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

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9780140277326: Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965 (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.

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Review:

Like cheap, shiny space suits and bug-eyed rubber monsters, nuclear-powered spaceships today seem like little more than laughably naïve 1950s science fiction tropes. It might have been otherwise--and still could be. George Dyson, son of supergenius physicist Freeman Dyson, wrote Project Orion to share some of his father's amazing research with the world. Much had been kept secret for years, but Dyson's unique insider status permits great depth and breadth on this important tale. Conceived in the wake of Sputnik, Project Orion was a true vision of '50s engineering: a huge 40-person ship powered by hundreds of tiny atomic bombs, capable of much greater lift and efficiency than chemically driven rockets. Struggles between NASA, the military, Congress, and other parties doomed Orion, but Dyson has gathered hundreds of documents and interviewed most of the researchers and engineers who worked together, trying to reach "Saturn by 1970." His knack for storytelling makes the book a quick, delightful read; even the staunchest anti-nuke activist has to admit that lighting a cigarette off a parabolic mirror facing a bomb test is pretty cool. By the end of the 20th century, technology had caught up with the vision of Orion--it's considered one of our best bets for long-distance space transit. Whether or not that could ever happen politically, Project Orion is a compelling exploration of scientific imagination. --Rob Lightner

About the Author:

George Dyson, the son of distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson, grew up immersed in the world of groundbreaking science. His previous books include the acclaimed Darwin Among the Machines. He and his father are also the subjects of Kenneth Brower's classic profile The Starship and the Canoe. Dyson lives in Washington State.

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