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Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship Hardcover – April 16, 2002


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Hardcover, April 16, 2002
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1 edition (April 16, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805059857
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805059854
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #455,617 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Like cheap, shiny space suits and bug-eyed rubber monsters, nuclear-powered spaceships today seem like little more than laughably naïve 1950s science fiction tropes. It might have been otherwise--and still could be. George Dyson, son of supergenius physicist Freeman Dyson, wrote Project Orion to share some of his father's amazing research with the world. Much had been kept secret for years, but Dyson's unique insider status permits great depth and breadth on this important tale. Conceived in the wake of Sputnik, Project Orion was a true vision of '50s engineering: a huge 40-person ship powered by hundreds of tiny atomic bombs, capable of much greater lift and efficiency than chemically driven rockets. Struggles between NASA, the military, Congress, and other parties doomed Orion, but Dyson has gathered hundreds of documents and interviewed most of the researchers and engineers who worked together, trying to reach "Saturn by 1970." His knack for storytelling makes the book a quick, delightful read; even the staunchest anti-nuke activist has to admit that lighting a cigarette off a parabolic mirror facing a bomb test is pretty cool. By the end of the 20th century, technology had caught up with the vision of Orion--it's considered one of our best bets for long-distance space transit. Whether or not that could ever happen politically, Project Orion is a compelling exploration of scientific imagination. --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

In the years after WWII and the Russian launch of two sputniks, Americans were searching for any technology that would give them dominance in the space race. In his latest, Dyson (Darwin Among the Machines) charts the history of the failed Project Orion, which called for a massive rocket to be built atop a nuclear-powered piston. The project's physicists and engineers, buoyed by the thrilling idea of traveling through space on "pulse technology," conducted a number of explosive experiments to ascertain the abilities of such a system (which reveals how little was actually known about the bombs being produced by the world's superpowers). Meanwhile, the project, started in 1957, ran headlong into detractors Kennedy and NASA included and eventually was canceled. Much of the technical information in the Orion files remains classified, but Dyson's explanations of the nuclear science behind the system are lucid. A great strength of Dyson's project is the interviews he conducted with surviving Orion team members among them his father, Freeman Dyson affording readers an intimate view of the story's central characters (and its government contractors) who helped shape Orion. At the same time, these compelling interviews drag on; the story's drama is diffused by the musings of its key players, who sometimes crowd out the dynamic background of the Cold War, Wernher Von Braun's chemical rocket program, atmospheric weapons test bans and presidential administrations vested in nuclear capacities only designed for destruction. Illus. and photos.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

There is a lot of technical discussion but little organization.
Brian Considine
How different our space program would have been if exploring the outer planets were easier than visiting the moon!
Robert Carlberg
I would recommend this book to anyone who has looked at the stars and wanted to be there.
Wayne Smith

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

78 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey P. Bezos on April 14, 2002
Format: Hardcover
For those of us who dream of visiting the outer planets, seeing Saturn's rings up close without intermediation of telescopes or charge-coupled devices, well, we pretty much *have* to read "Project Orion." In 1958, some of the world's smartest people, including famous physicist Freeman Dyson (the author's father), expected to visit the outer planets in "Orion," a nuclear-bomb propelled ship big enough and powerful enough to seat its passengers in lazy-boy recliners. They expected to start their grand tour by 1970. This was not pie-in-the-sky optimism; they had strong technical reasons for believing they could do it.
To pull this book together, George Dyson did an astonishing amount of research into this still largely classified project. And, maybe because he's connected to Orion through his father, the author captures the strong emotion of the project and the team. Highly recommended.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Reader on May 24, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Project Orion is a remarkable story of a handful of dedicated scientists who devised a plan to put people on other planets--decades ago. Not science fiction, but science fact: government funds were allocated, concept drawings and bills of materials devised, propulsion tests carried out--all in top secret.
Decades later, the Project is still shrouded in mystery and would have stayed that way if it weren't for the dogged efforts of George Dyson to carefully research the events and piece the story back together; a daunting task, since top secret information is inaccessible and some Project Orion documents may have disappeared forever.
Like Dyson's previous book "Darwin Among the Machines," Orion is provocative on many levels: in additonal to being an important historical testimony, it makes the reader wonder how many significant projects have been shelved and where space exploration would be today if Orion had gone forward. Incredibly, Orion scientists didn't have the luxury of microcomputer technology, yet they dared to dream big and translate those dreams into action.
Read this book and you may find yourself asking, in the words of Wordsworth, "Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?"
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Smith on June 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Imagine a spaceship 135 feet in diameter, and 10 stories tall. Imagine it weighing 4000 tons. Bet that doesn't sound too impressive. If this were a normal chemical rocket, only about 10 tons of this would make it into space. Now just imagine for a moment that there was a way to allow over 3500 tons of this ship to make it to orbit. This is possible, if a ship were to launch nuclear bombs as fuel. This is known as Project Orion.

George Dyson's new book is the source for information on Project Orion. Unless you are willing to undergo extensive primary research, a total of 6000 pages worth, or you have connections among the staff of the former Project Orion staff, then you can't find a better source.

The book starts with the Day Sputnik was launched. This was an inspiration to a great many Americans, not the least of whom was Ted Taylor. From that day onward, Ted became fascinated with finding a way to build a space ship of his own. This path would lead him to probably the most controversial design for a spacecraft ever, and probably one of the greatest "What If" statements of all time, his path led him to Project Orion.

George Dyson does a great job of bringing the key points of the history of Project Orion together in one place. He covers virtually ever aspect, including nearly a dozen different designs for Orion, information on it's design to the best degree publicly available, and interviews with most of the living former Orion staff. He also covers many of the potential problems, including the shock absorbers, fallout, and many more.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has looked at the stars and wanted to be there. It is also great for people who want to study physics, anything nuclear, space travel, or even a bureaucracy. But perhaps most of all, I recommend this book to any who have ever wondered "What if".

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover
George Dyson has turned in a suprisingly literate and interesting history of a forgotten part of space history. Some of the technical issues he describes (opacity, abalation, computational codes) have more than likely never been covered in a mass market text, due to their complexity and security classification. He makes it all readable.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Robert Carlberg on June 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
George's father Freeman was one of the scientists on the Orion project (first publicized in Freeman's 1979 "Disturbing The Universe"), so you know his information is pretty good. The project itself sounds pretty wacky, using atomic bombs dropped out the bottom of a spaceship to propel it, but these were the days right after Sputnik (1957-1959) and the U.S. was desperate to get in the space race any way we could. To everyone's amazement, the assembled team of young, talented Manhattan Project scientists worked out a feasible design, and if it hadn't been for certain political considerations, it might have been built. But the military didn't want their bombs used for space travel, and a Test Ban Treaty was signed, and anyway people got kinda nervous about exploding lots of A-bombs in the atmosphere.
What's interesting about the design is the size of the ship. Whereas conventional chemical rockets require 1000 tons of propellant for every ton of payload, the Orion was just the opposite. The bombs would be very compact, and because the nuclear explosions would ablate (wear away) the pusher plate and the ship had to absorb the impacts within livable limits, the ship had to be huge. A crew of a thousand in a ship the size of an office building was envisioned. How different our space program would have been if exploring the outer planets were easier than visiting the moon!
As with his previous book "Darwin Among The Machines," George Dyson writes fluidly, making highly-technical concepts seem almost within grasp (a trait he inherited). We'll never know, I guess, how close Orion came to being built since most of the work on it is still classified under the Stategic Defense Initiative directed-energy weapons research.
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