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The Original NASA Project Orion Space Program, or Using Nuclear Weapons as Propulsion

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

The upper interior of the rocket.

The upper interior of the rocket.

The rocket in outer space.

The rocket in outer space.

The Rocket That Never Was

In the 1960’s the culmination of NASA’s space program that started with Freedom 7 and continued on through the Mercury and Gemini programs was the Apollo moon missions. Many will tell you it was NASA's greatest contribution to the world. Yet before Apollo was even on the drawing board, Project Orion was created as a potential alternative to the moon rocket. An 8 million pound spaceship, it was to be powered by nuclear bombs and get us to Saturn and hopefully beyond in a cost effective, time-saving, safe manner (52). So why did this never become a reality?

The Team Is Assembled

Project Orion was the brainchild of Stanislaw Ulam, a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project (which resulted in the atom bomb). He also helped create the hydrogen bomb a few years later. In 1947, he presented Project Orion to the U.S. government as an option for space exploration. Keep in mind that this was before NASA, which was born in 1958 in the wake of Sputnik. Until that probe launched, no one was interested. Once that satellite lifted off in 1957, Orion was given a green-light.

50 people were assigned to develop the rocket with a budget of $2 million dollars, which is about $20 million dollars today. The project, contracted to General Atomic in La Jolla, California, was headed by Theodore Taylor. One of the first people to sign up was Freeman Dyson, the man behind the “Dyson Sphere” concept (52).

The Specifications of the Rocket

When completed, the rocket was to be 20 stories tall and capable of sustaining a 50-150 person crew. This would have been headed by Air Force rocket experts and would also have carried civilian scientists. The rocket acted like a big “one-cylinder engine” but instead of gasoline being the fuel for the pistons, it was nuclear bombs. Detonations would have occurred at half-second intervals during the ascent into space. It would take about 200 explosions (100,000 tons of TNT) to get to 125,000 feet, which would take about 100 seconds. Once this height was achieved, each extra explosion would increase the velocity by an additional 20 mph. After 600 explosions had occurred (300 seconds or 5 minutes later), the rocket would be in a 300 mile-high Earth orbit. To help cushion the rocket from the nuclear devices, a 1,000 ton push plate was designed that could handle both the force of the explosions as well as the short but extreme increase in temperature (up to 120,000 F for a few milliseconds) (52).


For 7 years the team worked on the rocket design but in 1964 the project was cancelled. Because of the high level of secrecy that surrounded the program, it never gained public support like Apollo did and so once given the ax it did not garner any negative response from the public. Once cancelled, the team did try to sell the idea to the Air Force, saying it could become the prototype of a fleet of ships to help protect us from the USSR, but they were not interested. The scientists also tried to modify the rocket so it could ride atop a Saturn V, but NASA was already deeply invested in its program and was not about to change gears for something unproven. It simply became a case of no one wanting Orion once all the spotlights were on Apollo. The biggest flaw in the project however was the reliance on nuclear devices. Not only was the radiation fallout from it deemed unacceptable but several treaties banning nuclear devices in space had been passed, forever grounding all hopes of this rocket ever launching. It will remain as the great what-if of the 1960's space program (53).

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Works Cited

Dyson, George. “The Grandest Rocket Ever.” Discover Feb. 2005: 52-3. Print.

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© 2013 Leonard Kelley

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