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Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship Hardcover – April 16, 2002
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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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The book is written in a very entertaining way without skimping on details, from the conceptual stage to the final blueprints all is covered. George Dyson isn't afraid to go into the details and he does so with clarity, putting him firmly in the camp of great scientific historians like Richard Rhodes.
If you are interested in space exploration and/or nuclear energy than this book is simply a must have, it is also a great testament to the times when scientist and engineers where allowed to think free and big, back when big engineering was the name of the game and the stars seemed to be within our grasp. Today we might look back at it and think it was madness, but a time will come again when grand ideas like this can be developed.
This book does not limit itself strictly to the technical aspects of the project. It also gives biographical accounts of many of the engineers and physicists involved in it, allowing the reader to understand them as people rather than names on a page, and there is a detailed overview of the political environment in which Orion was born, struggled for survival, and ultimately died an obscure death. All of the text is well written and interesting. For anybody who wants to know about one of the most ambitious projects of the Cold War, or who has a passionate interest in the history of space exploration, this book is absolutely essential reading.
Dyson excuses the lack of technical data by noting that much Orion information is still secret (like how to make a nuclear bomb with a golf ball-sized chunk of plutonium), but the deficit still cries out. There's just enough technical material to make you wish for more. Virtually all the graphics seem to be multi-generational copies of just a few original project drawings. There were no significant original graphics.
The character sketches and descriptions of fighting for funds are well done and tell us a lot about how government really works (slowly, wastefully, and on an old-boy network), but "The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship" is not an accurate title for this book.
I sold the book immediately on finishing it.
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