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Project Orion

Back in 2004 I was in the third year of my physics and astronomy degree program. For my research project (equivalent of a Bachelor's thesis) I selected a course called "Science Fiction and Interstellar Spaceflight". The idea was fairly liberal and not really about either science fiction or interstellar travel, especially. Rather it was to do some simple examination of spacecraft ideas that could break the tyranny of the Rocket Equation that makes space travel so darn inconvenient and expensive.

I chose to investigate the Orion project. This has nothing to do with the modern spacecraft of the same name, oh my no. This was a design study from the 1950s about propelling a gigantic, multi-thousand tonne spaceship using nuclear bombs. The idea varied somewhat, but the principle idea was to have a super-heavy lift vehicle. We're talking thousands of tonnes to low earth orbit and hundreds of tonnes to Mars return. With larger vehicles, Jupiter and Saturn would be within reach with contemporary technology, and generational ships to the stars would be on the horizon.

Or so the thinking went. In a nutshell, I am extremely skeptical that this is really as valid as adherents claim, but it's nevertheless an absolutely fascinating what-if scenario. You can find my own writings on the subject linked within the following pages. For a really thorough examination that doesn't skimp on the technical details, see the Atomic Rockets web page. Workable or no, the concept is gloriously, wonderfully, batshit insane. I love it.

My undergraduate project didn't have any advanced physics in it. In fact it wasn't much more than high school physics with some (very) simple code*, backed by reading George Dyson's book and a few academic papers. Nevertheless, I've ended up reading considerable material on the subject, though sadly I've long since lost my original project write-up. Anyone interested in stuff like this, needless to say, should check out the Atomic Rockets website more generally – it's the go-to place for realistic spacecraft designs that never flew.

* I have a sneaking suspicion it may have even been in BASIC.

A Re-Imagining : The original version, which grew out of my undergraduate project. This shows using stills and animation the launch of a ~4,000 tonne Orion variant from a remote location, presumably Jackass Flats as per the original suggestion. 

Deep Space Force : The tale grew in the telling, and one of the last-ditch attempts to keep the original project afloat was reportedly a battleship variant. Here I imagined what might have happened if both the US and the Soviets had successfully pursued the Orion drives into the mid-21st century. A sadly unfinished project, simply too ambitious for the computing power available to home PCs of the day.

2001's Original Discovery : Concept art for the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey shows a quite different craft from the Discovery everyone is now familiar with. It would have been an ugly, industrial thing propelled by... you've guessed it, nuclear bombs. This series of stills and an animation shows my attempt to sensitively re-interpret this, giving it at least a bit more grace than the original monstrosity while trying to keep in the style of the original movie.