- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

Neil Armstrong proclaimed his famous "one small step" onto the moon on July 4, 1969, "a giant step for mankind." Had that step been part of "Project Orion," whose ill-fated history is chronicled in George Dyson's new book, rather than Project Apollo, the United States might have made much greater steps in space than it actually did over the past 30-odd years.
Project Orion was an attempt by some of America's leading physicists and engineers to construct a true space ship capable of transporting payloads of thousands of tons on interplanetary missions. The reason that Project Orion ended up nowhere was that the source of its massive lifting capability was not chemical reactions, as is the case with all the rockets in use to date, but very politically incorrect miniature nuclear explosions.
The idea of using atomic bombs to propel a rocket came from the fertile brain of Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-born mathematician who came to the United States in the 1930s, worked on the Manhattan Project and remained on the staff of the Los Alamos laboratory after the war, where he came up with the breakthrough idea that produced a practical hydrogen bomb. Another idea that occurred to him in the late 1940s was that the intensely concentrated energy released in a nuclear explosion could be used to propel a rocket.
Project Orion was launched shortly after the surprise Soviet launch of Sputnik I in 1957. The U.S. space program was struggling ineffectively to respond to this traumatic shock, making the atmosphere propitious for a proposal from the General Atomic corporation to design an atomic-bomb powered rocket ship.
General Atomic had been founded by Frederic de Hoffman, a young Viennese-born physicist. A protege of Edward Teller, the entrepreneurial De Hoffman, credited by one of his staff as "a man who knew every millionaire in the world," knew how to raise large sums of money from major corporations with lucrative government research contracts. In a short time he had built an idyllic facility in San Diego which combined a quasi-academic atmosphere with beautiful physical surroundings, and had little trouble in recruiting top scientific talent.
One of the stars he attracted was Theodore Taylor, the leading U.S. bomb designer, whose portfolio included the smallest, the most efficient and the largest fission devices (the Super Oralloy Bomb, a.k.a. SOB) ever exploded. Another was British-born Freeman Dyson, a brilliant, wide-ranging theoretical physicist who had been an enthusiast of space flight since his boyhood, was a permanent staff member of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton.
George Dyson, who is Freeman's son, was a young boy in the late 1950s, and his careful account of the history of the project is nicely complemented by his personal recollections of the family's sojourn in glamorous southern California. Though he is a high school dropout who builds canoes in the Pacific Northwest, his book demonstrates a mastery of the complex science, engineering and politics that characterized the project.
Shortly after Sputnik was launched, Taylor wrote a paper describing the nuclear powered rocket, which would use hundreds of small nuclear devices ejected from the ship to provide a series of powerful "kicks" against a 1,000 ton pusher plate by a light, inert propellant materialvaporized by the explosions. The pusher plate, attached to the ship like a giant shock absorber, would absorb the force of the explosions and push the rocket into space.
Dyson performed the esoteric calculations applicable to the working of tiny fission devices on the scale proposed by Taylor, and Marshall Rosenbluth, another of the principal scientists, was a leading expert in the rapidly developing field of plasma physics whose Los Alamos experience enabled him to calculate the abrasive effect of thousands of nuclear explosions on the pusher plate. It turned out that the worst thing that could happen would be a failure of one of the bombs to go nuclear, leading instead to a high explosive detonation that would damage the plate with shrapnel instead of vaporized material.
General Atomic wrote a proposal based on this work, and after much politicking among the various government agencies then concerned with the rapidly evolving U.S. space effort, found enthusiastic support from the Air Force Space Warfare Command and its corps of technically savvy physicists who had been deferred from the draft until after they completed their PhDs.
The Orion staff produced a huge volume of studies of all the other details needed to design a practical atomic space ship, running the latest bomb-lab computer codes on state-of-the art computers, which the author reminds us had a capacity order of magnitude less than today's most humble home computer. They also made non-nuclear models to test the feasibility of the project, including one constructed from three mixing bowls purchased from a local supermarket.
Much of the detail of Orion is still classified, but Mr. Dyson has assembled a fascinating collection of original sketches, photographs and personal reminiscences that provide a lively picture of a true intellectual adventure. To design a system that could smoothly and reliably ejectthousands of atomic bombs, with explosive yields varying from 150 tons to 5 kilotons at intervals less than one second apart, the Orioneers consulted engineers from the Coca Cola company, experts in producing devices that reliably deliver soda bottles to the right place at the right time whenever you drop a quarter in the slot.
With a combination of self-confidence and professional expertise, the Orion team were confident they could achieve their goal of reaching Saturn by 1970. It did not work out that way, however, because Washington had other matters on its mind. Once the Kennedy administration took office, the MacNamara-era Air Force was told to take its eyes off space and NASA was given authority over the space program. There, Orion had to battle seasoned bureaucrats pushing rival programs, not just Apollo, but a nuclear propulsion project based on the absurdity of a flying reactor.
One abortive effort by the Air Force to impress the president featured a $75,000 Corvette-sized scale model of an Orion-based space battleship bristling with weapons that could dominate space. Instead of being impressed, Kennedy was appalled, and nobody knows where the model is today. Then the fears over fallout that inspired the 1962 Test Ban Treaty made nuclear explosions in space a no-no, and the project faded away, finally ending in 1965.
It is interesting to speculate about what might have happened had the spirit of the 1960s been in sync with Project Orion.With a Reaganesque president, we might have had not just Saturn by 1970, but even Star Wars and a Soviet Union pushed into bankruptcy a quarter-century earlier. On the other hand, the proliferation of mini-nukes might have made Osama bin Laden and his like an even bigger threat than they are today. Mr. Dyson does not discuss these possibilities, but the concluding chapter of his enthralling book suggests that Orion, a project that was ahead of its time, may yet bear fruit in man's exploration of the cosmos.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

By George Dyson
Henry Holt, $26, 345 pages, illustrated

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