A-bombs, perhaps ejected
out the back of the vessel in one second (later to be shorted
to 1/4 second) intervals. This mitigated the shocks somewhat,
but still created too much acceleration to be tolerated by a human
crew. Another scientist, Ted Taylor, who found himself intrigued
by the idea of a nuclear bomb driven spaceship, came up with the
idea of adding a shock absorber to the bottom of the ship. A large
heavy round plate (later to become known as the "pusher plate")
would take the initial blast and transmit the acceleration to
the rest of the ship through a set of column-like shock absorbers.
Fusion and Chemical Reactions: What's the Difference?
every reaction we see here on Earth is a chemical reaction.
When we burn wood (a chemical reaction) energy stored by
the tree while growing is released as the matter involved
changes form. As much as the wood seems to be disappearing,
if we could recapture the ashes, soot and gases released
by the fire we would find that we have exactly as much matter
at the end of the reaction as we did at the beginning. Nothing
reactions are different, however. In a fission reaction,
atoms are split and some small amount of matter is turned
into energy. With billions of atoms in just a pound of matter,
a fission reaction can release a huge amount of energy.
This is the principal behind an atomic bomb.
is another nuclear reaction. This is the process by which
the sun produces its energy. An H-bomb uses fusion to combine
hydrogen atoms. The result is even more energy than produced
by a fission bomb, though a fission bomb is generally needed
at the heart of an H-bomb to create the tremendous heat
and pressure to get a fusion reaction going.
In 1956 scientists at the newly-formed General Atomic
Corporation, including Taylor, began thinking seriously about
how such a spaceship could be built. They called the effort "Project
Orion." General Atomic managed to interest the Air Force
in doing some preliminary studies and started tackling the technical
problems one by one. Would the pusher-plate be worn away by exposure
to so many successive atomic explosions? Tests indicated that
wear would be minimal and could be eliminated completely by spraying
a thin film of oil on the bottom of the plate between each detonation.
What would happen if a bomb failed to explode? The shock absorber
mechanism would have to be strong enough that the pusher plate
would not go shooting off into space if on its rebound it wasn't
stopped by the next detonation.
What if the bomb ejector jammed? A jam early in
the launch sequence would doom the ship to a fiery crash into
the ground. One proposal to solve this problem was to have several
ejectors working from the edge of the pusher plate. If one jammed,
the others could continue. More ejectors also meant that the ejector
mechanism would have more time to load the next bomb, making the
engineering easier and lowering the chance of a jam.
The scientists tackled the project with unbounded
enthusiasm. What was so exciting about the concept of Project
Orion was the scale of the spaceship. While most chemical rockets
must use most of their mass for fuel, Orion would use only a small
part of its total mass for this purpose because nuclear reactions
are so much more powerful than chemical reactions. This meant
most of the ship's mass could used for food, space for passengers
and scientific equipment. With the Apollo missions that flew to
the moon, for every 600 pounds that was sent into space, only
one pound returned to Earth. The rest was used up as fuel or expended
as lower stages of the rocket. It was estimated that an Orion
ship, using nuclear pulse propulsion, would be able to send ships
to Mars with 1.5 pounds of launch weight for every pound returned.
A mission to Saturn would require 5 pounds of launch weight for
every pound returned.
By 1958 the team was planning test vehicles including
an orbital model eighty feet in diameter, 120 feet high and weighing
880 tons. It was estimated to need 800 bombs ranging from .03
to 3 kilotons in power to put the ship into orbit. The launch
would be from Jackass Flats at the Nevada Test Site near the locations
used to test nuclear weapons. Later versions of the ship might
be launched from a barge in the Pacific Ocean. A single nuclear
explosion is quite an incredible sight and eight-hundred of them
detonating at quarter second intervals would be almost unimaginable.
Team member Ted Taylor was quoted in George Dyson's Project
Orion as saying about the launch, "The first flight of
that thing [Orion] doing its full mission would be the
most spectacular thing that humans had ever seen."
The scientists estimated that a trip to Mars would
be possible as soon as 1965. The unofficial motto for Orion Project
soon became "Saturn by 1970." The enthusiastic engineers
at General Atomic, some of the brightest people on the planet,
were completely serious about this goal.
of the Project
By the late 50's, Orion began showing some technical
problems. They were not in getting the spaceship to Saturn, but
what would happen back on Earth after an Orion ship departed.
Both the Soviet Union and the United States had been testing atomic
bombs in the atmosphere for years and fallout was becoming an
increasing hot issue. Some estimates showed that the increased
radiation in the atmosphere from these tests were killing a thousand
people a year by increasing the rate of cancer and related diseases.
Eventually the bomb tests would be moved underground
and stopped completely, but this was not an option for Orion.
Each mission was estimated to cost ten lives because of an increased
cancer rate. Schemes to reduce this number by making cleaner bombs
or using chemical boosters to get the ship into orbit before using
the bombs decreased the number of deaths, but did not eliminate
The death of the Orion Program came not because
of fallout concerns, however, as much as through politics. The
contract for Orion was originally funded by the Air Force, but
by the early 1960's all space exploration programs were being
turned over to the newly-created civilian aerospace organization
NASA. NASA wasn't interested in Orion and the Air Force could
not justify spending money on such a large spaceship that didn't
have a military function. Although research on the concept continued
through 1965, most of the interest in space exploration went to
NASA and the Apollo program. There was no mission to Saturn in
How would history have changed if the government
had given the Orion Project the type of support it gave NASA during
the early 60's? Could Americans have been exploring Saturn by
1970? Certainly there was an element of naiveté in the
General Atomic scientist's plans about how easy space travel will
be. A whole host of issues explored by NASA, including the medical
affects of long duration spaceflight on the human body, were not
being considered. Perhaps the scientists, so long involved in
the building of nuclear weapons for the purpose of mass destruction,
had finally found a positive, uplifting goal for their skills
and they went at it wholeheartedly, not taking some of the difficulties
of spaceflight into consideration.
The concept of using nuclear fission to drive a
spaceship is far from dead, however. Even NASA is thinking about
how one might build a spaceship to visit other stars based on
a fission reactor. Even nuclear pulse engines might be safe to
operate if launched from a base on the moon.
One can only wonder, though, if the money spent
on NASA and Apollo in the 1960s had been spent on Orion instead,
could most of the negative issues, including fallout, have been
resolved? It might not have been "Saturn by 1970" but
perhaps "Saturn by 1980?"
In this artist's
conception, an Orion spaceship emerges from a nuclear
fireball as it races toward orbit from Jackass
Flats on a test flight. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2003)
A Partial Bibliography
Project Orion, by George Dyson, Henry Holt and Company,
The Road Not Taken (Yet), by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, http://techcentralstation.com/1051/defensewrapper.jsp?PID=1051-350&CID=1051-091102C,
Copyright 2003, Lee Krystek.
All Rights Reserved.