Friday, 22 September 2006

Orion: NASA's new Apollo Clone or an Atomic Spaceship to Saturn.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

The proposed lunar lander of NASA's new "Orion" project

It appears that George Bush’s plan to return the human race to the moon is taking form. According to this article, NASA has contracted Lockheed Martin to build a vehicle they are going to call Orion. Looking at the specifications and details listed online this project looks near identical to Apollo but, of course, they plan to “incorporate the latest advances in technology in computers, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems”. Which reads to me as - we are going to do this on the cheap and pretend newer means better.


LMWN has made it’s opinions on NASA clear before, but will admit to being rather irritated at the name they have chosen for this unambitious white elephant- there already is a space vehicle with the name Orion, and it’s a hell of a lot more impressive than this little tin can.


Detailed in full in this wonderful book is the story of the most ambitious vehicle the human race almost built - Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965. The book is a labour of love by George Dyson, son of Freeman Dyson - one of the 20th century’s most important scientists and the key theoretician behind the project.


Concept: take a huge concave steel dish and set off a controlled nuclear explosion beneath it – you get thrust. Now build a vehicle on the outside of the dish and develop a delivery system so that “bombs” can be released and ignited every half second. Kaboom - you have a pulsed atomic drive vehicle.

An Orion at liftoff - image from here

Everyone's first impression is that it sounds both impossible and irresponsible, but this project ran for 8 years at General Atomic, a military industrial complex offshoot of the Manhattan Project, and by the end of it they had ironed out most of the kinks. Firstly the “bomb” used here is a much more tuned instrument than you first think, the main bomb designer of the project was Ted Taylor who had worked at Los Alamos as the key micro-nuke engineer, he’d solved that problem before the project even began. Secondly, early experiments showed that the ablation of the plate was minimal, and if you coat it in a layer of oil it’s almost non existent – the explosions will not destroy the vehicle. This project had a team working flat out with a lot of the talent from Los Alamos, nothing they produced can be dismissed as impossible.


Orion is still the most fuel efficient high thrust vehicle humanity has yet conceived – it is speculated that one of these could make it to Pluto and back inside of a year. The advantages of these monsters are as massive as the drawbacks - for example, increasing the yield of a nuclear bomb costs very little, so increasing the size of the vehicle makes it more cost effective, Orions can be huge! On the other hand, atmospheric nuclear detonations are not a good thing - the project was killed off by the atmospheric test ban treaty of ’63 and Dyson calculated that 10 people would die of fallout effects for every successful launch. Nonetheless, if we ever do try to use an orbital staging post to get to other planets then Orion is still the best bet for getting to Mars, fast.


Orion is not a future technology, the work has already been done. With the political will we could build one within five years. Dyson's book is a wonderful insight (and a remarkably gripping page turner, that reads much like Richard Feynman's fantastic essays on his work at Los Alamos) into an idea that would have given us the solar system.

A speculative image of an Orion orbiting Mars - image from here

So, let’s pity that pathetic Pork Barrell organization that is NASA, they may be building a cheap Apollo clone to go to The Moon, but it sure as hell doesn’t deserve the name Orion.

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