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Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship
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Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  320 Ratings  ·  48 Reviews
In 1957, a small group of scientists, supported by the U.S. government, launched an attempt to build a four-thousand-ton spaceship propelled by nuclear bombs. The initial plan called for missions to Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970. After seven years of work, political obstacles brought the effort to a halt.

The Orion team, led by the American bomb-designer Theodore B. Tayl
Paperback, 368 pages
Published April 1st 2003 by Holt Paperbacks (first published April 16th 2002)
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Feb 06, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: dnf
Do not be fooled by the awesome concept behind this book. Yes, top-secret Cold War atomic spaceship designs that were scientifically sound but too far ahead of their time to ever see the light of day are totally sweet. However, I found to my chagrin that despite the promising premise, this book is strictly for hardcore math and science nerds, and is not to be touched by humanities and other garden-variety nerds such as yours truly. Anyone expecting an Arthur C. Clarke-ian level of scientific app ...more
Dan Cowden
Feb 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
From the late '50s to the mid '60s a group of scientists and engineers, never numbering more than 50, and spending barely $10 million over seven years, developed what remains the only efficient method of putting large cargoes into space or of sending large scale missions to explore other planets. Their method? Explode nuclear bombs a short distance from the spacecraft and ride the shockwave like a surfboard.

The science & engineering behind it were never shot down, and in fact consistently c
Oct 12, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cold-war
The more I read about nuclear weapons and the culture surrounding them in the 1950s and 1960s, the more I feel it's a miracle that I'm here to read and write and think about them at all. Without even getting into Mutual Assured Destruction, here are some ideas for ridiculous uses of nuclear bombs other than (directly) using them as weapons which were recounted in this book:

- melting oil out of the Alberta tar sands
- digging a sea-level Panama Canal
- mass-producing tritium to build even more nucl
Dec 04, 2010 rated it liked it
There was a serious proposal, starting in 1945, for the US to build a gigantic nuclear-powered spaceship. Top scientists worked on the plan for secret in years, but it was eventually abandoned. This book is the story of that project, and what could have been. The solar system would have been our lake, decades ago. From the book:

"To visualize Orion, imagine an enormous one-cylinder external combustion engine, a single piston reciprocating within the combustion chamber of empty space. The ship it
Aug 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
If you're not well-versed in science, this is by no means light reading. However, if you have the knowledge to appreciate the ideas and concepts introduced throughout this book, you're in for a real treat, it's your chance to sail through the minds of some of the greatest scientists and engineers that ever lived, and each of them has his own set ideas that will leave you positively stunned.
H. Honsinger
Feb 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book details, in fascinating and human fashion, one of the great "what ifs" of the space age. For several years, in the 1950's and into the early 1960's, a group of nuclear scientists and engineers pursued the very real possibility of launching spacecraft the size of naval vessels using nuclear weapons, and then using more nuclear weapons to propel them around the solar system. This technology, which as far as we know is perfectly feasible, would have allowed ships large enough for a hundre ...more
Sep 26, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: science

Project Orion was quite possibly a crazy idea. Conceived of in the late 1950s, Project Orion proposed the propulsion of a space ship by exploding a large number (hundreds) of small (by nuclear standards) fission bombs with the power of up to about 5 kilotons TNT, about the quarter of the size of the Hiroshima bomb. These bombs would be ejected from the space ship and explode behind it. The bombs would vaporize a propellent (which could be just about anything) that would strike a thick steel pla

Mar 30, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: space, history
What would you say to the idea of a spacecraft pushed along by bombs exploding behind it? What if you were told that with atomic bombs the spacecraft could be the size and weight of an oceangoing battleship?

Project Orion is a history written by the son of noted Physicist Freeman Dyson. His father was on the research team at General Atomics in the early 1960s that showed such a spacecraft could very likely be built. A filmed test with conventional explosives showed a model vehicle popping upwards
Ed Terrell
Nov 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014, science
My father had taken me outdoors, in the late evening. The year was 1957. He pointed to the sky and asked if I could see the flashing light of the recently launched Russian satellite. The fascination with space, that I felt, has never left me.

Project Orion delves in a delightful way into the people, engineering and physics that covered a span of 6 years. And what a project it was: a spaceship powered by atomic bombs surpassing Jules Verne's "From Earth to the Moon"! Dyson's father, Freeman Dyson
Oct 19, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What an insane idea: create a gigantic spaceship powered by nuclear explosions. Insane enough it just might have worked, were it not that public sentiment turned against all things nuclear, especially exploding bombs in the atmosphere.

I found the book a fascinating read and a good look into the "nuclear culture" of the late 50s and early 60s, where exploding nuclear devices in the atmosphere was no big deal, and atomic power had limitless possibilities.

Another reviewer mentioned that the book w
Eric K.
Oct 14, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: space travel nerds
A detailed history of a fascinating and little known subject, the long-since-abandoned nuclear pulse propulsion project, which would use the kinetic shockwave generated by hydrogen fusion (read: thermonuclear bombs) to "push" spacecraft at speeds of up to 0.12c.

This is not science fiction -- it is and was all well within the technological / industrial capability of the USA since the late 1950s.

The author, Dyson the younger, grew up hearing about this from his famous father, Freeman, and has lots
Mark Foskey
Nov 16, 2013 rated it liked it
It is an amazing thing that a group of first-rate physicists and engineers once took seriously the idea of a capsule the size of a yacht being lofted into space by hundreds of atomic bombs, but they did. A lot of them never quit taking it seriously.

My impressions:

1. Fallout is a showstopper for the ground-launched version.

2. Launching hundreds of nuclear bombs into space from earth, by whatever means, seems pretty dangerous. Politically it would never fly, and I agree with the public on this o
Sep 14, 2012 rated it liked it
This is a story about something that really happened. That means it is true. The government paid scientists to think about and design a spacecraft that would use thousands of atomic bombs for propulsion. On the chalkboard it looks something like...let's go visit saturn's rings in a gigantic spaceship and come back real quick. Seriously. Be book focuses a bit more on the science, engineering, and mathematical problems and solutions of the endeavor than your average reader wants to get into...but ...more
Michael Pryor
May 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Fascinating stuff. Construct a 4,000 tonne spaceship which is propelled by hundreds of small nuclear bombs? In the late 1950s, this was close to being a reality. Eye-opening stuff, this book is full of tech detail, but it's the people invovled who are the most interesting - full of boundless thinking, wide horizons and intelligence, not only able to think outside the box but able to kick the box aside and leap for the stars. Most of them gradually had the 'Hold on a second' epiphany and re-evalu ...more
John Karabaic
Oct 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Difficult to put down. Methodical yet gripping in unfolding the personal and technical story of as unlikely a project as you'll ever see: propelling an ocean-liner sized spacecraft with nuclear bombs.

The best character, by far, is Jerry Astl, in the chapter "C-4". A former resistance fighter, aeronautical engineer and explosives expert, his stories from World War 2 add spice to the stories of testing Project Orion. And he's a hoot.

The most affecting part to me was Freeman Dyson's narrative of h
Andy Love
Nov 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a thorough history of the "Project Orion" spacecraft project, familiar to SF fans through the works of Niven and Pournelle and more recently Stephenson. Dyson has a personal interest in the subject since his father, Freeman Dyson, was involved in the work. George Dyson explains the technical details of this audacious idea in a clear and entertaining fashion, and provides a view into the giddy super-science days of the early post-war era, when all sorts of atomic projects were conceived.
May 09, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: professional
This book tells the story of a strange, fascinating, crazy, uber-cool engineering project.The first chapters are each built around of one the key players in the project, detailing their background, motivation and contribution to the project. The later chapters present the evolution of the project: from a an idea on a blackboard to a serious project that gets killed by not only technical issues but also political ones. George Dyson wrote a book that can help us understand how things worked in the ...more
Sep 21, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: unfinished, science
Although Project Orion is quite interesting, this book is not. The book is poorly written, focusing overlymuch on personal anecdotes and lots of unnecessary background details about the scientists who worked on this project. While an examination of the genesis and development of the project makes sense given its still classified nature, the achronological writing style ruins this. Unfortunately, I have little choice but to abandon this book rather than try to wade through it, as I doubt I will l ...more
William Ansley
Oct 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
This was an interesting book, as much for the insights it provided into the way major classified Government projects work as for the actual program - as unbelievable as it is to find out that scientists at one time were actually seriously contemplating sending a vehicle into space from the earth's surface using atomic bombs as a propulsion system.

The main failing this book had, in my opinion, was not portraying the personalities of the people involved more clearly.
Reading Reader
Jul 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
I don't know how I missed the existence of Project Orion (the project) for so long. Project Orion (the book) tells the story of how scientists working in the late fifties and early sixties pursued the idea of space travel by means of externally detonated nuclear bombs.

Dyson's telling of the story is good, not great, but the concept itself is interesting enough to make this a fascinating read.

And yes, I have Randall Munroe to thank for this one.
Alex Long
Feb 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I love both science and history and this book recounts the brilliant men who worked on a design for a spacecraft propelled by detonating nuclear bombs. The optimism of scientists and engineers in the 1950's and 1960's is astounding: they were part of the generation that won the war with RADAR and the atomic bomb, what couldn't they do? I also just really like reading about people who are way smarter than me!
Jan 19, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: engineering
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
David Czuba
Dyson lives a neighborhood away and has a boat-building business on Bellingham's waterfront. You'd never know he spent three years recording interviews of the aging and dying who, in their youth, worked hard to build a spaceship powered by nuclear bombs.

Though George's writing is hard going, the story is compelling. If you ever get to Bellingham, stop in and chat with this self-titled historian, who said it's "the only field an amateur can still contribute".
Fitchburg Public Library
Jan 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
What I found most interesting about this story is the feasibility of it. They could have done it! No other technology produces nearly enough thrust for serious interplanetary or interstellar travel, but never again will we play with nukes with the carelessness of the 50's.
Though a bit dry at times, with not nearly enough pictures, it is a very enjoyable book. - Reviewed by Henry W.
Jul 05, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
This is an interesting, although somewhat dry, account of General Atomics' attempt to build an atom-bomb powered spaceship. It contains lots of history of the atomic age, shows the engineering mind at its most focused (and most oblivious), and provides an interesting background to current discussions about the space program, environmentalism, and the role of the military in science.
Jan 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
What I found most interesting about this story is the feasibility of it. They could have done it! No other technology produces nearly enough thrust for serious interplanetary or interstellar travel, but never again will we play with nukes with the carelessness of the 50's.
Though a bit dry at times, with not nearly enough pictures, it is a very enjoyable book.
Tim Hayes
Apr 16, 2015 rated it did not like it
While the details of project Orion, such as George Dyson was able to reveal were fascinating to an individual of the right mindset, the book itself was a travesty, lacking a coherent narrative, and far too often getting bogged down in the author reminiscing about only tangentially related experiences.
Dec 26, 2010 rated it did not like it
As I have known before from reading Dyson's book about Nils Barricelli and artificial life, Dyson has no scientific education. Boris Strugatsky, on the other hand, is a trained astronomer. So if you want to learn something about nuclear pulse propulsion, The Land of Crimson Clouds is a better choice.
Jul 02, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, 2009
A good book. Technical, scientific, historical, written much like a report. But informational, makes you wonder if we had these ideas and thoughts and experiments in the 50s and 60s why aren't we on the moon again, why haven't we made it to Mars, and beyond. Why did we just give up.
Delysid Ventspils
Apr 30, 2010 rated it really liked it
The book confirmed my belief that vested interests and lack of vision, combined with the stupidity of the bureaucrats that slowly reemerged from their slimy holes after WW2, will forever hobble the human shambles.
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George Dyson is a scientific historian, the son of Freeman Dyson, brother of Esther Dyson, and the grandson of Sir George Dyson. When he was sixteen he went to live in British Columbia in Canada to pursue his interest in kayaking and escape his father's shadow. While there he lived in a treehouse at a height of 30 metres. He is the author of Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965 and Darwin ...more
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