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Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965 (Penguin Press Science) [Paperback]

George Dyson
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

27 Feb 2003 Penguin Press Science
The race to the moon dominated space flight during the the 1960s yet, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US Government sponsored a project that could possibly have sent 150 people on expeditions to Mars or Saturn. The project was code-named "Orion" and centred upon the effort to develop a fast, manoeuvrable, nuclear-powered space vehicle for long-range voyages in space. The proposed 4000-ton spaceship would be propelled by nuclear bombs but, strictly classified, the project was never given a chance to succeed or fail - due partly to its apparent absurdity - but its mix of sublime physics, madcap engineering, and a cast of Cold War warriors and would-be inter-galactic engineers made the mission a tantalising "what if" story. In this book George Dyson, son of physicist Freeman Dyson, one of the original project team, pieces together the story his father could only tell him in fragments at the time.

Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (27 Feb 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140277323
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140277326
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 636,707 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Project Orion 30 Jun 2003
The life of this US military research program on nuclear propulsion rockets is well documented in this book. The author is the son of the physicist Freeman Dyson, one of the main guys involed in the project. The book has clearly been a labour of love for the author, containing many interviews with his father's former colleagues and carefully referencing many of the their research papers.
My criticism of the book lies with the editing. The structure of the book is not very logical for the reader. As a historical account, it is certainly not chronological. It jumps around, following the topics as brought up by the interviewed scientists. So there's a lot of repitition of the core material and the book could have been shorter. Also, the 'techie' language remains in the book in all its glory. Some of it is eloquent, some quite crude.
But I forgive the book for all this. It's not a text book on the subject, nor yet another diluted popular science book. Instead it's scientists reminiscing about their lost work on an ambitious space exploration project which was terminated before its dreams could be realised.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  28 reviews
76 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars They were planning to tour the Solar System 14 April 2002
By Jeffrey P. Bezos - Published on
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.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To any who have ever wondered "What if". 19 Jun 2002
By Wayne Smith - Published on
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".

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A halted U.S. project to put mankind on other planets 25 May 2002
By Amazon Reader - Published on
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?"
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I was Surprised How Good this Book Was 28 April 2002
By A Customer - Published on
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.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Idea, bad book 1 Jan 2003
By Juan Suros - Published on
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. Compare this to similar NASA Mars mission studies and you will find yourself grinding your teeth.
4) The politics of Orion are simple in outline but complicated in detail. NASA killed this program because it's own NERVA program was in competition with Orion. The book makes this point over 100 pages. If you look into what happened to NERVA you'll start grinding your teeth again.
5) There is a lot of teeth gnashing about atomic scientists feeling guilty about the bombs after they had made them. They acknowledge that Orion was a constructive use of that effort, but in their old age many of the scientists interviewed for this book are a little hypocritical in their disavowals. More grinding.
6) The mention of Tungsten in Chapter "Fallout" is another red herring. It was easy to detect in an unrelated bomb test. Orion designs did not use Tungsten propellent.
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