The Story of Orion
How It Worked

Freeman Dyson
George Dyson
Stanislaw Ulam
Ted Taylor

Project Orion


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Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957 to 1965

Imagine a 4,000 ton spacecraft powered by 2,600 nuclear weapons and carrying a crew of 50. Imagine that spacecraft reaching Mars in 1965, and reaching Saturn by 1970. It might sound like science fiction, but this was in fact a real project, known as "Project Orion" which was seriously considered by some parts of the US government, and backed by many leading scientists, engineers and military people.

The story of this amazing idea is contained within "Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957 to 1965". This is a book by George Dyson, the son of Freeman Dyson, who was one of the leaders of the project. The book is well written and quite clearly a labor of love. It contains a tremendous amount of detail about the project, how it would have worked, and the political struggles that eventually killed it.

Many details of Project Orion are still classified, how George Dyson appears to have been able to obtain more than enough information in order to tell a complete story. The book also contains numerous diagrams and drawings, many reprinted from original documents of the time - although sadly the photographs (at least in the paperback edition that I have) are all black and white.

Although the book is written in an accessible style that the layman can easily follow, it should also be emphasized that this is a high quality work that professionals and academics will appreciate too. For example, there is an 11 page list of Project Orion technical reports (apparently incomplete because of "restrictions imposed under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954"), nearly 300 footnotes, and a detailed index.
  • Here is a video featuring George Dyson talking about Project Orion:

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Project Orion Nuclear Pulse Rocket, Technical Reports on the Orion Concept, Atomic Bombs Propelling Massive Spaceships to the Planets, External Pulsed Plasma Propulsion
By National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Progressive Management
Released: 2011-08-17
Kindle Edition (290 pages)

Project Orion Nuclear Pulse Rocket, Technical Reports on the Orion Concept, Atomic Bombs Propelling Massive Spaceships to the Planets, External Pulsed Plasma Propulsion
Product Description:
This unique ebook features reproductions of technical reports from NASA and General Atomic on Project Orion, an audacious concept involving the sequential detonation of low-yield atomic bombs to propel large spaceships to the planets. These reports were previously secret and have been declassified. The concept was abandoned by NASA in the mid-1960s, although there was some discussion of the idea in the late 1990s under the term External Pulsed Plasma Propulsion (EPPP).

One of documents excerpted here is from the General Atomic Nuclear Pulse Space Vehicle Study, with spaceship concepts and planetary flight plans, and concepts for launching the bomb-powered craft atop Saturn V and Nexus rocket designs. Technical studies were initiated by General Atomic in 1957 with early Government support awarded in 1958, with the research lead by Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson. The summary report contents include: Propulsion-system background, Mission Requirements, Lunar-mission Velocities, Exploration-mission Payloads, Vehicle Designs, Propulsion-module Characteristics, Exploration vehicles, Lunar vehicles, Saturn V system compatibility, Performance and Operating Costs, Parametric Study Indications, Exploration Missions, Advanced-vehicle Potential, Operational Considerations, Pulse-created Nuclear Environment, Internal Noise, Ground Facilities and Operations, Ground-Hazards Assessment, Flight-Hazards analysis, Maintenance and repair concepts, Fissionable-material availability, Development Planning, Comparisons with Other Systems.

The introduction states: "The propulsion system operates as follows: low-yield nuclear pulse units are detonated consecutively external to and behind the vehicle. A substantial fraction of the mass of each pulse unit, the propellant, is directed toward the base of the vehicle as a high-velocity, high-density plasma which is intercepted by a large circular metallic plate, the pusher. The momentum of the propellant is transferred to the pusher and the resulting high accelerations are smoothed out by shock-absorbing devices to levels of a few g's in the upper vehicle, well within human tolerances. The propulsion-system performance is characterized by both high thrust-to-weight ratios and large specific impulses... earlier design studies concentrated on vehicles of large sizes (4,000 ton gross weight and some 100 feet in diameter) and quite high specific impulse (4,000 seconds and over). Such vehicles were intended primarily for nuclear-pulse operation starting just above the atmosphere and with initial thrust to weight ratios of about 1.25. At the conclusion of the parametric phase of the NASA study, it became apparent that very significant mission performance, under the less demanding NASA mission constraints, at least, became available using much smaller and lower specific impulse vehicles if operated at lower initial thrust to weight ratios... this study was performed to explore the mission potential of the nuclear-pulse space vehicle concept in the accomplishment of missions meeting the requirements for lunar transportation, lunar logistic, and exploration or logistic missions to the planets, including Mars, Venus, and Jupiter." The study concluded: "A major result was the very significant mission potential of the 10 meter Saturn V compatible nuclear pulse vehicles, particularly when operated in the orbital start up mode... two potential hazards require further consideration, that of boosting aloft large quantities of high explosive packaged with plutonium (in nuclear pulse units) and the potential (though small) contamination of the earth's atmosphere."
Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship
By George Dyson

Henry Holt and Co.
Hardcover (320 pages)

Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship
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Product Description:

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.

Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship by George Dyson (2003-04-01)
By George Dyson;

Holt Paperbacks (2003-04-01)

Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship by George Dyson (2003-04-01)
Lowest New Price: $218.99*
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Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship, 1957-1965
By George Dyson

Allen Lane / The Penguin Press

Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship, 1957-1965
Project Orion
By George Dyson


Project Orion

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