Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965 (2002) by George Dyson is a fantastic read about a project that was simultaneously amazing, crazy and weirdly practical. Project Orion was a US program to develop a spaceship powered by nuclear explosions. A documentary was also made on the project by the BBC.
The book’s author is very relevant. George Dyson is the son of Freeman Dyson, a mathematical genius who worked on project Orion. As well as being a book about an amazing group of people and amazing technology it’s also a book that is affected by being written by the son of one of the people who worked on it.
George Dyson presumably also had easier access to the people who worked on it so he could interview people who worked on project Orion. Ted Taylor the weapons designer who worked on the project and others provide a huge amount of detail and opine on how it was to work on the project.
The idea behind Project Orion was that a series of nuclear weapons would be ejected from a ship and detonated. The detonations would push the ship where it was intended. In order to carry humans there would be a sizeable shock absorber system that would reduce the acceleration transmitted to them.
An Orion engine would have been so efficient that it would have made it possible to travel throughout the solar system and it would have made a journey to Alpha Centauri a trip of about 150 years.
The project scaled in such a way that making larger Orion spaceships was easier than smaller ones. A design of about 4000 tons, with about 1000 tons of payload was seen as a good target. Such a system could have comfortably taken people to Mars.
The main drawbacks with Orion were the problems of fallout on launch and the possibility of the ship failing and crashing back to earth. The fallout was considerable, but at the time was not considered as great a problem as it would be now. It was calculated that the cleanest setup possible would kill 10 people from fallout when launching from earth.
The timing of the project was interesting, it was started before Sputnik and killed when the Apollo program had become the focus of non-military US space efforts. Interestingly Werner Von Braun thought the project was brilliant and worth exploring.
The project was shut down because of the reduction of use of nuclear weapons, decisions made not to put weapons in space, NASA’s other nuclear propulsion system NERVA and the programs relative lack of suitability for military applications.
The project was remembered though, the idea helped inspire the film 2001 A Space Odyssey and a number of books had Orion like spaceships. The idea of such ships was briefly explored under the second president Bush. It would be the ideal way to deflect an asteroid that was set to collide with the earth.
The book is well written and is really fascinated for anyone who is interested in space travel. It’s remarkable to find out that there is a way to plausibly reach other star systems. The book also provides insight into the 1950s, it’s strange to think that people 50 years ago were seriously investigating possible spaceships that would have made solar exploration easy.