Help re-imagine Project Orion – nuclear space propulsion in the noughties

NASA\'s Project Orion - concept artIf you’re in need of something to bring a bit of excitement to your Tuesday (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), maybe you’d like to get involved with re-thinking the idea of launching space missions using the Project Orion model – in other words, the sixties concept space vehicle propelled by small nuclear explosions. [image courtesy NASA via Wikimedia Commons]

No, that’s a genuine NASA concept. And this is a genuine request; the following email turned up in the Futurismic contact inbox over the weekend from one Peter Queckenstedt:

“My name is Peter, I’m a Canadian designer, currently studying for my master’s in transportation design at the Umea Institute in Sweden.

I’m doing some advance work on my upcoming final degree project, and thought Futurismic might be able to aid me. My plan is to revive the idea of Project Orion, the atomic bomb-propelled ship designed in the 60s. My focus is not so much on the engineering side, but more on the ‘blue-sky’ ideas side. I want to explore what kind of changes 50 years of technology would make to this craft. My main intent is to get people excited about the idea of sending people into space in a serious manner.

If you know of anyone that might be interested in collaborating, sponsoring, or providing inspiration and input please let me know. Engineers, fiction writers, artists, mad scientists, bloggers … I’m open to anything as long as it’s interesting.”

There you have it, folks – if you fancy getting your crowdsource on and thinking about nuclear-powered rockets, now’s your chance! I think the best way to do this would be for you to leave a comment below if you’re interested in helping out, making sure to use a valid email address which I can then forward on to Peter.

But feel free to share ideas at the same time – for example, is Project Orion any more or less reasonable a suggestion now we’ve had five more decades of experience with nuclear power and weapons, not to mention the economic cost of space exploration?

13 thoughts on “Help re-imagine Project Orion – nuclear space propulsion in the noughties”

  1. Confusingly, Nasa have chosen to name the crew capsule Orion for Project Constellation, their programme to return to the Moon.

    THere’s a book on the subject – if Peter has not already seen it – Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965, by George Dyson. Oh, and this site too is wroth checking out:

  2. At the time of Project Orion, I believe Project Matterhorn was classified. It was the “peaceful uses of nuclear fusion” project. I think a modern reincarnation of Orion might choose fusion rather than fission for a number of reasons: (1) It is theoretically more scaleable — fission bombs cannot be too much smaller than an atmospheric-pressure critical mass, while fusion bombs can be microscopic laser targets. (2) It is more easily handled — MHD fluids instead of solids. (3) Magnetic bottles can be more easily adapted to rocket nozzle designs than the “plates and springs” of the original Orion. The Polywell concept of EMC2 Fusion Development Corporation might be a useful model for a case study. Incidentally, if memory serves, Bob Bussard, the man behind Polywell, was a principal in Orion.

  3. “My focus is not so much on the engineering side, but more on the ‘blue-sky’ ideas side. I want to explore what kind of changes 50 years of technology would make to this craft. My main intent is to get people excited about the idea of sending people into space in a serious manner.”

    Without focusing on the engineering side, you will not be getting anyone excited about “sending people into space in a serious manner,” because you yourself are not being serious.

  4. Minimag Orion is a concept being worked on by Andrews Space. I have added
    the idea of combining it with Lorentz force acceleration of fuel.
    Minimag is using sub-critical charges for politically correct who do
    not understand incremental risk analysis.

    Full blown Orions can be built on the moon. There is thorium and other
    necessary material.

    Project Orion links

    the liberty ship is a nuclear rocket with no radioactive emissions
    or fallout (gaseous core)

    The difference between then and now.
    Now Supercomputers can model the explosive devices.
    Fewer test explosions needed.
    Better materials can any pusher plate stronger and or lighter.
    Minor improvements to the overall concepts which allow a far
    higher cargo to ship mass ratio over chemical rockets.

    In terms of getting a lot of stuff into space for less than $1/kg, Orion
    external pulse propulsion, is the way to go. Cheaper and move more
    stuff than even a space elevator.

    Because collective bad choices are being made we will have to wait
    for mirror laser arrays or nuclear fusion (like the Bussard IEC fusion)

  5. In my article “Remember the Orion!” (SPACE ENERGY AND TRANSPORTATION, Volume 2, Number 1, 1997), I proposed using the weapons being taken out of service as a result of the INF Treaty to power an Orion-class vehicle.

  6. Lee: When I say I’m not focussed on the engineering side of Orion, that’s because people like Freeman Dyson have done all that work for me. It doesn’t mean I will not consider technical issues, just that they are only one aspect to design.

    Brian: Your take on then/now is pretty much where my mind has been headed.

    Gray: Any chance of purchasing this article? Your point about utilizing old weapons is a good one. One of my intents behind this project is to get people thinking in different ways about ideas that have long been established. What if we could turn expensive, dangerous nukes to a use that would benefit humans far into the future? What if space could be an adventure again?

  7. Oh come on: nuclear fission uses non-renewable resources (that is: fissionable materials like uranium, plutonium, thorium and the like), so is basically — like oil — a temporary reprieve: eventually, we will run out of it.

    We’re only changing dependence on product A for dependence on product B.

    How about getting things right from the start, like developing fusion (indeed: DocDuke’s proposal makes much more sense, if it works) and a space elevator powered by solar energy? Shouldn’t we learn how to run planet Earth decently before we spread ourselves — with the same, wasteful attitude — into space?

  8. This is all pretty fascinating to me, since I have my own project on the drawing boards. I wanted to use it in a novel, & I may yet. My motive is to depict a starship based on what we really know, & avoid reliance on magic warp drives. I can’t say I like the idea, though Carl Sagan said he couldn’t think of a better use for nuclear weapons. So thanks for all the links and ideas.

    Any ideas on how fast you could go in one of these things?

  9. Jetse: No we should not learn to get things right before going into space. Did Europeans learn to get things right before crossing the Atlantic ? No. The benefit to the Europeans is that the US and Canada are mostly made up of europeans. China had to give Hong Kong and Macau to European control for 99 years. China which was wealthier, more advanced and more dominant up until about 1700. If the Europeans had waited to get things right they would still be waiting.

    Do we get things right before we leave our parents home or before we get a first job ? No.

    We have to go out and muddle through.

    Nuclear. 3.5 billion tons of Uranium in the Ocean. More in the crust. Larger amounts of thorium as well. Using molten salt reactors for 99% burning of actinides (the uranium and plutonium), there is enough for millions of years. Plenty of issues between now and then, plus more thorium and uranium on the moon and in the asteroids.

  10. Brian: wrong comparison on several counts.

    Back in Columbus’s days te world population was below 500 million (and the diseases the Europeans brought decimated the Native American population across the whole continent: that’s how wrong they got it. Besides, us enlighted Europeans also decimated the Australian Aborigines, and made slave trade a world-wide phenomenon. But that’s a good price to pay for world domination of Europeans [or their descendants], just ask the surviving Native Americans, Aborigines, or Africans).

    Right now we’re talking about a severely overpopulated planet which is creaking in its hinges through pollution, overfishing, deforestation, climate change and what-have-you (I think this very site sometimes touches on these topics, I believe).

    So indeed, why grow up before going out? It is our born right to do severely stupid things, exactly like the European colonists did before us.

    Why learn from the past? Get Uranium, Plutonium and Thorium from anywhere you can get it and export our current problems across the solar system.

    Or do you imply that we will learn along the way? The only time that happened was when it was already too late: just ask the original inhabitants of the Americas and Australia. Or look at Africa.

    Yeah, learning along the way is the way to go!

  11. Jetse, It would not have mattered when Europeans or asians went to North America, they
    would have brought new diseases with them. So the only question was when someone was
    going to North and South America and who they were going to be.

    One of the points is that those who went were the winners, those who did not go (china)
    and those who were visited (natives) were the losers.

    Pollution – primarily air pollution needs to be solved with non-fossil fuel power sources.
    this effort will require many trillions of dollars to overhaul the world energy
    infrastructure. Steps in the multi-billion range can tweak the problem with better
    filters and devices to reduce the pollution. Not correlated to whether space colonization
    is or is not successful. Although if space colonization was happening on a large nuclear
    Orion type scale then one super-Orion could transport 100,000 people of Deerborn, michigan
    and decades of supplies and their factories etc… to the moon or Mars.

    Overfishing- Over half of the worlds fish is from domestic fish farms (mainly in China).
    The world is shifting from “wild fishing” to domesticated fish farming. Fish farming
    should be made more healthy for the eaters and sustainable for the location of
    the farming but it can be scaled up (doubled) to handle all fish needs.

    Deforestation – Fossil fuels (like coal mining) has contributed to this problem. But
    again managed forests are being grown so that the wild habitat can be left alone.
    Again large scale space colonization can reduce the impact on the earth environment.
    10,000-30,000 jetliners (100-500 passengers) move over 100 million people and a lot
    of their cargo every year. that is the scale for a serious colonization effort that
    over a few decades could allow Mars to help reduce the load on earth.
    Also, moderately advanced technology can allow 20-50 billion people to live on earth
    with a lifestyle in excess of the american lifestyle while not overloading the

    Climate change – Mass produced nuclear power can stop the release of the gases.
    Geo-engineering can be used to control earth climate.
    the US built 8-12 reactors per year in the early 70s from almost none in the
    fifties and sixties. A coal reactor is about the same size as a nuclear reactor and
    more than one coal reactor is built each week.
    Molten salt reactors can burn 99% of the thorium, uranium, plutonium which would
    leave only 30 year half life or less material. Uranium hydride reactors could
    be mass produced starting in 2012. MIT/Westinghouse are working on annular fuel
    which could provide a 50% power uprate to existing reactors (thus US nuclear power
    would go from supplying 20% of electricity to 30% even without new reactors).
    Again whether the correct choices are made here or not is independent on whether
    there is a working and successful space program.

    Currently 40-60 billion/year is spent worldwide on a what are called a space programs
    (private and public -nasa, military and other nations).
    If that money is spent on a plans that could actually work how does that effect our
    ability to solve or not solve multi-trillion problems ?

    There are no natives on Mars or the Moon or the asteroids.
    So going there and taking over this time will not hurt anyone.

    Multi-trillion dollar energy and environmental issues vs $40-60 billion on space.
    Let us grab every billion that we can to suck it into the multi-trillions that
    are not working because those extra billions are going to put us over the top.

    Your lessons are wrong and your correlations are wrong. There are 6.5 billion people. We
    can and should work on multiple projects independently. Going all in on single
    solutions is betting too much on one thing being the right choice and
    it means ignoring other development paths which should be moved forward at the same time.

  12. Orion is the one technology that is within our grasp that could open space travel to millions of people across the solar system and even send missions to the stars. It’s more challenging politically than from an engineering standpoint. It’s got problems like how to avoid irridiating the earth while launching millions of tons worth of cargo? And people like Jetse, they’re the biggest challenge of all, because they like to focus on the negative aspects of history and technology unless its suitably tame like solar power (BTW, an Orion could loft probably Gigawats worth of solar panels into geosynchronous orbit, which would provide vast amounts of electricity that’s immune to weather, doesn’t lose sunlighgt in the atmosphere, runs 24/7, and doesn’t even need terribly long transmission lines, as each city or town could have its own rectenna).

    Orion combines high specific impulse with high thrust, and actually works better the bigger it is. That turns just about every convention in rocketry on its head, and to an advantage. And there’s something unequivocally awesome about the idea of riding thermonuclear explosions.

    I wander if inertial confinement fusion could be used as a primer for setting off a larger thermonuclear explosion instead of a fission primer. Maybe the Orion throws the charge out it’s back that has laser receivers. When the charge is in position, it gets lasered by the ship. Internal optics compress a fusion fuel pellet, which ignites a larger fusion reaction. That means no radioactive debris, and you’re clear to launch from the earth’s surface (also keeps the nonproliferation weenies off your back). I also have the idea that if you were to replace the mechanical spring/damper system by an essentially gigantic linear electric motor, you can not only more finely control your acceleration, but also convert some of the energy from propulsion into electricity to run the ship’s systems and shoot high power lasers at propulsion charges.

    Then we can transport like the poorest 6.4 billion of the earth’s denizens to the moon, Mars, and asteroid colonies, and turn the earth into a gigantic playground for the remaining 100 milllion just like the environmentalists want in their secret dreams (except without having to get rid of billions of people) 😉

    One of the great things about huge ships that can withstand nuclear explosions is that they can carry sufficient shielding for humans to stay in space for decades, long enough for an interstellar mission.

    Eventually we could either build a really big one, or maybe convert an asteroid into one and send it to another star. It could be an arc, though I think by then we’ll have suspended animation, or hybernation, or something. It would probably be a one way trip to a rich star system that we discovered with a gigantic space telescope that we could build because Orion ships gave us the ability to put million ton objects into earth orbit and beyond.

  13. Hey Brian, I liked your comments, very informative. I’ve had a similar argument with environmentalists about nuclear power.

    What is it you do?

    One of the biggest obstacles for project Orion is getting around the international treaties and space laws regarding nuclear material in space. RTG energy sources in interplanetary probes just about get past these laws, but there’s always some people complaining about the risk even for those.

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