Coca-Cola and Nuclear Bombs

After the smashing success of my last post on the government shutdown, I’m steering back away from the political and returning to talking about writing, anticipating an accompanying and deeply depressing drop in web traffic as a result.

Still, I’ve learned something exciting and really want to shout about it, so here goes. As my first two novels cool their heels in editor limbo, I’m in the active phase of research and outlining of my third book. Research can be tedious and time-consuming, but sometimes your efforts are rewarded with amazing little gems of knowledge. So let me tell you, in my own words, about Project Orion:

For anyone who doesn’t know, Project Orion was a serious attempt to build the first interplanetary, even interstellar spaceship. As best as I can determine, the core concept was first suggested as early as 1946. It used a completely new and untested method of creating thrust called Nuclear Pulse Propulsion. Sounds a little dry, right? Well, let me flesh this out for you.

Basically, what we’re talking about here is a Giant pogo-stick powered by a chain-fed, nuclear bomb-shooting machine gun. The idea is you detonate a series of nukes in rapid succession directly behind the ship, which is protected by a giant ablative metal plate that both blocks much of the radiation and thermal energy from damaging the ship and its nuggaty human passengers, and acts as a pusher plate to transfer the energy of the exploding bombs into forward momentum. This plate is fixed to the ship by a ring of two-stage shock absorbers, working exactly like the shocks on your car to transfer the force more smoothly, again mainly for the benefit of the meatbags strapped to their chairs inside.

Legend has it that the whole concept for Orion came about after Wernher Von Braun, the imminent German rocket scientist we sort of confiscated from the Nazis, and Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, hooked up at a rave and dropped acid, then woke up in the desert outside Vegas three days later surrounded by plans frantically scribbled into bar napkins. The historical accuracy of this legend is dubious at best, but that’s how I chose to believe it happened.

The truly ridiculous thing about this is that not only did the physics work out, but several different projects run by the Air Force, NASA, and even the British all went well past engineering feasibility studies. So serious were we about building one of these things that not only had scientists designed a shaped-charge nuclear bomb using a uranium containment chamber to maximize the propulsion efficiency of each explosion (because a normal nuke isn’t scary or powerful enough) but they actually brought engineers from Coca-Cola into the program as consultants to basically up-size a soda-can vending machine to shit these things out the back of the ship once a second. How badly do you want to be in on that conversation?

Coke Engineer (being held in a basement in Area 51): “So, you want us to build a vending machine that can throw out several thousand, 300lb, 6 inch diameter ‘Soda cans’ once a second?”
Air Force General: “Yes, my airmen are very thirsty.”
CE: “You’re building a nuclear bomb machine gun, aren’t you?”
AFG: “No!”
AFG: “…yes.”

Several designs were considered, everything from a small prototype massing a few hundred tons, all the way up to an eight million, yes MILLION ton behemoth that could hypothetically act as a habitat for a manned mission all the way to the nearest star. Which you would reach surprisingly fast, because the upper speed limit for one of these babies is around 0.05c, or 5% the speed of light, and that’s if you want to slow back down again when you reach your target. An unmanned probe could cook twice as fast. Nor was all of this mere conjecture. A proof-of-concept vehicle using conventional explosives actually flew. Here’s the footage, from 1958!

And it wasn’t just kooks who got wrapped up in this idea. The famous physicist Freeman Dyson was heavily involved in planning it all out, in fact here’s his son George giving a TED talk back in 2002 on the subject. Carl Sagan had said at one point that an Orion drive probe or starship would be a very handy way to get rid of our nuclear weapons stockpiles, a sentiment I tend to agree with.

So what happened to Project Orion? Well, like all great ideas involving nuclear weapons, there was some resistance. At first, NASA wanted nothing to do with the project, so the USAF took charge of it and, naturally, classified everything so the public never knew we had designed this amazing thing. Funding was also an issue, because the design had to compete with traditional chemical rockets just as both were literally getting off the ground in a serious way. There was also some hippie shit about radioactive fallout and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. But the fact remains that Orion is the only design we have today capable of attaining such high velocities that will not only work, but will work with readily available technologies, indeed technologies that have been available for more than forty years already.

There’s a way, all that’s needed is a will. Now what might give us the will, I wonder… [returns to his new novel outline]

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