Monday, June 27, 2005

space and such things

I decided that I would allow myself one "pleasure" book (as opposed to "work"), so, in typical Mike DuBose style and fashion, I picked a little ditty by George Dyson called Project Orion, the true story of an early attempt at designing and building an interplanetary rocketship. Yeah, I know, not exactly the standard "summer reading."

As opposed to the chemical rocket-driven 3 man Apollo missions, Orion was supposed to be large. The average size for an Orion ship was in the 2,000 ton range. Yes, that big. It was to hold a number of people, hold them in comfort, and hold enough supplies to last for voyages to Mars and to the moons of Saturn.

What is infinitely weirder about the whole project (at least to our 21st century perspective) is that the ship was to be powered by 200+ nuclear bombs. Yes, not rockets, but a nuclear bomb powered spaceship.

Apparently, the scientists designed (at least theoretically) a shock absorber which would allow them to focus the shock wave of an atomic blast into a very specific trajectory, thus powering the huge Orion ship. There was the little matter of fallout, but the scientists estimated that, compared to the amount of fallout from open air nuclear tests (which were still going on at the time), the fallout concerns would be minimal. As far as the radiation, well, that was underestimated...although plans for the project in its later stages would have the ship flown into space and assembled there, because space is already chock full of radiation, so (the logic goes) what harm could a little more do?

There are at least a few particularly weird things about this project, in my view. First off, most of the scientists still feel the Orion project to be scientifically valid. We could, in other words, probably dust this off and have interplanetary space ships within ten years, if these guys are right. And most of them feel that nuclear bomb power is the only science we currently have that can get us moving on an interplanetary scale.

So, if this is so viable, why did it not work? Why did the US government not go for it? As best as I can figure, it was mostly political. Orion got caught trying to find government funding, and very few people in the government could find an immediate reason to support it over the already NASA-approved Saturn V rockets. Even when many early rocket pioneers came out in favor of Orion as the next logical step for space travel, the government couldn't justify funding a project without immediate objectives, one that would not "pay off" for years.

So, in Orion's struggle to get funding, they tried to justify their program to the Air Force, as a weapons program. This is where the whole Orion thing gets scary. The book lists many possible selling points, and they are all fairly close to "doomsday" devices. As an example, a number of scientists devised a way to explode large amounts of warheads in space and direct, using their shock absorbers and sheilding, the resulting fallout and radiation from the explosions towards a particular global area...thus effectively irradiating entire continents!

Another proposed Air Force use for Orion was as a floating defense platform with the ability to shoot down nuclear missiles. And if this sounds suspiciously like Reagan's SDI, you are right. In fact, large research project elements and documents remain top secret to this day, and the writer speculates that current SDI research can be directly traced back to Orion.

The lesson here is that all plans for space exploration have a fairly nefarious military dimension to them. When Reagan claimed in the 80s that his SDI had no possible negative uses and was defensive only, he was either lying out his gourd or extremely naive...because even the simple act of shooting down missles meant that those missiles could most likely be expoded not too long after takeoff, thus irradiating the area where they were launched...thus serving as a nuclear strike from afar as well as an anti-missile shield.

Unfortunately, any plans for Star Trek-esque space programs could only ever come to be after military uses, because defense is where the funding is...which is a shame, because I could really get in to the whole one piece elasticised jumpsuit uniform that the space exploration thing would inevitably entail.


Norden said...

Star Trek was most realistic when it presented military space operations.

themikedubose said...

On this topic...

Did you ever wonder why Star Trek (and for that matter, 99% of sci fi stories I've seen) portray military operations as entirely naval? It's almost always about big ship battles. To my mind, sci fi war has never really taken on an air force tinge...y'know, dogfights and straight bombing runs.

Notable exceptions:

1) The new Star Wars video games, where you can become a rebel or imperial soldier...pure Army.

2) One episode of Deep Space Nine, "The Seige of BR-___" (can't remember the name)...again, army

3) the film version of Starship Troopers...Marines if I've ever seen them.

Then again, these are only the ones I am currently able to recall.

Norden said...

If you browse my blog you will see I favor a Naval appoach to space. On the other hand the book, Starship Troopers, presented space marines worth deploying.

Each was able to reenter alone in their suit and deploy nukes etc. to take on, alone, forces more powerful than an Earth battleship.