Feb 17, 2012
Mike Rauscher, lovingly AKA Mike on a Bike, is an old friend and recent Biology-Neuroscience-Philosophy triple-major graduate from Oberlin College. He and I have long shared an affinity for space travel and Cold War-era nuclear technology. His Mountain Dew-fueled sagacity is on tap nearly 24/7, and is a prized resource I consult only when trying to philosophically cornhole people who believe in normativity. He managed to set aside some time to tell me a little bit about the Orion Project.
Okay, so Mike. You graduated from Oberlin?
Yeah, just this spring, and I’m a laboratory technician, and I’m applying to graduate school, and stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with rockets or space travel, that’s just a hobby of mine. It wasn’t so long ago when space was the main attraction [in popular science].
Why don’t you give me a synopsis of Project Orion and when was it started?
This is a very brief period between 1959 and 1964. It was a study which was commissioned by the U.S. government in the hazy concoction of NASA, the military, and other facets of the state to look into making a spaceship powered by nuclear bombs. Which is pretty metal, actually.
Give me a little summary of the mechanical function of that.
A rocket works because you have mass; you don’t have anything to push against because you’re in space and it’s a vacuum. In order to move in a vacuum, you need to expel mass; you throw mass in one direction, and [the rocket] goes in the opposite direction. There are two parameters that are important to how well your rocket works:
1) How much mass you’re throwing away at once — your thrust, or how much force you’re expelling.
2) How fast you’re throwing it away, which is more important as far as “gas mileage”. So, for a given unit of mass, the more speed you get throwing it away from you, the better.
Well, nuclear bombs have lots of energy in one convenient place. Fusion reactions release titanic amounts of energy for very
little mass compared to chemical reactions.
So it’s very fuel-efficient.
And [nuclear fusion] has lots of force. Today we’re kind of stuck [with] chemical rockets, and the amount of force they’re putting out is [equivalent to] a penny’s weight in Earth’s gravity.
So what was the impulse for using bomb — how NASA was drawing up the Orion craft?
The impetus for the Orion was basically to power it with nuclear bombs because we don’t have fusion. … So the solution is to make a really, really heavy spaceship and have just a thousand-ton steel plate [for the bombs] to push against.
There are two problems with our firecracker-under-a-tin-can rocket: [firstly], you’re putting a bunch of energy in one place, but only about five percent of the tremendous explosive power of a nuke is going into moving the pusher plate, and secondly, that [explosion is] pretty discrete and instantaneous, so it would snap the necks of [anyone in the rocket] before tumbling into a thousand-g spin and killing everyone [on the ground]. … The acceleration problem was fixed by putting giant shock absorbers on [the Orion], like shocks on a bike. … The major innovation was what’s known as a nuclear shaped charge, which enables you to go from [using] five percent to eighty-five percent of the force of your nuclear bomb pushing against the pusher plate.
A fusion bomb goes off, and you get the whole electromagnetic spectrum released. And a lot of that is X-rays. You surround that bomb in something that is opaque to X-rays except for a little slit on top, and that shunts the X-rays up and vaporizes a plate of some sort of material, and that [vaporization is] what pushes the pusher plate. So there are two factors here: the atomic weight of that [pusher plate], for one; and [secondly] … if [the plate of vaporized material is] pancake-shaped, dynamical drag on the edges of the pancake as it’s incinerated will cause a narrower cigar-shaped cone of blast. If that plate of material is cigar-shaped, [the cone of blast will] widen out — the way the forces penetrate [the cigar-shaped plate of material] causes an asymmetrical explosion.
The engineers worked out that these shaped nuclear charges would certainly work … and they worked out that as crazy as … blowing up nuclear bombs behind a spaceship to propel it to titanic velocities [sounds], the simple studies suggested that you could be at Saturn in a hundred days.
Oh, s***. For reference, let’s say you had a really big-a** supercharged chemical rocket — how long would that take?
Well, if you lifted the [newest] NASA designs … [that] we haven’t actually built yet…out of the PowerPoint presentation and put them into space … that would still take a year or two in just one-way transit. The probes we’ve sent to Saturn [in the past] have taken ten years.
The engineers on the [Orion] had the slogan “Saturn by 1968.” And we landed on the moon in 1969.
So, how did the program end?
There were a few problems with the program. One was that it was great once you got it into space, but getting it up there in the first place was a problem. … The easiest way was actually to just, you know, light it off on the ground, which is great except for the blowing up of a giant stack of nuclear bombs.
The best single summation I’ve ever heard of the program was that it was designed in a time when automobiles had tail fins but not seat belts. … Statistically, if you lifted it off the ground, during each launch you’d probably cause ten or twenty deaths [due to radiation poisoning]. … But that’s not the reason the whole thing was shut down.
Oh, what was that?
The military was paying for this, and the shaped-charge idea made its way around. You know how I said that if the material is lighter, the cone [of blast] is tighter, right? Well, that’s basically just a giant death ray. So instead of a cone pushing on a plate of vaporized tungsten from a couple meters back, it’s just a tremendous plume of fiery atomic death that can just light up in low earth orbit and totally, you know, vaporize a Soviet military facility.
So part of the reason that they stopped thinking about Project Orion was that they found out nuclear lasers were more interesting.
So where was the real dead-end of the program?
Apparently there was a scale model made of this and they showed it to JFK. And as soon as he sees the thing and hears the explanation, he just flips the f*** out, walks out of the room, and cans funding for the entire project.
Thanks so much for telling me about this!
No problem, comrade.
Interview by Quinton Steele