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Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship 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: 9.2 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #711,787 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews 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

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I give this book my highest recommendation.
George Dyson does a great job of bringing the key points of the history of Project Orion together in one place.
Wayne Smith
Dyson's breezy writing style makes this book accessible to both history buffs and casual readers as well.
Wayne Klein

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

76 of 80 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 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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18 of 18 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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10 of 10 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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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Juan Suros on December 31, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The idea of Project Orion will appeal to everyone. It is one of those great ideas that open new chapters in human achievement. There are serious risks involved with the technology that would have to be managed carefully if it is ever revisited, but it could be done.
With a year's warning, we could deflect the sort of asteroid/comet that ended the dinosaurs. We could build a city on the Moon or survey Mars. We could send manned expeditions around the solar system 10 years after we decide to do it, starting any time.
The idea Project Orion studied back in the 50's is wonderful. This book is not. You can get all of the story contained in this book by reading the first 9 chapters and studying all the illustrations carefully. All of the project's technical details of interest are classified and not included. The book suffers from a lack of any sort of useful timeline as to the events of Project Orion. The reader is left to piece together the story from a sprinkling of semi-random vignettes and personal reminiscences.
Most of this book is filler, with the details left to the reader's own mind to fill in. And yet, the idea is so Grand that I found myself staring off into space every so often as I ground my way through the turgid prose and confusing organization, imagining where we might be now if hopes had been realized 40 years ago.
Here are some tips that will help the reader get the most out of this book:
1) Ignore all mentions of Tungsten propellant that are sprinkled confusingly here and there. They belong to suboptimised designs, though this fact is hidden toward the back of the book.
2) Skim the personnel intros. They don't pay off.
3) Study the table toward the end of Chapter 6 for the best understanding of what Orion can do.
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