[Guest Post] Project Orion and the Atomic Age

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This week I'm very pleased to host our very first guest post!

Stuart is a twenty-something chap in Nottingham, originally from Essex, who grew up with the likes if Indiana Jones and trashy sci-fi and later found that real history and science is far weirder than whatever hollywood and pulp authors could come up with.
His blog, 'The Collect Call of Cthulhu' is a mix of personal musings and occasional enthusiastic nerding.

If you'd like to feature in a guest post, feel free to get in contact.
Without further a due: Stuart, what exactly is Project Orion?

Project Orion was an odd duck.

It combined the heady post-Second World War fascination of the atom with the spirit of exploration and competition that spurred the Space Race, resulting in something that could have very well changed the course of human history. For example, if you’re a terrible cynic, it could have ended it. But for the optimists amongst us, it could have been our ticket to the stars.
Artist rendering of a potential Project Orion craft, care of Adrian Mann
When people realised that nuclear power could do so much more than level cities and power nations, they attempted to marry it to anything and everything. Ford tried to prototype an atomic car with the Ford Nucleon, which is to say, Ford tried to build a car with an atomic reactor on board, and oddly enough it never really got beyond the scale-model concepts. There were plenty of ideas for atomic planes, infamously including the murderously insane Project Pluto and its nuclear ramjets, but ICBMs made them militarily obsolete and the civilian demand for flying next to a nuclear reactor was unsurprisingly low. Even atomic trains were proposed, completing the set. So why not atomic rocket ships to the stars?

The logic behind Project Orion is simple enough to follow. 

 A controlled nuclear explosion produces a huge amount of energy, much like setting off a controlled chemical explosion. The difference is that to get the equivalent energy, you need a lot less nuclear material, although there are drawbacks to launching yourself into space via a series of controlled nuclear explosions, such as all the nuclear fallout drifting down, and upsetting various nations who’d rather you didn’t set off all the atomic devices in case one turns out to be aimed at them. This is the theory behind the nuclear pulse engine, where a series of controlled, directional nuclear explosions are applied against a pusher plate, providing the thrust. Apparently, part of the highly controversial Operation Plumbbob was to put the theory into practice, using a 300t yield device and a 900 kilogram steel plate. The idea was that perhaps the explosion would shoot the plate into the air at six times escape velocity. What actually happened is a mystery, because no one ever found the plate, or even saw what happened to it. The best guess was the air friction vaporised it. So yes, Orion could very well have worked, but instead of working to shave off every possible gram of weight when building a rocket, you’d need to build skyscraper-sized starships just so the explosions don’t evaporate the thing or liquefy everyone on board with the force of thrust. They’d be less like Shuttles, and more like Star Destroyers.

But who was behind this?  

The idea of nuclear pulse propulsion was proposed by Stanislaw Ulam,which is believed to be the same guiding blueprint all modern nuclear weapons adhere to (and I say believe believed because the specifics of nuclear weapons are top secret) and developing the Monte Carlo Method, amongst oh-so many other things. But Project Orion itself was led by Ted Taylor of General Atomics, and the team included Freeman Dyson, a man who really does not need an introduction. Freeman Dyson is absolutely nothing to do with bagless vacuum cleaners, and everything to do with scientific topics that include theoretical physics, nuclear engineering and astronomy. Ever heard of a Dyson Sphere? That’d be him, although his concept wasn’t a solid shell but closer to an asteroid swarm. Some of the finest minds of the atomic age were attached to Project Orion, so it’s no wonder the results could have changed the course of history.

​Freeman Dyson, what a guy
It was in the late Fifties when Taylor, Dyson and the gang proposed working prototypes with existing technologies. 
 Let’s go over that again. 
They knew how to go about building a working nuclear pulse engine and worked out how to go about building a ship to bolt onto it, with technology of the 1950s. If you’re of a certain age, you may have once owned a classic Nintendo Gameboy, or perhaps a Nokia 3210 mobile telephone. These are orders of magnitude more advanced than the technology that could have sent us hurtling through space at a tenth of the speed of light. The most amazing part of all this is we could have easily built spacecraft that could travel to Mars and back within a month, with technology that is now over fifty years old. We could have visited Saturn’s moons inside a year. Instead, we’ve never really gone back to the Moon and we’re uhhming and aaahing about finally going to Mars, in a one-way trip that would take at least six months.  

So why do we still use rocket fuel? 

Why do we still try to launch people into space in portacabins mounted on the front of what are, to the untrained eye, bloody great missiles? Why aren’t we reaching to the stars in city-sized megaships that travel at 5 to 10% of the speed of light, harnessing the power of the atom to claim our birthright? 

Well, the first is a pretty obvious flaw, and one that nuclear everything seems to suffer from. Setting off nuclear bombs is usually a pretty bad idea, what with the radiation and the fallout. Setting off dozens, one after the other, high above the world, would have been a very bad thing, expanding the phenomena of “Downwinders” to potentially the entire world, with a conservative estimate putting between one and ten deaths directly attributable to each launch from the Earth into space by a nuclear pulse engine. And that is ignoring any problem you might have from accidents. Imagine the tragic events of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, or the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, and add the danger of nuclear fallout and atomic explosives to the mix, as well as the fact that these ships would be the size of the Shard or possibly the Empire State Building, and travelling far faster meaning the debris would be travelling further and faster as well. When you look at it like that, purely from a practical point, nuclear pulse engines launching from the Earth are suddenly a lot less appealing.

Then you have to look at the context of the time. 

This was at the height of the Cold War, with East and West just waiting for an excuse to lay into each other. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of the world when the project was ultimately shelved, and President Kennedy himself is said to have been appalled by the project when he was introduced to it. Project Orion proper was set up in 1958 (although the thinking behind it dates back to 1946, and arguably even further, if you consider the idea of using controlled chemical explosions as rocket propulsion part of the same chain of thinking. In which case it goes back to 1881 with that particular idea coined by Russian explosives expert Nikolai Kibalchich) and the project was shelved in 1963 with the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which forbade the testing of nuclear weapons underwater, in the atmosphere or in outer space, which rather pulls the rug out from under Orion. Understandably, the Russians were concerned with a rocket powered by nuclear bombs capable of moving at, at a reasonable estimate, 5% the speed of light, and justifiably so when the US military took interest in it.

They were interested, for example, in how you’d mount naval weapons on a Project Orion craft, and it turns out firing artillery shells at targets when you’re moving at even 1% of the speed of light is a bit of a waste, as the kinetic energy outstrips any sort of chemical explosive by an order of magnitude. So the thinking went on to all those atomic bomblets you’d be using to get into space in the first place, and would it be possible to use a few spares as nuclear artillery? You’d be dropping them faster than anyone could track, vaporising anything it touched, happily taking “Mutually” out of “Mutually Assured Destruction”. If you only intended to silence any opposition to you, you’d only need one and you’d be able to stop anyone ever building another simply with the threat of hypersonic nuclear artillery strikes turning the offending nation into a smouldering crater. It could have brought a rather rapid end to the Cold War, as the Americans could have annihilated Moscow without so much as a two-minute warning. So understandably, with the Cold War being the way it was, and Kennedy trying to bring an end to it peacefully rather than dragging it to the stars, the project was officially shelved. 

I don’t want to set the world on fiiire…

Of course, that’s not the end of it, as scientists try to find ways to at least approach light speed, to say nothing of the mad dream of faster than light travel, although public opinion of nuclear power has turned away from seeing it as a panacea to something that is barely understood, barely tolerated and many would rather never have been discovered. The British Project Daedalus was to take the concept as an unmanned mission to Barnard’s Star, using the same technology, albeit launched from space. And the unfortunately-named Project Icarus (he who flew too close to the sun and crashed to Earth, for those who didn’t have a happy childhood reading Greek myths) is picking up where that left off.

As a final thought, the late, great Carl Sagan put it best: that there’s few better uses for the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons than fuel for voyages of scientific discovery.

Further Reading
Nuclear Everything! – Dark Roasted Blend’s article offers up a lovely selection of period imagery of nuclear planes, trains and automobiles, amongst others.
Project Pluto, the Flying Crowbar  – Gregg Herken’s article from Air & Space Magazine tells you everything you need to know about a hypothetical American superweapon that seems to be ripped straight from Dr. Strangelove.
Project Orion – The obligatory Wikipedia page, which goes a little more in-depth into the nuts and bolts of the project.
The story of Project Orion – George Dyson, son of Freeman, gives a brief talk on Project Orion.
Nuclear Pulse Propulsion – Further explanation of the concept, including other potential uses of the method, including the not-at-all-sinister-sounding Medusa.
Stanislaw Ulam – Stanislaw Ulam’s Wikipedia page, with a good summary of his life and work, including links to more in-depth articles on things like the Monte Carlo Method and the Teller-Ulam design.
Freeman Dyson – Freeman Dyson’s Wikipedia page, with a summary of his life, work and various interesting nuggets of information.
Nuclear testing and the Downwinders – A brief history of the “Downwinders” of Utah, those unlucky enough to have been exposed to nuclear fallout from US government testing, in part because they were downwind of the test sites. 
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