Project Orion


        Shortly after the first atomic bomb tests at trinity Stanislaw Ulam, co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb, started thinking about using bombs to propel something into ballistic tragectory.  The idea lay mostly dormant until 1957 when General Atomic, a division General Dynamics Corporation, started Project Orion and set a team of physicist’s engineers and mathematicians to work on it.  The project was led by Ted Taylor, a physicist who was known as one the most brilliant designers of nuclear weapons. He later became become a leading voice warning of the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
Others notable figures involved in the project were Freeman Dyson, Stanislaw Ulam, Marshall Rosenbluth, and Hans Bethe.
       Orion has been described as an external combustion nuclear pulse propulsion system.  The spaceship consists of a large pusher plate attached to the spaceship by shock absorbers.  Nuclear bombs are dropped through the pusher plate and exploded several hundred feet behind the ship.  The repeated explosions would accelerate the ship into space.  Velocities and payloads would have been much greater than those allowed by conventional chemical rockets.  Sizes of the planned Orion ships varied, many were in the range of 135 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall, weighing 4000 tons.  Super-Orion had a diameter of 400 meters and was powered by hydrogen bombs; it was the largest ship that could take off from earth’s surface.
        Orion was never built, many technical difficulties remained unsolved, but what stopped the project was the test ban treat of 1963.  Interestingly, Freeman Dyson helped negotiate the treaty that meant the end of project Orion
        Project Orion was undertaken by a private corporation on contract for the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  Later it was funded by the Air Force.  The Project had little military value, the people working on Orion saw it as a way to explore and colonize space.  In his “Space Travelers Manifesto” of 1958, Freeman Dyson wrote:
     “1. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our present day science, and we shall only find out what they are if we go out and look for them. 
    2. It is in the long run essential to the growth of any new and high civilization that small groups of people can escape from their neighbors and from their governments, to go and live as they please in the wilderness.  A truly isolated, small, creative society will never again be possible on this planet. 
    3. We have for the first time imagined a way to use the huge stockpiles of our bombs for a better purpose than for murdering people.  Our purpose and our belief is that the bombs which killed and maimed people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki shall one day open the skies to man.”


Introduction    Project Chariot    Project Orion    Political and Environmental Fallout    Sources and Links