Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship

George Dyson

Henry Holt

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-8050-5985-7

347 Pages; $26.00

Date Reviewed: 04-17-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel



Non-Fiction, Science Fiction

04-15-02, 04-18-02, 04-29-02

The hubris of the scientist is a common and often enjoyable theme of much science fiction. Of course, Frankenstein and his many literary descendants were modeled after real scientists. 'Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship' offers a glimpse at a scientific Camelot established on California's coast in 1957. In the aftermath of Hirsoshima, in the early stages of the Arms Race and the Cold War, guilt-stricken scientists and unrepentant weaponeers were brought together to realize the astonishing vision of Ted Taylor and others who thought that the destructive capacity of early atomic weapons could be forcibly turned into the power source for a huge spaceship to explore the solar system. Using recently declassified papers, George Dyson, the son of famed physicist Freeman Dyson (one of the prime movers of Orion and the Los Alamos project) has also conducted interviews with the surviving participants to paint a picture that seems straight out of a 1960's sci-fi movie, or a current work of alternate history. 'Project Orion' brings back the birth of the Atomic 60's in colors as bright as the blinding flash of an above-ground bomb test.

After a nearly perfect Preface, in which we meet five-year old George and his father as they buy a 1957 Chevy Bel Air, the book takes a while to get going as the writer sets the scene. But once Dyson starts introducing General Atomic in La Jolla, California and the personalities who were brought together there to do something incredible, the reader is given something to latch on to. From Stanislaw Ulam, who originated the idea, to Frederic De Hoffman, who created the company, to Ted Taylor, who headed the project, the reader is given a guided to tour of high-end, government funded, free-form nuclear research at a time when 10 million dollars bought seven years and hundreds of acres of prime seaside real estate in San Diego county.

The basic idea sounds almost insane today -- unless you know the physics. The idea was to detone hundreds, thousands of small atomic bombs behind a huge spacecraft protected and propelled by the metal plate. Fortunately, Dyson knows the physics and manages to explain it without drowning this average reader, or losing interest. We are, after all, talking about sending a spaceship up that was 135 feet in diameter and 430 feet high, manned by a crew of up to 40 people. They had plans to get to Saturn by 1970. And they could back up those plans with carefully calculated physics.

Alas, what they could not calculate was as considerable as what they could calculate. The problems weren't simply with fallout, but with politics, something far more intractable and less amenable to a solution. The pros -- the easy and inexpensive exploration of space with technology current 40 years ago. The cons -- bombs kill people, fallout kills people and people don't take kindly to being killed. Dyson seems genuinely conflicted about the merits of the project, and the reader will probably feel the same way. It's a complex problem, an elegant solution, and desirable outcome. Dyson does occasionally seem to get a bit tripped up by the continuing classified state of documents that relate to the project, however. Much of the research is still very germane, especially today when our country is contemplating a so-called "Star Wars" "missile defense". Ironically, back then the defense potential of this project helped shut it down. Everyone was horrified by the vision of huge nuclear satellites bristling with weapons.

But 'Project Orion' isn't just about the Project itself. It's also about the people, and that, to this reader was equally fascinating. No reader will forget Ted Taylor "Adding to his already considerable reputation by holding up a small parabolic mirror and lighting a cigarette with an atomic bomb. The fireball was twelve miles away." What comes across is the in spite of the destruction wrought by bombs, their fascination was equally great. And many of these scientists were all once boys who liked to blow stuff up. Now they had figured out how to do so and have good come of the deed. DeHoffman's creation of a scientific California Camelot is fascinating, and shows some business insights that were recently rediscovered in Silicon Valley. The 'open system' mixture of theoretical workers and engineering workers freely exchanging ideas and helping one will sound awfully familiar to anyone who worked in the "high tech" industry in the past few years. It wasn't invented in San Jose.

As a reader, I was hoping for a bit more of Dyson's family life, of the five-year old son's vision of his father, the bomb maker. But Dyson sticks to the wider vision of the project and all its implications, how a huge and potentially powerful idea disappeared from the map without making more than a whiff of impact on the history of those who lived through it. For those unfamiliar with the idea 'Project Orion' is one hundred percent mind boggling. It offers up an untarnished vision of optimistic scientists given free reign in an ideal atmosphere, and a fearsome alternate history that never came to fruition. The idea is still viable. It can still save us -- or curse us.