The atomic rocket that never was

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Link here. The article is filled with overstatements and even a few outright errors, such as in the second paragraph when it makes the false assertion that SLS will be “the largest booster ever built.” (The Saturn 5 was more powerful. So was the Soviet Union’s Energia.)

Furthermore, the key to understanding how minor and inconsequencial Project Orion was is to note the total amount of money spent: only $10.5 million. This was merely a design study, something that NASA did (and still does) routinely, most of which never get beyond power-point presentations. Project Orion was similar, never reaching project stage. If it had been done today it would have also been nothing more than a power point presentation.

I also remember when this whole concept got cancelled and was revealed. No one took it seriously, since everyone understood that the technology available in the 1960s was simply not ready for such a project.

Nonetheless, it is interesting reading, especially since the technology today is significantly advanced. We might actually be approaching a time where this concept can finally move to design and construction.



  • Phil Berardelli

    I found it odd that the article contains not a word about neutrons or the neutron radiation that would bombard the spacecraft each time a nuclear explosive would be detonated. Even with my limited background in nuclear physics, left over from my days as an energy reporter in the ’70s, I don’t understand how such a dangerous effect could be overlooked.

  • Tom Billings

    In the actual work done by General Atomic, the neutrons and everything else were accounted for. This article didn’t because it would be less gee whiz that way. In particular, the effects of shadowing were used in the larger vehicles studied (40 meters diameter and up). The humans were kept in a small shielded capsule at the front of the vehicle *during*propulsion*, and for a bit after, in the shadow of all the supplies and the propelling bombs yet left, and the equipment to inject them behind the shield at the right instant. For during propulsion the aft end of the vehicle’s moving shock absorbing shield was built with a thick graphite coating that was further shielded by repeated coatings of high Hydrogen containing grease, to absorb heat better as it ablates.

    The Carbon atoms in the Graphite coating have a very low interaction cross-section with neutrons compared to heavy metals, and do not become much radioactive compared to the Iron in the steel of the vehicle if it were directly exposed to neutrons. The slightly radioactive back end of the vehicle during ballistic cruise is shielded, by all the machinery to store and inject the bomb devices when under propulsion, from irradiating the crewed volumes of the spacecraft at the front. Whenever they change course under bomb power, the crew gets back in the shielded capsule again.

    The shockwaves of a nuclear explosion can be manipulated by design, …to some extent, …to focus the impulse of the shockwave along one axis. That axis is pointed at the shock absorbing rear end of the vehicle. This does not mitigate the longer-term radioactive fallout from the fissile trigger for these bombs. People began objecting to that by the mid-1960s.

    This was the reason that the final studies were done on smaller diameter vehicles that could be boosted into orbit by the planned Saturn 5 version that had 2 stages instead of 3, with the 3rd stage replaced by a 10 meter diameter Orion vehicle that could have gone pretty much anywhere in the Solar System before returning to High Earth Orbit to be reloaded with bombs lifted by more chemical boosters sent to the returned Orion vehicle.

    While our host is possibly correct that Orion can be done in the future, I have extreme doubts it will ever be done from the Earth’s surface, or done with bombs supplied by governments from Earth. Much more likely that a settlement outside of cislunar space will decide they are not yet far enough away from Earth’s bureaucrats, and, finding some fissile materials, decide to build their own vehicles in Space, …and then use them to settle an Outer Planetary body of some sort.

  • wayne

    Great stuff.

    I’m just an interested amateur, but not quite sure I get this guys real point. ( What agenda is he selling? )
    Lots-o-engineering Concepts & Principles in-play with Orion type research. It just doesn’t scale well, but that wasn’t blatantly obvious, until they started blowing stuff up.

    It only appears ultra-fantastical, in hindsight. (I agree with Mr. Z’s overall point on this one.)

    -excellent film of small scale testing…

    “Project Orion”
    -declassified snippets

    Pivoting slightly–and a number of folks have referenced this in the past–Project NERVA.

    Nuclear Propulsion In Space
    Project NERVA

  • Alex

    @ Mr. Zimmerman: You are not right. Project was more as a “power-point presentation”, even it was not a full development program. The basic ORION’s propulsion concept (pusher + external shock wave applied to the pusher by explosive) was demonstrated by real model/subscale tests. I learned also that for ORION a very small nuclear bomb type for its propulsion were designed. Its design is even today kept secret by government.

  • wayne

    George Dyson on Project Orion
    A TED talk from 2008
    (probably available on YouTube as well)
    [embedded player or download from multiple formats. The Archive always makes it easy to download their entire collection.]

    Unfortunately, very short. But excellent pictures & documents from the Project.

  • wayne

    again, great backgrounder stuff.
    I vaguely recall all these Orion documents & film-clips were released, what… 10 years ago? and are available. (I’m too lazy to dig further right now.)

    Apparently, manipulating the nuclear shockwaves (and Alex alludes to this as well) was highly classified data and remains so.

    from the TED talk I referenced above; “radiation dose at crew station” was calculated to be in the 700+ RAD, range. (That’s definitely a deal-breaker.)

  • LocalFluff

    I have hopes for the dawn of a nuclear space era. The arguments against it have been environmental anxiety and fear of triggering some kind of arms race and international protests. The current administration doesn’t seem to care about any of that. Has Trump’s executive orders done anything for nuclear power plants?

    I hope someone is lobbying the White House for this. The community seems to have given up all hope since decades so there is very little talk about nuclear space.

  • PeterF

    This was just another idea to use nuclear explosives for peace, Like using bombs to dig canals. The reason for the whole bombs for peace was to use up extra fissile material after the arms race.
    The reason they were producing fissile Uranium and breeding Plutonium was because that was the easiest way to end the war in the pacific. So once they had a production line, they just kept making it. Then they figured they could boil water and use the steam to spin a turbine and generate electricity.
    The problem is that Uranium is very rare. There is less uranium available on the Earth’s surface than Platinum.
    If they could get power out of Platinum, Would anyone say, “Hey lets burn platinum for electricity!” NOT
    The answer is thorium.
    Its very common in the Earth’s crust. It has a half-life of something like four billion years so it is naturally only slightly radioactive (no problem with environmentalists complaining about storage).
    And it puts out a lot of energy under the right circumstances.

  • A. Feit

    Somebody wants to start a nuclear engine program. Second stage SLS anybody?

  • Feral Plum

    The fellow who claimed to cancel Orion claimed that the ablative oil or grease was the problem.
    The greasy fingerprints on the steel probe spheres placed around the hydrogen bomb tests suggested that the pusher plate could be protected. It was believed by some who reviewed Orion that after each blast the ablative grease would ripple in concentric patterns leaving bare steel to face the subsequent blasts.
    It was not doubted that the pusher plate could survive the first blast. No test was ever done to find if the grease would stay smooth or if the plate would disintegrate after a few blasts.
    It didn’t help that the fellow who wished to cancel the project was an avid sailor and was fascinated by ripples in the ocean. Also he worked on Kiwi/Nerva and had a bit of a conflicted interest.

  • ken anthony

    Orion worked. Politics, not science or technology, killed it. About. 50. years. ago.

    I could rant, but what’s the point?

  • Phil Berardelli

    Tom, thanks for that thoughtful and detailed explanation.

  • LocalFluff

    Interesting! Life has completely transformed the surface, oceans and atmosphere of Earth. Life created 9 out of 10 minerals on Earth, that do not exist on other planets. I don’t think that deep subsurface life is yet well understood. Some estimate it to consist of as much biomass as all other life. Even at the bottom of the deepest hole ever drilled there’s life life life. Not very active perhaps, but they’ve got plenty of time. Uranium is a potential energy source not only to engineered plants, but to natural plants too.

  • wayne

    Totally concur we haven’t even scratched the surface, as it were, of investigating the Earth.

    Totally tangential— my g-daughter is visiting for a week & she has something called “Kerbal Space” loaded on her laptop. Has anyone here, played with that Program? It’s very cool.

  • wayne

    Are you following the bankruptcy of Mitsubishi’s nuclear power-plant subsidiary? (The G.E. Nuclear Division.) The head office in Japan, had no idea until GE filed for bankruptcy a few months ago.
    It’s potentially threatening Mitsubishi’s future existence. (Do Japanese executive’s, still commit suicide when they blow hundreds of millions of dollars of the shareholders money??)

    As far as I know– nuclear plant construction in the USA, has essentially come to a standstill. Meanwhile, a large percentage of our reactor’s are reaching the end of their permitted life-spans, and we still do not have a permanent repository for waste. (Thank Harry Reid, Mitch, and Ryan.)

  • Garry

    Wow, Wayne, that’s a huge story I knew nothing about. Then again, I’m often about 6 months behind the big developments in Japan; I eventually learn in depth through corporate documents, government reports, etc. whose translations I edit. I tend to get a lot of work on the energy sector.

    Do you have a link to a good starting point to this story? I’m headed out the door as I type.

  • LocalFluff

    “Totally tangential— my g-daughter is visiting for a week & she has something called “Kerbal Space” loaded on her laptop. Has anyone here, played with that Program? It’s very cool.”

    Kerbal is a very very boring game. It takes a quarter of a century to complete a single mission and it costs tens of billions of dollars, so don’t let your kids use the Android one click payment account on the “phone”! And the only thing you get to do is to slightly rearrange some engines that have been kept in a storage building since the 1980s. And there are only fantasy places to go to anyway.

    It’s hard to tell in this digitized age, but I might confuse Kerbal with the NASA human space flight game.

    No, Kerbal is great! You could look at some youtube tutorials about how to use the stuff and get your visiting g-daughter into it. That software is creating thousands of rocket scientists. Fraser Cain online loves it and he’s a childishly devoted relentless podcast profile and advocate of all kinds of space flight always to everywhere with anything. He’s got the spirit. There’s no no from him.

  • LocalFluff

    The Fraser Cain attitude to space flight:
    “I always agree to attack. Assault!”
    I love this movie.

  • wayne

    The Wall Street Journal has been covering this. (but most of their stuff is behind a pay-wall.)

    Jeez, I blundered on the id;– it’s the GE Nuclear subsidiary of Hitachi, and not Mitsubishi. (It’s something ‘like the GE Westinghouse Nuclear division.)
    But either way–They filed for bankruptcy protection in the last 6 months. (May have been December.)
    ((This also impacts on-going construction at a reactor in Georgia, if I recall correctly.))

    Much confusion and recrimination over who informed whom, and when, at the main office. The GE unit is in deep for a number of reactors & cost-over-runs.
    Tokyo stock exchange is contemplating de-listing the stock of the Parent.

    You’re scaring me with that 1st paragraph!

    This Kerbal Space Program cost her $30, and I believe she has version 1.1 and maybe an expansion-pack of some sort.(?)
    She’s been watching tutorials on YouTube, from a guy named Scott Manley (who is extremely nimble with the program & sorta amusing.)

    This program IS amazing. It follows the laws of physics/rocketry, and keeps a running tab of costs & time-requirements for construction.

  • LocalFluff

    Unless she got the NASA version, I think you’ll get away with $30.
    It is NASA rocket development that scares you, and me. Not Kerbal.

  • wayne

    I’ve only been peripherally following this, but it goes back to last Fall sometime.

    “Toshiba fired Westinghouse chairman two days before bankruptcy filing”
    April 2017

    (tangentially– we can’t address any Energy Policy, cuz it’s all Russia, Russia, Russia…(Marcia) non-stop.)

  • Edward

    I’ve been looking at Kerbal Space Program for a couple of months, and I am thinking of asking Santa for it, this Christmas.

    Meanwhile, last year, my nephew and I got a card-like board game called “Leaving Earth” which puts more emphasis on mission planning and execution than on rocket development.

  • Garry

    Thanks, Wayne; just got back from a quick road trip and your link pointed me in the right direction.

    My read is that this story doesn’t relate so much to nuclear power in Japan as it does to a Japanese company’s nuclear business overseas. Shortly after Fukushima the Japanese turned off all their nuclear power plants, and there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for restarting them (only a few have been restated to date). I think Toshiba bought Westinghouse in an effort to expand its business overseas rather than doing much domestically.

    To me the bigger story is that the US finally approved some new nuclear plants after decades, and Westinghouse blew the opportunity. I attribute part of the failure to the modern tendency to overemphasize innovation over a more conservative approach to accomplish something big. I love innovation, but it has to be supported by doing one’s homework properly, and so long as the contract is won, it’s always better to underpromise and give the buyer a pleasant surprise, rather than overpromising and then have to ask for more budget and more time. It looks like Westinghouse didn’t know enough to make a realistic promise here.

    I hope Westinghouse (or somebody else) can salvage the work that’s been done and finish up these plants.

  • wayne

    Sorry for the confusion on my part, I used to keep track of atomic energy more closely, but I just don’t care enough anymore.

    tangentially– the Tennessee Valley Authority has been wasting (additional) billions of dollars (of borrowed money) the past few decades, and finally gave up on a half-finished reactor in Alabama, which was then sold at auction.

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