Launching a rocket using atomic explosions?

Glenn Reynolds and Leigh Outten have just co-written a short paper advocating the use of “pulsed nuclear space propulsion” to launch rockets. You can download it here.

The concept, as first described in the 1950s, is described in the paper as follows:

It is not a tremendous surprise that when you set off an atomic bomb next to something, that something will move. That it could also remain essentially intact, however, was considerably more surprising. The challenge for the Orion team was to produce a spacecraft that could function after being subjected to not one, but many, nearby nuclear detonations, and that could be steered and navigated by an onboard crew.

This turned out to be easier than it sounds. The Orion spacecraft design that resulted involved a large steel “pusher” plate, behind a rather large spacecraft with a total weight of over 4,000 tons. That sort of design is very different from the spaceships we’re used to today.

The bulk of their paper reviews the legal obstacles to launching such rockets, as both the Outer Space Treaty and the Limited Test Ban Treaty put limits on the use of nuclear weapons in space. The paper argues that these limits would not apply to rockets propelled by atomic explosions, since the explosions would not be used as weapons.

The paper also argues that the technical obstacles for building such rockets are also solvable, and might even be easy to solve. This particular quote stood out starkly to me:
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