Project Orion asks you to imagine a world where Apollo was consigned to history’s trash can before it left the drawing board. It is the story of a team of accomplished nuclear scientists, including the author’s father Freeman Dyson, who designed a spaceship powered by nuclear bombs. Starting in 1957, they planned missions to Mars by 1965 and to Saturn by 1970, not in capsules but in 4000 ton space-cruisers, complete with a traditional two ton barber’s chair. It was a serious, if extravagantly imaginative, plan for space exploration on a grand scale.
George Dyson describes the technical details elegantly: “To visualize Orion, imagine an enormous one-cylinder external combustion engine: a single piston reciprocating within the combustion chamber of empty space.”
He is equally good at capturing the buccaneering, optimistic spirit of the General Atomics group. The book is full of appealing details like the description of non-nuclear trials at Point Loma on the California Coast or discussions with the Coca Cola company on shifting thousands of nuclear bombs, like bottles in a factory, so that one could be fired every half-second.
Particularly touching are his father’s memories of the cafeteria and library at La Jolla – at 135 feet in diameter it was the same size as the 4000 ton Orion design – “we always imagined the ship with a big recreation area in the nose, and windows looking out forward and sideways so we could see the rings of Saturn sweeping overhead as we passed through.” Undeterred by the prospect of surfing nuclear explosions at close range, the designers expected to become crew members.
Their Strangelovian extremes are hinted at rather than examined: the space battleships designed to destroy continents, the handheld nuclear bombs or the scant two pages devoted to fallout in a long 1964 report to NASA (crew compartment noise got nine pages).
The 1963 atmospheric test-ban delivered the death blow to an already-moribund program, but it lives on in the minds of its designers: “it would have worked. Even in my dotage, I’m a true believer,” says one. In 1965, the project won a short-lived reprieve as the model for Discovery in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a fitting end to the project that was almost science fiction.
The book’s narrative is sometimes lost among the (fascinating) details. Tighter editing and a little weight loss would have enhanced it. The illustrations are few and disappointing. Nevertheless, it’s a tantalizing story and a good read. Project Orion is one of history’s great ‘what ifs?’ While rocket designers are still struggling with single-stage-to-orbit; Orion would “go from downtown Jackass Flats to Saturn orbit back to low earth orbit in a single stage … The first flight of that thing doing its full mission would be the most spectacular thing that humans had ever seen.”
This article originally appeared in an edited form in Air and Space / Smithsonian. The photograph is of a conventionally-powered Orion model, described in the book, that is on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.