Dyson, son of the distinguished British-born physicist Freeman Dyson, unveils a wealth of formerly classified information covering the attempt of a group of US scientists, beginning in 1957, to develop and launch a space vehicle powered solely by serial explosions of nuclear devices.
The elder Dyson, who lends extensive personal perspectives here, was involved with the effort (sponsored by the Defense Department’s hush-hush Advanced Research Projects Agency) from its inception; the list of its proponents reads like a roster of Nobel candidates, including one winner—the world-renowned atomic scientist Edward Teller. So it’s made immediately clear that, as hard as it may be to accept, detonating nuclear bombs right behind a huge, bullet-shaped spaceship was, and still is, by some, considered not only a practical avenue of technical pursuit but one offering far more promise for extending man’s horizon into the Solar System than those wimpy “chemical” rockets—the Atlases, Titans, etc.—that Wernher von Braun was simultaneously developing. (Briefed on Orion several years into the project, in fact, von Braun readily endorsed the concept.) Dyson’s myriad interviews nicely capture the sweep of a grandiose technical scheme, but also the rapturous initial state of Orion scientists whose coup, as they see it, has them turning nuclear weapons into plowshares under the auspices—not to mention watchful eyes—of the same generals who want to back down the Soviet Union at any cost. However, political obstacles would become even more daunting than the considerable technical challenges, as small, fission-based devices (like those intended to boost Orion) came to be viewed in some circles as even more dangerous than megaton-yielding H-bombs (since military commanders might actually be tempted to use one). Ultimately, creeping realization that the potential effects of radioactive fallout had been dangerously understated for years undermined what support remained, and so Orion’s budget was axed in 1964.
An intimate look at an amazing concept some still believe offers the best hope for fending off—literally—an errant asteroid or comet that could wipe humankind from Earth.