The Manhattan Project is over ... The Space Race hasn't begun

01 Apr 2009

Project Orion - a real life science fiction story.
Here's a great idea for a science fiction movie straight out of the 1950's:

It's before the era of sputnik. The space race hasn't quite started yet. A bunch of premier rocket scientists are looking for something to do. World War II is over. The bomb has been built. The Manhattan Project has come and gone. A bunch of nuclear physicists are looking for something to do.

Let's make it interesting. We don't want just any scientists working on this new top secret project. Let's start a project using Freeman Dyson, Stanislaw Ulam, Theodore Taylor, and Cornelius Everett. After a while, we'll even bring Wernher Von Braun into the picture.

Who are these men? Freeman Dyson is an English-born American physicist and mathematician. In one of his scientific papers, Dyson theorized that a technologically advanced society could completely surround its native star in order to maximize the capture of the star's available energy. (Remember the Dyson Sphere episode of Star Trek the Next Generation? That was straight from Dyson's paper). He was awarded the Max Planck medal in 1969, and winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 2000. Currently he is the president of the Space Studies Institute. Not a bad resume. (Available from: [Accessed 23rd Feb 2005])

"Stanislaw Ulam was a gifted mathematician who, during the course of his career, made significant contributions to set theory, topology, ergodic theory, probability, cellular automata theory, the study of nonlinear processes, the function of real variables, mathematical logic, and number theory. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the development of the Monte Carlo method for solving complex mathematical problems by electronic random sampling, but he made equally noteworthy contributions in hydrodynamics (three-dimensional fluid flow), ... and in fields as disparate as physics, biology and astronomy. Yet despite the breadth of his scholarship, Ulam is most often remembered for the central role he played in the early development of the American hydrogen bomb." He had a long life that reached across continents, oceans and universities; and that spanned the end of the last European empire, two world wars, and the age of nuclear weapons, which his genius helped make possible. (Available from: [Accessed 23rd Feb 2005])

Dr. Theodore Taylor, who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory at the height of the cold war, was renowned as a designer of fission bombs of minimal size and maximal bang. "He was the first man in the world to understand what you can do with three or four kilograms of plutonium, that making bombs is an easy thing to do, that you can, so to speak, design them freehand." Preternaturally inept at ordinary tasks (parking a car defeated him), he became an artist of the fission bomb, taking the massive nuclear weapons developed for the Manhattan Project and making them smaller and lighter without sacrificing explosive power. Over the next seven years, he designed a series of ever-smaller bombs, whose cunning names - Scorpion, Wasp, Bee, Hornet - captured both their size and their sting. (Available from: [Accessed 23rd Feb 2005])

Cornelius Everett wrote a paper in 1955 that was immediately classified. It purported to detail how to use nuclear propulsion to power a spacecraft. Perfect - that will fit right into the story.

Wernher Von Braun was one of the world's first and foremost rocket engineers and a leading authority on space travel. Mr. Braun joined NASA and helped make mankind's journey to the moon possible.

Now that we have some notable scientists and interesting ideas, why not come up with a story? Let's call it Project Orion. In fact, as you can probably guess, this is in fact a true story. Project Orion really happened. "Like cheap, shiny space suits and bug-eyed rubber monsters, nuclear-powered spaceships today seem like little more than laughably na? 1950s science fiction tropes." However, "[if Orion has gone forward] it would have made our current space shuttle and space station projects look like covered wagons in the age of autos. If history had taken just a slightly different direction, we could have had several building size bases on the moon by the early seventies, probably sent manned expeditions to Mars and even beyond by the 80's." (Available from: [Accessed 23rd Feb 2005])

"The race to the moon, in the forms of Project Apollo and the still-shadowy Soviet lunar program, dominated manned space flight during the decade of the 1960's. In the United States, the project sequence Mercury-Gemini-Apollo succeeded in putting roughly sixty people into space, twelve of them on the moon. Yet, during the late 1950's and early 1960's, the U.S. government sponsored a project that could possibly have placed 150 people, most of them professional scientists, on the moon, and could even have sent expeditions to Mars and Saturn. This feat could conceivably have been accomplished during the same period of time as Apollo, and possibly for about the same amount of money. The code name of the project was Orion."

"The idea of an 'atomic drive' was a science-fiction cliche by the 1930's, but it appears that Stanislaw Ulam and Frederick de Hoffman conducted the first serious investigation of atomic propulsion for space flight in 1944, while they were working on the Manhattan Project."

"Taylor and Dyson were convinced that the approach to space flight being pursued by NASA (which had just been created in January 1958) was the wrong one. Von Braun's chemical rockets in their opinion were very expensive, had very limited payloads, and were essentially useless for flights beyond the moon. The Orion workers wanted a spaceship that was simple, rugged, capacious, and above all affordable. Taylor originally called for a ground launch, probably from the U.S. nuclear test site at Jackass Flats, Nevada. The vehicle has been described as looking like a bishop's miter or the tip of a bullet, sixteen stories high"

"At a time when the U.S. was struggling to put a single man into orbit aboard a modified military rocket, Taylor and Dyson were developing plans for a manned voyage of exploration through much of the solar system. The original Orion design called for 2000 pulse units, far more than enough to attain Earth escape velocity. "Our motto was 'Mars by 1965, Saturn by 1970'", recalls Dyson. Orion would have been more akin to the rocket ships of science fiction than to the cramped capsules of Gagarin and Glenn. One hundred and fifty people could have lived aboard in relative comfort; the useful payload would have been measured in thousands of tons. Orion would have been built like a battleship, with no need for the excruciating weight-saving measures adopted by chemically-propelled spacecraft."

"Von Braun became an enthusiastic Orion supporter, but he was able to make little headway among higher-level administration officials." (Available from: [Accessed 23rd Feb 2005])

So why didn't it ever take off, if Orion was such a great idea? One was a fear that the nuclear bombs would contaminate the atmosphere during takeoff. Another obstacle was the anti nuclear proliferation treaty which made it illegal to explode nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. And of course there was the space race, in full swing. "Overshadowed by the moon race, Orion was forgotten by almost everybody." After seven years of work, political obstacles brought the effort to a halt. It's too bad; i'd have really liked to lived in that world.