PROJECT ORION: WE COME IN PEACE (WITH NUCLEAR BOMBS!)
[DECLASSIFIED IN 1979]
It could have been just like the movies. Specifically, the soppy sci-fi melodramas of the 1950s, those humorless, grim-faced sagas of men (always white Americans), square-jawed and broad of shoulder, who faced that Great Unknown, outer space (cue the reverb) with stoicism and Yankee guts. The troupe of six to twelve individuals were usually clad in faded blue jumpsuits (probably because they were all of military bent, possibly US Air Force)—no space suits or helmets for these guys; worrying about decompression is for sissies. These were steely-eyed, anvil-chinned rocket men. The heroes would walk up a ramp or climb a ladder into the great, gleaming, cigar-shaped silver rocketship (a long-lost term widely used in the early 1950s) without assistance or fanfare—in that sunny postwar era, it took only a handful of servicemen and a few elderly scientists to launch a manned rocket. Once inside, the crewmen would close a submarine-style hatch, strap themselves into great steel chairs, take one last look around their girder-festooned, capacious cabin (1950s rocketship flight decks were the size of your average New York bachelor pad and built like battleships), nod silently to the eldest of the bunch (usually wearing colonel's eagles), who would then push the button. This was inevitably a large red push button, marked in true military parlance with something like "IGNITE ROCKETS" or more simply "FIRE!" and off they would go into the Wild Blue Yonder, while on the ground (in a similarly military posture, perhaps within a Quonset hut in New Mexico), a few worried guys in white lab coats watched a twelve-inch radar screen with a huge white dot ascending. A handful of servicemen usually stood nearby, looking vacuously at meaningless blinking lights dancing on their consoles. A single computer, the size of a small RV, would click and whir nearby. This was Space Command (or some other imagined, militarized NASA precursor) after all.
Upon reaching space, the colonel would grasp an ice cream cone–sized microphone cabled to the control panel, and as he looked in awe at a receding Earth on the giant "televisor" screen, he'd announce in dour tones, "This is spaceship X-1. We are in outer space." It was all very dramatic and thematically colorless. If you don't believe me, check out the classic 1950s cinematic space extravaganzas The Conquest of Space or Destination Moon, staples of the genre. Be sure to watch closely during the launch scenes, as the actors' faces are distorted by the horrifying, and as yet little understood, g-forces of launch. Within moments the 737-sized, single-stage craft was in space—no dawdling in orbit—heading in a straight line for the moon or Mars. It's all very humbling and fun, in a deadly serious fashion.
To be fair to the pioneering producers of these epic motion picture dramas, little was known of spaceflight before the 1960s, and sci-fi movie budgets were puny. Few movie studios took the genre seriously, and it's amazing that these innovative moviemakers pulled off what they did, given the general lack of respect these drive-in, Saturday matinee potboilers gained for them.2 But as we now know, the dramatic scenario outlined above is not exactly how human spaceflight turned out.
But it could have been.
The Apollo lunar landing program, initiated shortly after these types of films were made, mandated a different approach. NASA's moon rocket, Wernher von Braun's masterpiece, would be a multistage affair, operating right at the edge of its weight-lifting capability. NASA's first plan was to ascend directly to the moon, land, then, after a suitable period of exploration, return to Earth, shedding stages at appropriate junctures. But this brute-force methodology would have required a truly massive rocket (it was to be called Nova, and was much larger than its successor, the Saturn V), well beyond the means at hand. A bit more planning and a lot of innovative thinking resulted in the moon program we all remember, with the still-massive 363-foot Saturn V rocket propelling a tiny capsule and lander to the moon, of which only the thirteen-foot-wide capsule returned. It took hundreds of thousands of people to build it, thousands to launch and operate it, and somewhere north of twenty billion 1960s dollars to finance it. Apollo was a far cry from the rocketships of the movies.
But there were alternative plans for a massive, battleship-sized single-stage spacecraft that could have flown to the moon and beyond. In its ultimate form, this behemoth would have dwarfed the motion picture versions. A hundred or more crewmen, leaning back in space-age versions of Barcaloungers, would have departed Earth with enough fuel, life support, and supplies to reach the moon, Mars, or even Jupiter and Saturn within months. Once in space the crew would have unbelted themselves and had far more room to drift, eat, work, and sleep than the International Space Station and even most modern submarines offer. It would have been like a well-appointed office complex in space, a true space liner—this majestic craft could have unlocked the entire solar system to exploration within the decade. And best of all? It was atomic.
The massive spaceship was called Project Orion (no relation to the modern shuttle-replacing spacecraft beyond the cool name), and it would have been a nuclear-powered behemoth. Orion was first formally conceptualized in a 1955 study by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish American mathematician who was part of the Manhattan Project in WWII, and Cornelius Everett, working from notions that Ulam had first pondered soon after WWII. Besides working on the bombs dropped on Japan, Ulam was, along with Edward Teller, a prime mover on America's first hydrogen bomb project. Soon after completing his work on H-bombs, Ulam formalized his thoughts about nuclear rocket propulsion. Other work was being done on atomic rockets, but was less dramatic—these projects involved superheating a fuel mass, such as liquid hydrogen, inside a fission reactor to eject it at high speeds out of the rocket nozzle. While much more efficient than the chemical rockets being designed by von Braun and others, it was not the massive leap in propulsion that would take humanity to the stars. Ulam had a different idea—nuclear pulse propulsion, which was not fully declassified until 1979.3 From the abstract:
Repeated nuclear explosions outside the body of a projectile are considered as providing means to accelerate such objects to velocities of the order of 106 cm/sec.4
Yes, that's right. Rather than fiddling around with rapidly expanding heated gasses with a nuclear reactor, Ulam took the most direct path to high energy release: nuclear explosions. Ulam had been mulling this over for more than a decade, reasoning that chemical rockets were terribly constrained by both the mass of the fuels and the temperatures at which they could realistically operate. Other proposals to detonate tiny nukes inside combustion chambers (one proposal suggested a chamber diameter of 130 feet, or almost four times the diameter of the Saturn V), while an improvement over chemical rockets, were deemed impractical, and did not offer a large enough increase in performance to impress Ulam. But what if the combustion chamber could be eliminated altogether and a small nuke simply detonated in open space? A percentage of the energy released by a reasonably sized nuclear explosion—not specified in the paper, but probably on the order of a half to one kiloton (about 10 percent that of the Hiroshima bomb)—would nudge a nearby spacecraft with propulsive force that, while brief, would be enormous.
Ulam characterized the spacecraft as an unmanned thirty-three-foot diameter, disk-shaped ship, with a mass of twelve to twenty tons. It would experience an acceleration of up to 10,000 g (the Apollo astronauts, riding atop the Saturn V, maxed out at just under 5 g, though the rocket was capable of more)—hence the unmanned nature of the design. Human occupants would have been turned into puddles of red jelly within moments. This robotic probe would carry dozens to hundreds of bombs, to be released at roughly one-second intervals (accompanied by a disk of plastic or container of water that would vaporize when the nuke ignited, to enhance the effect), and the resulting force of these continual explosions would propel the craft forward—right now.
Ulam was concerned about the heat impinging on the base of the craft, and suggested that a magnetic field might help to shield the spacecraft from the high-energy, one-millisecond flashes.
This was about as far as he got—it was a short study, but an intriguing one, and did not go unnoticed. In 1955 a new company called General Atomics was founded. It was a subdivision of General Dynamics, a huge defense contractor and builder of military submarines. General Atomics would specialize in efforts to harness the recently liberated power of the atom—in effect, their mission would be to find profit in nondestructive uses of atomic fission. The company became involved in a number of ventures, including a commercial nuclear reactor power generator, which was widely deployed. They also became interested in Ulam's classified paper (to which the chiefs of the company were apparently privy), and decided to pursue a serious study of the completely theoretical ideas within. Thus was born Project Orion, the nuclear pulse spaceship.
"Pyle has created an eminently readable, high-energy journey through the adventures, and frequent mis-adventures, of the space age. If you enjoyed Mary Roach's 'Packing for Mars,' you will love this book."
--Kenneth Kramer, former Director of Public Relations, County of Los Angeles Public Library
“This book is essential reading for anybody with an interest in the history of spaceflight. It is a mine of information, much of it only recently declassified, on a wide range of projects. Some of the more expensive or more technologically challenging of these never made it beyond the imagination of their advocates, but their stories are no less fascinating. One of the most daring projects (chapter 3) was Wernher von Braun’s 1952 blueprint for a fleet of spacecraft to visit Mars. Although visionary at the time, it is now clear that we had neither the detailed knowledge of Mars nor the financial resources needed to turn his ideas into reality. My personal favorite was chapter 11, which gave the inside story of the historic lunar landing on July 20, 1969, and of all the things that nearly went wrong—but fortunately didn’t. All in all, a thoroughly good read.”
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“Drawing upon little-known Cold War mission plans, and underreported records of actual mission emergencies, historian Rod Pyle has managed to convey the essence of the intensity and drama of those space-age years from well before Sputnik to the shuttle program. Delivering densely packed facts in an entertaining and often amusing style is what Pyle does best. Long after you’ve finished the book, you’ll remember how much fun you had reading it.”
—Susan Holden Martin, the Mars Society, Inc.
“So often our ongoing march into the future trumps remembering and savoring the past. Rod Pyle has made deep dives into space history, amassing well-crafted, storytelling chapters about people, projects, and dustbin endeavors, some recently declassified, that are germane to today’s space initiatives. Be it detailing US Air Force attempts to salute the militarization of Earth orbit and the moon, novel atomic-powered starships, wheeled space stations, to faulty decision making that led to the deaths of human space travelers and robots, Pyle’s ability to capture forget-me-not facts is truly amazing. This is a must-read for today’s space fan, while looking at the rearview mirror of times past.”
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—Jeff Kanipe, author of The Cosmic Connection: How Astronomical Events Impact Life on Earth
“Accomplished space author Rod Pyle digs through the yellowed archives of space history to bring us the alternate reality of space projects that might have been—a proposed Nazi space bomber, a planned trip to Mars and Venus on the ‘Nuclear Crocco’ spaceship, the sausage gun for battles on the moon, and more. He also peers between the headlines for true stories such as Neil Armstrong’s brush with death on Gemini 8, the signal from Apollo 11’s Eagle lander indicating that it might explode, and the ghastly death of a Soviet cosmonaut who suspected it was coming. This book will equip you for years’ worth of conversations over your favorite beverage.”
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—Melanie Melton Knocke, director of CPS Planetarium, ambassador of the NASA Airborne Astronomy, and author
“When the space travel of science fiction became a reality, many outlandish, risky, and sometimes foolhardy ideas seized the imaginations of individuals and world superpowers. Most of the wilder ideas never progressed further than paper studies. Some of the most impossible-sounding dreams, however, happened. Rod Pyle skillfully guides us through both major moments and forgotten corners of spaceflight triumphs and tragedies with a sense of entertaining drama, and reminds us that the ‘impossible’ can be anything but.”
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