Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship

Overview

The improbable story of the wildest idea-a space craft powered by hydrogen bombs-to come out of the space race.

It was the late 1950s. The Cold War was raging. Sputnik had made its voyage and the space race was on. In America, it was the age of tail fins and "duck and cover," but it was also a time of big ideas and dreams. On his way to school one day, George Dyson learned of a truly fantastical idea: massive space vehicles that would be powered by explosions of multiple ...

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Overview

The improbable story of the wildest idea-a space craft powered by hydrogen bombs-to come out of the space race.

It was the late 1950s. The Cold War was raging. Sputnik had made its voyage and the space race was on. In America, it was the age of tail fins and "duck and cover," but it was also a time of big ideas and dreams. On his way to school one day, George Dyson learned of a truly fantastical idea: massive space vehicles that would be powered by explosions of multiple hydrogen bombs. Among the brilliant minds behind this project was George's father, the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson.

Project Orion chronicles this fascinating episode in U.S. scientific research, while capturing a unique time in American history and culture. The project brought together a cadre of brilliant physicists, the first such assemblage since the Manhattan Project of fifteen years earlier. In an idyllic seaside community in southern California-the very picture of 1950s suburban prosperity-a handful of scientists, tackled a massive project that required the ingenuity of an engineer and the vision of a great theoretician. Their work-ambitious but ultimately futile-took place against the political and cultural backdrop of the Cold War, when nuclear technology spelled both promise and terror.

Dyson's prodigious historical and scientific research, combined with his personal reminiscences and connections, make for a lively, richly detailed narrative.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
When George Dyson's father, Freeman Dyson, worked on a project to build spaceships driven by nuclear bombs in the 1950s, the boy was understandably intrigued. Later, Dyson found himself wondering what was really going on with "Project Orion." This is what he found.
Publishers Weekly
In the years after WWII and the Russian launch of two sputniks, Americans were searching for any technology that would give them dominance in the space race. In his latest, Dyson (Darwin Among the Machines) charts the history of the failed Project Orion, which called for a massive rocket to be built atop a nuclear-powered piston. The project's physicists and engineers, buoyed by the thrilling idea of traveling through space on "pulse technology," conducted a number of explosive experiments to ascertain the abilities of such a system (which reveals how little was actually known about the bombs being produced by the world's superpowers). Meanwhile, the project, started in 1957, ran headlong into detractors Kennedy and NASA included and eventually was canceled. Much of the technical information in the Orion files remains classified, but Dyson's explanations of the nuclear science behind the system are lucid. A great strength of Dyson's project is the interviews he conducted with surviving Orion team members among them his father, Freeman Dyson affording readers an intimate view of the story's central characters (and its government contractors) who helped shape Orion. At the same time, these compelling interviews drag on; the story's drama is diffused by the musings of its key players, who sometimes crowd out the dynamic background of the Cold War, Wernher Von Braun's chemical rocket program, atmospheric weapons test bans and presidential administrations vested in nuclear capacities only designed for destruction. Illus. and photos. (Apr. 16) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Shortly after the first Sputnik launch in 1957, an American scientific team proposed Project Orion, an enormous interplanetary spaceship propelled by exploding hundreds of nuclear bombs. The project commenced during the golden age of support for U.S. scientific research, but the team struggled to find ongoing funding. Civilian NASA found Orion unpalatable because of its inextricable link with nuclear weapons, while the military regarded the team's ultimate goal exploration of the solar system as peripheral to their own space research program. As public opposition to atmospheric nuclear testing grew, making even a small-scale test shot politically unfeasible, the project died for lack of support. Dyson, son of physicist Freeman Dyson (himself an Orion consultant), interviewed team members and tracked down scores of technical reports to compile this unique history. Unfortunately, some of the author's and interviewees' remarks about fallout and classified bomb research seem na ve, cavalier, or just plain insensitive in a post-September 11 context. For academic and larger public libraries. Nancy R. Curtis, Univ. of Maine Lib., Orono Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Dyson, son of the distinguished British-born physicist Freeman Dyson, unveils a wealth of formerly classified information covering the attempt of a group of US scientists, beginning in 1957, to develop and launch a space vehicle powered solely by serial explosions of nuclear devices. The elder Dyson, who lends extensive personal perspectives here, was involved with the effort (sponsored by the Defense Department's hush-hush Advanced Research Projects Agency) from its inception; the list of its proponents reads like a roster of Nobel candidates, including one winner-the world-renowned atomic scientist Edward Teller. So it's made immediately clear that, as hard as it may be to accept, detonating nuclear bombs right behind a huge, bullet-shaped spaceship was, and still is, by some, considered not only a practical avenue of technical pursuit but one offering far more promise for extending man's horizon into the Solar System than those wimpy "chemical" rockets-the Atlases, Titans, etc.-that Wernher von Braun was simultaneously developing. (Briefed on Orion several years into the project, in fact, von Braun readily endorsed the concept.) Dyson's myriad interviews nicely capture the sweep of a grandiose technical scheme, but also the rapturous initial state of Orion scientists whose coup, as they see it, has them turning nuclear weapons into plowshares under the auspices-not to mention watchful eyes-of the same generals who want to back down the Soviet Union at any cost. However, political obstacles would become even more daunting than the considerable technical challenges, as small, fission-based devices (like those intended to boost Orion) came to be viewed in some circles as even moredangerous than megaton-yielding H-bombs (since military commanders might actually be tempted to use one). Ultimately, creeping realization that the potential effects of radioactive fallout had been dangerously understated for years undermined what support remained, and so Orion's budget was axed in 1964. An intimate look at an amazing concept some still believe offers the best hope for fending off-literally-an errant asteroid or comet that could wipe humankind from Earth.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805059854
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/16/2002
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.26 (w) x 9.62 (h) x 1.23 (d)

Meet the Author

George Dyson, the son of distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson, grew up immersed in the world of groundbreaking science. His previous books include the acclaimed Darwin Among the Machines. He and his father are also the subjects of Kenneth Brower's dual biography, The Starship and the Canoe. Dyson lives in Washington State.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Bel-Air xiii
1 Sputnik 1
2 The World Set Free 10
3 Ulam's Demon 20
4 General Atomic 29
5 TRIGA 39
6 Critical Mass 47
7 QED 58
8 Lew Allen's Balls 67
9 ARPA 74
10 Columbus 86
11 Noah's Ark 97
12 Free Expansion of a Gas 109
13 Hotter Than the Sun, Cooler Than a Bomb 120
14 C-4 132
15 Point Loma 144
16 Engineers' Dreams 158
17 Coca-Cola 169
18 Enceladus 181
19 Deep Space Force 193
20 Jackass Flats 208
21 Fallout 223
22 Huntsville 238
23 Death of a Project 254
24 2001 270
25 The Sun Snarers 288
Appendix Project Orion Technical Reports, 1957-1965 299
Notes 311
Acknowledgments 329
Index 331
Illustration Credits 344
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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
I first heard of Project Orion while being driven to school in June 1958, just before the existence of the project, which had been developing in total secrecy since November 1957, was first announced. In the 1950s, tail fins, not seat belts, were standard equipment on American cars. It did not seem crazy to be driving around without seat belts, and it did not seem crazy that my father was planning to explore the solar system in a 4,000-ton spaceship driven by nuclear bombs.

Forty years later, I still knew little about Project Orion, and, despite the obstacle that much of the project remains classified, I decided it was time to find out. I spent three years tracking down surviving participants and searching for technical documents, driven by the undiminished curiosity of a five-year-old and two underlying questions: What would happen if for some reason we had to build Orion today? What might have happened if we had succeeded in building Orion in 1959?

These questions led me to the people behind Orion: Who were they, how did they become involved with the project, and why? The politics: How did Orion initially gain, and eventually lose, the government's support? And physics: How does Orion work? How do you go about translating the energy of a nuclear explosion into the momentum of a ship, and can this transformation be made tolerable to human passengers, or not?

All the people I visited or revisited in gathering this account believe they contributed to a dream that was nonetheless important for having failed. The years they devoted to Orion were the most exciting of their lives. Would they do it again? Definitely yes. Should we do it now? Probably not. "We had a wonderfully free time, before any of that fallout stuff came down," says Orion's lead experimentalist, Brian Dunne. "It was a crazy era. All of our values were tweaked because of the Cold War. It was a closed society, and all kinds of strange ideas were able to grow."

Harris Mayer, a Los Alamos physicist who joined the Orion team in 1958, sums it up best: "These were days when we thought big. Orion was a grand concept, which a rich nation with great vision and great opportunity could embrace. And it didn't even matter if it was a success. Look how young we all were in 1958!" (George Dyson)

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2007

    Project Orion Review

    In 1957, the Russians tiny spacecraft known as Sputnik raced off into the sky and out of our atmosphere into space. In America, the public began to question what Sputnik would do in space, and the fear of weapons came over America. Also, the Americans wanted a spaceship of their own to be circling around the solar system. A small team of scientists located in California would try to make this a possibility. Their idea: to build a spaceship propelled by thousands of nuclear bombs. The bombs were going to eject and explode behind the shuttle the blast of the bomb would move the ship forward. At this point, America thought that this group of men was insane and that could never happen. However, after seeing all of their tests go off, and the idea being mentioned publicly, the citizens began to realize that this could happen. Funded by the Air Force and the Atomic Energy Company, these men were able to work with this new idea. Will the men be able to launch Orion, the spaceship, and go and explore Mars and even the rings of Saturn? Read this fascinating book to find out, and see that anything is a possibility! I have just read this book, and I thought it was quite good. The author, George Dyson, did an excellent job of having interviews with the main characters, of this true story. Dyson also gives great descriptions of the characters, in their childhood, college years, and jobs before joining General Atomic. The only problem with this book is that the level of vocabulary is extremely challenging. There are many times during the book that I had to resort to the dictionary to figure out what the author was trying to say. If you don¿t have a high level vocabulary, this book isn¿t your type. Also, Project Orion goes by quite slowly. There were many times during the book where the author talks about difficult math problems, velocity, and a lot of other science, and those parts of the book were really boring. However, the other side to that problem is there are some good facts and parts of the novel, like interesting facts and some action parts during the atomic bomb tests. Finally, the use of pictures in the book really helped describe the story because you could see what was going on. In general, Project Orion was pretty well written. If you are into science, this book is surely for you. If rocket science and math does not exactly interest you, I would not recommend it to you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2003

    Well Written

    Excellent technical detail with lots of diagrams. Fun to read on a human level too. Makes you wish you could work with such a gathering of great intellect. Instills awe in the reader to know that except for the problems of nuclear fallout, we could be colonizing the solar system now.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2002

    From our greatest generation, one of our grandest visions.

    For all those who have ever longed to reach out and touch the stars. Back in the late 1950's a nation decided to go to Mars and Saturn. The two most advanced engineering achievements of WW2 were the V2 and atomic bomb. A group of top physicists and engineers were to merge both into an atomic bomb machine gun. A plate driven rocket with suspension systems several stories high and payload measured in thousands of tons. The feasibility of Orion is not in question. George Dyson gives a concise account of the political obstacles which blocked its development and fundamental engineering challenges which were solved. It is a must read for all visitors of nuclearspace.com and spacedaily.com who applaud the new nuclear initiative in space. Orion remains the greatest space drive possible with today's technology and it may yet be the means by which humanity, not robots, explore the outer solar system. If you like books that make you think then save this one for your annual beach holiday. You won't want to put it down. A remarkable narration you will need to digest a page at a time. A true story you will never forget and a tale of exploration into the unknown that leaves questions to ponder. Enjoy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2002

    A curious project from the height of the cold war

    Project Orion is the story of a curious project which briefly flourished at the height of the cold war. It's goal was to build a space craft the size of a battleship which could be propelled by the explosive power of atomic bombs. A number of problems, both technical and political, plagued the project. But the story does give one a hint of what might have been and, perhaps, could still be.

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