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"My Life Was Defined by Space Activity."

The Agony Column for May 24, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

Guest Writer, William H. Mook

The Mars Rover images brought back powerful memories of past space triumphs. Is space travel primarily in our past?

Space travel is typically associated with the future, not the past. For most who give it a thought, it's the object of hope, not nostalgia. It's in the realm of science, not emotions.

But for a growing number of people, space travel does have emotional ties. I must admit that when the Mars rover pictures came back, I was practically in tears. I was glued to the NASA channel for nearly three days. It took me back to the times when I was eight, nine, twelve -- building models of the Mercury, then the Gemini, then the Apollo spaceships. The rover transmissions made me long for those days again, when there was always a new goal in space, and a new plan to reach the goal, and we moved fast to get there.

Apparently, I'm not alone in this. A number of people had an almost electric reaction to the review of 'Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship', by George Dyson. Still, I didn't expect anything like the reaction of William H. Mook, from I found it really striking, and asked permission to publish it. He replied to a post I made in the Usenet Newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written. The only changes made to Mr. Mook's reply were the deletion of some extra spaces, and the insertion of some extra paragraphs. I've also undertaken to illustrate the work in my usual fashion. Seeing those old model kits, as it happens, really got to me.


Rick Kleffel


From: William Mook (

Subject: Re: Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship at The Agony Column

Newsgroups: rec.arts.horror.written, rec.arts.sf.written, rec.arts.books, alt.horror

Date: 2002-05-14 23:01:49 PST

Is this the best way to get the human race into space? Project Orion had a different idea. --Rickk

My life was defined by space activity.

This metal ball terrified nations and armies. --Rickk

I was four years old when Sputnik 1 first orbited the Earth. Throughout my childhood, and early school years space travel imbued everything.

How many lives were changed by books like this? --Rickk

I recall fondly the BIG BOOK OF SPACE my Grandmother gave me one Christmas. In grade school we ducked beneath our seats to protect ourselves from Atom bombs, and later, were called to the gymnasium to see Ranger impact on the moon. What were these rockets at once so terrible yet so wonderful? The horror of the Apollo 1 fire greeted my middle school years. The beauty of Apollo 8 orbiting the moon at Christmas began my high school years.

I collected these magazines, cut out the pictures and hung them on my wall. --Rickk

The following May, the picture of Earth alone and vulnerable in space, emblazoned the new Flag of Earth - on the first Earth day I recall. A new idea was released in the world, about the world and a new political movement started. My grandfather, who ran a small construction firm, noted that that year was the year bomb shelter sales stopped. The picture of Earth in space changed something, we didn't know what. To me it was terribly exciting.

The mind boggles -- I was able to find an image of Mr. Mook's first car -- in the correct color in cyberspace. That seems to be the primary area of exploration for the 21st century. --Rickk

The summer of 1969 was the year I bought a robin's egg blue 1963 Falcon convertible with small block V8 engine for $200. I recall driving top down late that hot summer evening when Neil Armstrong landed on the full moon my car only a few weeks old. I got a copy of the New York Academy's THE FUTURE OF SPACEFLIGHT: The Next 25 Years, 1968 to 1993 from my dad. He knew I was interested in space, and he supported my enthusiasm. I read it avidly.

Werner Von Braun gives JFK a tour of NASA. -- Rickk

Von Braun, Erich, all the great rocket scientist of the day made detailed technical descriptions of what was going to happen in the future of aerospace. So, when I graduated high school, I elected to become an Aerospace Engineer. I recall in my freshman physics class the thrill that went through the assembled classroom as the ancient professor who could remember Lindbergh like it was yesterday, spoke of Newtonian forces and Kelplerian trajectories. "Imagine an object projected from the surface of the Earth at 10.85 km/sec directed at the moon.." Then he turned and was silent for a moment. "That's local travel nowadays!" We all laughed. The future was going to be great.

I built this model and many others like it. --Rickk

The moment I decided to be a rocket man and join the great movement to the stars that permeated my childhood, the moment I realized I could comprehend all the engineering and physics involved, it seemed that the entire world went through a major shift. We weren't going to the stars. We were going to Vietnam instead. War was brought to every living room in living color by satellite. Later even that would change as the military decided to limit access to the front by reporters and censor all reporting from future warzones.

I sat at home eating TV dinners and watching images such as these on the nightly news. --Rickk

I persevered and obtained the training I sought. Apollo was cancelled when I was finished at school. I could build bombs at McDonnell Douglas, I could build air to air missiles at Lockheed. But, nowhere could I build spaceships. I ended up using Navier Stokes equations to predict air pollution transport for the Federal EPA, figuring if the government ever changed its mind about spaceships, I'd be there. Later, I invented a new kind of lab instrument, and started my own company. I'm still a member of AIAA, but I've never built anything more than a model rocket.

How many lives could be changed by books like this? --Rickk

Still, in reading PROJECT ORION, I am filled with remorse about what could have been. Bertram Freeman's plan to visit Mars in October 1960 could have been carried forth. A small fleet of 150 foot diameter, 4,000 ton Orion class spaceships would have changed everything - and been right on time as far as I'm concerned.

That early success could have been followed by building 600 or so Super Orion class spaceships. These 1,200 foot diameter, 4,000,000 ton superships would carry 1,500,000 tons throughout the solar system. Along with this fleet of superships, would also be built thousands of smaller Orion class ships, some of which would be carried aboard the larger ships as ship tenders.

With these ships we could have made industrial use of solar system resources, moved large populations off world, and reduced our impact on Mother Earth, expanding upon the idea released by Apollo pictures.

In an alternate history, we are roving the Solar System in nuclear powered spaceships such as these. -- Rickk

The cost of the Mars trip would have been less than Apollo. The cost of the fleet buildout would have been less than the Vietnam War.

The cost of transport with this fleet would have been only a nickel a pound aboard these ships. That's because the cost of a kiloton of explosive power only costs about 40 cents.

These would have given America's youth, and the youth of the world in 1960s a future worthy of the rhetoric and propaganda of that era. It would have fulfilled every dream inspired by Kennedy's speeches about sailing the vast new ocean of space.

But, the idea was killed, along with the young President, never to be reborn.

"It would have fulfilled every dream inspired by Kennedy's speeches about sailing the vast new ocean of space." -- William Mook