Resurrecting Project Orion

Using radiation to fight radiation may seem like a rather odd idea, but it’s being proposed once again, this time as a resurrection of Project Orion. For those who haven’t heard of it before, Project Orion was perhaps the greatest of all the unusual projects that sprung from the atom-mad fifties. At the time, everything that could be made with atomic power was. Ford and GM designed cars with rear-mounted atomic reactors, so that being shunted from behind would respond with a small nuclear blast. Cookers were invented that used ‘atomic radiation’ (microwave ovens). And NASA decided that it should explore using atomic power as a means for transport.

On the face of it, this was a sensible decision. Even today, atomic power is far and away the most powerful and efficient fuel humans have, and many of the deep-space probes are powered by radio isotope generators and ion engines, using atomic sources for very lightweight, long duration power systems.

This is the safe, sane way to use atomic energy. Project Orion was none of these things. No, Project Orion was this. And this, this, this, this and this. Yes, every single one of those designs decided that the best way to travel was riding the shockwave from a detonating atomic bomb. This is sort of like deciding the fastest way to skateboard is by sitting on the front of a Ferrari. At some point, you’re going to get run over.

And now, despite the lunacy of the original idea, it’s back. And surprisingly, a fair amount more sane. Although only moderately. It’s still riding nuclear shockwaves to the heavens, which is mostly invented through acid trips and bad sci-fi novels. That said, there are a few reasons why Project Orion might make sense.

Radiation is an ever-present hazard to deep space exploration. Humanity has yet to send humans into the deeps of space, but it has sent electronic probes, and they’ve measured the level of radiation that’s cascading through space beyond the shelter of Earth’s magnetic sphere, and it’s too high to be safe for humans over any appreciable length of time. This means one of two things – either that humans travel between the planets and their magnetic shields quickly, or that they do it wrapped in tons of radiation blocking material. In either case, what is needed is a big, powerful engine, one that can push a great deal of mass, or one that can accelerate and decelerate rapidly. And humanity still has no device that can do this faster than nuclear explosions.

Secondly, nuclear explosions are only current motive force that would let humans explore places such as Europa and Enceladus in the deeps of the solar system. Which is important, because they  are the planet(oids) with lakes of liquid water underneath the surface. The liquid water that provides oxygen, energy, and the basis for any habitable ecosystem. So if humans want to live off planet, they’re probably going to have to get there by bomb.

And finally, nuclear explosions of the type that would power a Project Orion derived spaceship are the tool that would be used to push an asteroid or comet off course, so humans don’t end up going the way of the dinosaur. Probably not important during my lifetime, but survival of the species is a fairly important idea.

Of course, Project Orion is still a spaceship surfing the shockwaves of nuclear bomb blasts, and nothing could ever go wrong with that. Could it?

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