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Orion Drive   >   The Story of Orion   >   Fallout
   

"Practically every DOD/Air Force and NASA evaluation over the past 3 years [prior to 1965] has concluded that ORION provides the only capability for missions well beyond those achievable with chemical or nuclear rocket propulsion." - Lieutenant Colonel John R. Burke, US Air Force Nuclear Power Division
Fallout from Project Orion

One of the most common objections to Project Orion is the nuclear fallout that a launch from the surface of the Earth could cause.

In the early 1960s, Freeman Dyson estimated that each launch from Earth would cause, on average, 10 fatal human cancers among the population of the entire planet (some people argue that these figures may be an over estimate because of the particular mathematical model used).
  • The first question, is whether 10 except premature deaths is an acceptable price for Project Orion. Some readers may be surprised, perhaps even appalled, at this question - surely one unnecessary death is too many?

    Of course any unnecessary death is a tragedy. However, it does not stop us from doing things - for example, we continue to burn fossil fuels, even though the pollution from them kills many tens of thousands of people.

    It is also worth considering what the alternatives are. The deaths caused by fossil fuel pollution are a tragedy, but the fact is that if we suddenly stopped using fossil fuels, there would be a huge increase in the number of deaths caused by lack of heating (in cold climates), lack of air conditioning (in hot climates), lack of food (no mechanized farming), inability to transport food and other resources, and lack of refrigeration (important for both foods and medicine).

    In the case of Project Orion, by cancelling it, we know that we saved about 10 lives per launch - but we have no idea how many lives might saved had we gone ahead. How many lives would have been saved from natural disasters (such as the December 26th 2004 tsunami) if we had better Earth observation and communication capabilities thanks to a larger presence in space? How many lives would have been saved, if instead of strip mining parts of the Earth to obtain rare heavy metals, we obtained them from the asteroids? How many lives would be saved if we eliminated fossil fuel use on Earth for power generation, and replaced it with orbiting solar power arrays constructed from lunar materials?

    Another way of looking at this issue, is to ask in what situations would we be prepared to accept 10 excess cancer deaths. If for example, a long-period comet on course to hit the Earth were discovered, the only option (assuming we could build it in time) to stop it might be Orion. Would it be worth 10 possible excess cancer deaths to prevent a planetary catastrophe that might kill billions or perhaps even eliminate the human race? If you answered yes, you've accepted the exact type utilitarian calculation that justifies developing Orion.

  • The second question is whether we can reduce or eliminate fallout deaths from Orion. There are in fact a number of promising ideas for this:

    • Place under the Orion vehicle, at launch, a thick metal pad preferably coated with graphite oil to avoid ablation (using the same technique as the pusher-plate in the vehicle itself). This alone would eliminate most of the fallout.

    • Use cleaner bombs - nuclear bomb technology has advanced considerably since the late 1950s.

    • Build really large Orion vehicles - as Orion is more efficient for larger vehicles (less bombs are required per unit of payload), this would greatly reduce the number of bombs that we need to explode in order to establish a large, self-sustaining, permanent presence in space.

    • Construct Orion vehicles in space, and only explode the bombs once a safe distance from the Earth.

    Even without resorting to only using Orion once in orbit (which eliminates much of the system's advantage in launching a large payload in the first place), it should be possible to reduce fallout deaths drastically from Freeman Dyson's estimate of 10 per launch, to perhaps 1 or less per launch

    It should also be noted, that a number of exotic technologies have been proposed for future Orion-like vehicles. Some of these might eventually vastly reduce, perhaps even eliminate, the fallout problem altogether. These technologies are probably far beyond our current capabilities, and may never be realized - so we can not rely on them; if we want the benefits of Orion, we need to build it using technology that we already have or know to be feasible.

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