Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Orion will rise!
By MARTIN SIEFF, Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- The sweeping cuts in Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals agreed in Washington this week by presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush raise major questions of environmental and security safety. But these could be answered in three words: "Build the Orion!"

"Orion" in this case refers not to the hunter of classical mythology or to the vast constellation that dominates the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere. It means the manned spaceship powered by nuclear weapons designed more than 40 years ago by the great British-American physicist Freeman Dyson.

Dyson was no crackpot. He was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. It was he who played a key role in explaining and popularizing the late Richard Feynman's Nobel-prize-winning, revolutionary methodology of calculating quantum electrodynamics theory to the world.

In 1958, Dyson, and other young idealistic scientists gathered with small nuclear weapons designer Theodore "Ted" Taylor at the General Atomic division of the General Dynamics Corporation in San Diego, Calif., to work on Project Orion, the idea of a spaceship powered by atomic bombs. And they designed it.

Dyson and his colleagues knew that the Soviet Union and the United States would build more rather than less nuclear warheads to keep up with one another. They knew it was only a matter of time before other nations joined the nuclear club.

They also knew that even if the United States and the Soviet Union should ever reach strategic arms reduction agreements to mutually slash the size of their huge nuclear arsenals, the radioactive, fissile material taken from those warheads posed almost-eternal security risks of its own. It would have to be guarded with 100 percent perfect security indefinitely to prevent it falling into the hands of terrorists, criminals or political extremist fanatics.

Nor could the fissile material once manufactured ever be rendered down into more harmless compounds or other elements. And even if it was protected safely, the environmental and contamination dangers from it would also last at the very least thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years, given the slow half-life, radioactive decay rates of the lethal elements involved.

Dyson and Taylor proposed a radical solution to these problems. The atomic weapons could only be used up and totally rendered useless if they were actually exploded and they proposed to do this with lots of them. This would happen not on the earth or in the main atmosphere, but -- mainly -- in the far reaches of outer space, where the addition of the nuclear radiation to all the background radiation already there would be literally negligible and where the blast effects would be harmless.

Dyson and Taylor proposed to explode atomic bombs at regular intervals at very short distances behind a specially designed space ship in order to propel it to the Moon and other planets in the Solar System far more quickly and cheaply than chemical-fuel rockets could ever do.

Unlike President Ronald Reagan's 1980s vision of "Star Wars" or the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Taylor-Dyson "Orion" vision was far cheaper and more practical. It did not require the development of any new technologies whatsoever. It did not require the development of electronic sensors of simultaneous enormous sensitivity, robustness and reliability, which President Bush's current Anti-Ballistic Missile defense program will require.

These are essential for the Bush ABM program to ensure that ground-based interceptor missiles can reliably intercept incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles at combined speeds of up to 36,000 miles per hour, or 18 times the speed of a fired bullet.

Dyson even envisaged inter-planetary regular travel as a practical reality by 1970. "We sketched a 12-year flight program ending with large manned expeditions to Mars, in 1968 and to the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn in 1970," he wrote in his 1979 autobiography "Disturbing the Universe." "The costs of our program added up to about $100 million a year (in 1958 dollars)."

Dyson, Taylor and their colleagues were simultaneously scientific visionaries and political idealists. They wanted to boost the space age out into the Solar System as quickly as possible to inspire the world. And they also wanted a safe, practical and even politically popular way to destroy the vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons then accelerating during the most tense years of the Cold War at a fearsome rate. Their answer to both these projects was the Orion project.

In July 1958, Dyson spelled out these aims in a paper he called "A Space Traveler's Manifesto." He concluded, "We have for the first time imagined a way to sue the huge stockpiles of our bombs for better purpose than for murdering people. Our purpose, and our belief, is that the bombs which killed and maimed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki shall one day open the skies to man."

Writing 20 years later, Dyson recalled, "We intended to build a spaceship which would be simple, rugged and capable of carrying large payloads cheaply all over the solar system. Our motto for the project was 'Saturn by 1970.'"

In terms of research and development and progress in engineering concepts, the one-year project was an astonishing success. Major progress was made in the areas of theoretical physics, experiments with high velocity gas jets, the engineering design of full-scale spaceships and even the flight testing of scale models. "We built model shops which propelled themselves with chemical high-explosive charges instead of with nuclear weapons," Dyson later wrote.

Today, the idea of propelling a space ship through the Solar System by exploding atomic bombs behind instinctively sounds as alien and impossible to the public and even many experts alike. But steam powered ocean navigation appeared equally bizarre and impossible at the start of the 19th century, or heavier than air flight at the start of the 20th.

In Part Two, it will be seen that the political and environmental challenges of building and flying an Orion, like the technical and financial ones, may prove surprisingly attainable.

At the beginning of the popular young children's TV animated show "Bob the Builder", the introductory song asks the question "Can We Build It?" and Bob replies cheerfully "Yes We Can!"

Many U.S. and Russian space engineers frustrated by decades of shrinking budgets, incompetent bureaucratic shackles and -- worst of all -- shriveling vision would answer with just those words.

Can they build it? Yes. They can.

Back to the Top    Next Article