To The Stars, One Bomb at a Time: The Story of Project Orion
When it comes to space travel, we humans are brave souls indeed - in the movies, that is. In the real world, however, the last time a person walked on an alien world was way back in 1972, when Apollo 17 touched down on the moon. This was long before many people living today were born. For those who grew up on shows like Star Trek, this is sort of an embarrassing fact about our species. We spend trillions of dollars figuring out new ways to kill each other but precious little on blazing a trail into the heavens. One reason for humanity’s dismal lack of progress in conquering the final frontier is the primitive state of our technology. Our chemical rockets, for all their noise and fury, just don’t have the horsepower needed to get a crew to the other planets in our solar system, much less distant stars. That’s why we send tiny probes instead; they don’t weigh very much. As for exotic solutions like warp drive, we’re centuries away from building anything remotely resembling the Enterprise. For a race that’s pretty good at designing video games and flat screen TVs, we’re still barely above stone knives and bearskins with much of our science. RELATED: Consumer Comparison — Dragon V2 Spaceship vs. Tesla Model S
Given this sad state of affairs, it may be surprising to learn that, long before the space shuttle first flew, scientists drew up plans for a way to get us around the solar system in less time than it takes us to send robots to Mars. Their idea is based on technology that has barely changed since the 1950s. And we could do it today if we wanted to. That’s the story behind Project Orion, one of the more fascinating but lesser known stories from science history.
Blasting a Stairway to Heaven
The explosions of nuclear weapons in 1945 both terrified and enthralled scientists of the time. They were horrified that humans had gained enough power to blow the world to bits. At the same time, they were quick to realize how much good atomic energy could do. In 1946, a Polish-American physicist named Stanislaw Ulam figured out a way to use it to send men into space much faster than with anything we currently have. By 1960s, a group of experts drew up full-blow plans for a spaceship based on Ulam’s idea.
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The concept is remarkably simple, though on its surface it sounds completely crazy. Dubbed Orion, the proposed craft would be built with steel plating and heavy shielding to protect the crew from cosmic rays. Its middle section would be a giant shock absorber, identical in principle to the kind that smooth out bumps in the road today. At the rear of Orion would be a hatch that popped open periodically to spit out an atomic bomb. The weapon would detonate once it reached a distance of about 60 yards from the tail of the ship, blasting it forward.
As I said, this sound nuts. But it was seriously considered by a number of very smart people in the 50s and 60. They estimated that Orion could reach Mars in about four weeks, That’s 12 times faster than our fastest spacecraft today, which take at least a year to cross the gulf between Earth and the Red Planet. With enough bombs, the ship could achieve a cruising speed of around 10,000 miles a second.
To understand just how fast this is, keep in mind that NASA currently has a probe hurtling towards Pluto at a little over 36,000 miles an hour. Orion would cover that same distance in four seconds. This is fast enough to reach some of the nearest stars in less than 50 years. Conventional rockets would take almost 80,000 years to cross the same distance.
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The craft would have been about as long as a 16-story building, shaped like a submarine, and carry a crew of over 100. Those on board would feel about three g’s every time a bomb went off, which is about the same force felt by shuttle astronauts at takeoff. The explosions would occur about once a minute.
So why wasn’t Orion ever built? One reason was the dangers associated with nuclear fallout as the ship was taking off into space, though this could have been avoided by using chemical rockets to boost it into orbit. Another problem was the danger of getting a bomb stuck in the exit chute before it ejected from the ship; that would have brought the mission to an explosive halt very quickly. But the major reason the idea was scrapped was the nuclear test treaty signed by the US and USSR in 1963. It bars either nation from setting off nukes in space.
Despite these difficulties, visionaries have kept the idea alive over the years, developing plans for less powerful bombs that would achieve the same thrust without causing the same degree of heat and radiation. At the same time, changes to the 1963 treaty may allow for peaceful use of nuclear explosives in space. The day may yet come when this astonishly simple approach to conquering space becomes fact. If it ever does, then those who travel onboard will owe a debt to a small group of brilliant men who thought outside the box in a very big way.
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