“The idea isn't crazy, except the idea we might do it might be crazy” - Arthur C. Clarke
“Saturn by 1970 is the slogan we went by” - Freeman Dyson, Theoretical Physicist
“Whoever controls Orion controls the world” - U.S. Air Force General Thomas Powers
Produced for Britain 's BBC Four station, To Mars by A-Bomb is a funny, surreal account of a little-known project developed by the U.S. Army that sought to get an edge in space exploration over the Russians after the launch of Sputnik in 1957.
While Robert Oppenheimer tied the development of the atomic bomb to a fearsome biblical power of death and destruction now held by mankind, another scientist, Stanislav Ulam , developed his own pro-active theory that atomic technology could be used to propel man into space. When sputnik upset the Cold War order, the Eisenhower administration greenlit Project Orion, which initially sought to design an atomic propellant system that could (and hopefully would) be used to send 50 astronauts to Mars, and perhaps explore farther planets in the solar system.
The ship, which ultimately resembled a fat, stubby bullet, would be propelled by a series of timed nuclear bombs the ship would fart from its posterior. Pilots would be able to select the potency of each bomb from a massive arsenal of variable bombs, and as explosive charge was shat through the ship's pie-hole, the explosion would nudge it further into the atmosphere, or in turn, decelerate the ship as it began its ascension and landing onto Mars.
To protect the ship's base, scientists had designed a pressure plate that would absorb each explosion's more damaging effects – shrapnel and such – without radically robbing the charge of its propellant oomph. The filmmakers included extracts of surviving test footage that incredibly shows the damned stubby spaceship actually moving towards the upper atmosphere – a procedure that even the late Arthur C. Clarke, also interviewed for the doc, admits may be a workable alternative to sending big payloads into space when liquid fuel lacked the, uh, oomph.
(Clarke also offers a short anecdote on Stanley Kurbick's decision to not employ atomic bombs as part of his and Clarke's futuristic vision due to the potential of validating a nuclear arms race.)
Project Orion, as it was called, remained top secret for decades, and it wasn't until George Dyson began a 3-year research trek across the U.S. for a book – “Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship” - that details finally made their way into the public forums.
His research included interviews with the highly optimistic Theodore B. Taylor (one of several surviving team members interviewed by the filmmakers), with father Freeman Dyson, a highly respected theoretical physicist, involved in the research. The elder Dyson, a sprightly, witty man with a sometimes self-effacing smile explains how he came to be involved in the project, its effects on his family and colleagues, and the loony plan that would've assembled a crew of test pilots and scientists, with the eggheads allowed to bring family members to Mars.
Sounding like a plan from a George Pal Noah's Ark space epic, the ship for Project Orion was designed by the U.S. Military, and unsurprisingly resembles a vertical submarine, with a rack of selectable bombs using a discharge system patterned after the assembly system designed by Coca-Cola.
Just as shocking are details of various allowable deaths from the ship's launch, as calculated by the Rand Corporation. Physicist Jeremy Bernstein provides an extremely sobering, wry and often absurd tally of various Rand theories, and his own reflections on this fantastical project.
The filmmakers include various test clips, interviews, newsreel footage and de-classified drawings of the ship design, whereas George Dyson, along with former project members, explain how certain aspects will remain classified forever because Orion was design to use plutonium and “relatively cheap high explosives” that would be very attractive to present-day terrorists.
So while technical details remained locked up and cannot be discussed by any of the project eggheads, the most fantastical details – particularly the George Palian designs and broad mission – are the most compelling, funny, and frightening.
Dyson remained sober throughout the project and felt it was a fanciful dream that maybe might work if every major hurdle was overcome, but ultimately his decision to support with the program rested on the severe nuclear fallout from what were very dirty nuclear bombs. The Army, in turn, tried to keep the project afloat when liquid fuel propellant became the choice for the newly created NASA, which publicly tendered components of their ships to corporations.
The military was determined to keep the project going in a new direction, so the Air Force redesigned the ship as an orbiting military ‘doomsday' or ‘death star' craft carrying a diverse atomic payload primarily aimed at the Soviet Union – looking a lot like the military ship Ripley rides back to planet LV-426 in Aliens (1986). When a mock-up of the revised project was shown to President Kennedy, he was not amused and favoured killing Orion outright, sensing a nuclear space war was the last thing the world needed after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Project Orion was ultimately folded, and while individual components are allegedly still active, the idea of sending eggheads in such a huge and dangerous ship was sealed shut, although the propellant system may well be one method by which an asteroid headed for Earth could be diverted if speed and mass were needed assets.
Although this doc is unavailable on DVD, fans of space lore and tech should track down this gem, as it chronicles perhaps the most insane effort to send men and women to the angry red planet by a huge chubby spaceship that farted atomic bombs.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan