SETI bioastro: Project Orion - The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship

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Date: Wed Jul 10 2002 - 09:36:24 PDT


>From, 9 July 2002

by George Dyson

"In 1957, tail fins, not seat belts, were standard equipment on American
cars. Tail fins reached a peak in popularity with the 1957 Chevrolet
Bel-Air. Powered by a 235-cubic-inch straight six or a 283-cubic-inch V-8,
with either manual overdrive or a powerglide transmission, the Bel-Air had a
two-tone exterior, accented by anodized aluminum suggesting space-age Los
Angeles rather than iron-age Detroit. Optional equipment, besides seat
belts, included power windows, six-way power seats, and a built-in electric
razor. The Russians were ahead in space, but General Motors was ahead on the
road. This book is the story of Project Orion. In 1957, a small group of
scientists, led by physicist Theodore B. Taylor and including my father,
Freeman J. Dyson, launched a serious attempt to build an interplanetary
spaceship propelled by nuclear bombs. This account, as best as I can
reconstruct it, is the story my father could tell me only in fragments at
the time."

- from the Preface, PROJECT ORION

Project Orion is 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. 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

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.

George Dyson took the time to answer's questions about Project
Orion. How difficult was it to research Project Orion? Between the
secrecy of the science behind the spacecraft - both then and now - as well
as the aging and passing away of many of the principal participants, did you
feel in anyway rushed or confined by these circumstances?

George Dyson: Very difficult--everyone who worked on the project had
Q-clearance and still has to be very careful in talking about it. For twenty
years I kept trying to persuade someone else to write the history of Project
Orion, which I felt should be written by someone unrelated to one of the
principal characters. But time was running out and when another historian's
proposal was rejected four years ago I decided to attempt it myself. Just in
the nick of time--both because of recent deaths and illness among the
Orioneers, and because the declassification process has now ground to a
complete halt.

Project Orion, while wonderfully inventive, seems in retrospect to have been
a frightening undertaking raising questions about its environmental impact
if attempted and what impact it would have had on the Cold War. Do you
yourself think the project should have been completed?

George Dyson: At that time we were exploding something like 100 megatons a
year in the atmosphere and Orion would have added about 1 percent. And for
good reason we decided even that was too much. It's impossible to say what
the impact on the cold war would have been. In my view, what really won the
cold war, in the end, was not Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, but the
Interstate Highway System. Had we really gone full-speed and large scale
into deep space, the cold war would have ended sooner, I suspect.

The project's leader, Theodore B. Taylor, talks in the book about visiting
Moscow's Red Square 36 years after he held a job trying to figure out the
maximum damage an American nuclear weapon could do to the city and seeing,
almost for the first time, the everyday humanity of the Russian people. Do
you think most of the scientists involved in America's nuclear weapons
programs were "blinded by science"? Oblivious, in a way, to the ultimate
ends of their work?

George Dyson: No. Most atomic scientists were all too aware of the ultimate
ends of their work. It's a real problem, today, that we are losing that
generation of nuclear weaponeers who actually saw these weapons explode, and
chose, like Ted (and many others, including my father) to devote themselves
to trying to ensure that these weapons would never be used.

What most upsets you about science or scientists? What is the most vexing
question facing scientists today?

George Dyson: What upsets me are just the usual failings of human
nature--greed, back-biting, adherence to dogma, and, especially in some
fields, refusal to adequately credit predecessors and pioneers. But this is
not unique to science. Obviously the most vexing question facing us today is
what to do with the powers that the conjunction of genetics and computing
are about to unleash. The cost of writing one byte to DNA is now below what
one byte of core memory cost in 1959. And we know where costs went from

Who are your heroes?

George Dyson: They are covered pretty well in my three books: the Aleut
seafarers who colonized the Aleutian Islands 10,000 years ago, the known and
unknown pioneers of digital computing, and Ted Taylor and his gang of
Orioneers. And lesser characters, like Jim Huscroft who lived on Cenotaph
Island in Alaska and rowed to Juneau once a year, picked up the year's
newspapers, and read one morning paper every day for the next year.

If Project Orion was revived, where in solar system - or beyond - would you
most like to travel?

George Dyson:I'll take my father's word for it: "Enceladus still looks
good." Beyond the solar system, Orion is much too slow.

What is the most beautiful aspect to space?

George Dyson: Never having been out there, I cannot say, but I would expect
it's looking at Earth. From an Earth perspective, it's sleeping outside at
high altitude, under the stars.

If you controlled a $1 billion foundation, what research effort would you

George Dyson: For the good of humanity, I would put the money into a
completely fresh approach to the problem of alcoholism--which is amenable to
both treatment and prevention and exacts billions upon billions in costs.
For my own curiosity--but with unpredictable results--I would put it into a
fresh approach to artificial intelligence, or AI.

NASA is at a crossroads and the public's interest in space exploration
appears to have waned since the heady days of Project Orion and then the
Apollo missions. Why should we spend money on space exploration over say
research into deadly diseases?

George Dyson: Clearly we should do both. Why do we always ask "over say
research into deadly diseases"? How about "over say television or soda pop"?
And money *is* being spent, it's more a question of whether we spend it on
things like the space station and the space shuttle, or on really going to
interesting places and in interesting directions in space.

Copyright 2002,

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