Pigs in Space and Other Bizarre Experiments

Weird tales from the annals of science.

(Matt Hale)

project-orion-artist

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(Matt Hale)
[In the late 1950s,] General Atomic submitted a proposal to the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), seeking funding for an atomic bomb spaceship. On 30 June 1958, ARPA awarded General Atomic a million-dollar contract for a 'feasibility study of a nuclear bomb propelled space vehicle.'

Project Orion [artist's concept, above] engineers thought big from the very beginning. Bigger was better, because it was easier for a gigantic ship to withstand the pounding of the atomic bombs. So their initial estimate was to build a 4,000-ton, 20-storey-high ship—about as big as a nuclear submarine. A 1,000-ton circular disc, the 'pusher-plate,' would absorb the energy of the explosions while protecting the occupants of the ship through a shock-absorbing mechanism. They calculated it would require 100 atomic bombs, detonated approximately one half-second apart, to lift this behemoth into orbit.

The moon would merely be the first stop on a ground tour of the solar system. The intrepid adventurers envisioned cruising over to Venus. With an atomic-powered spaceship the journey would only take a month. Then they would head over to Mars before blasting their way to Saturn and finally returning home. 'Saturn by 1970' became the rallying cry of the project.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Orion spaceship was that the engineers believed it could be built with technology that already existed in 1958. They knew how to build bombs, and they knew how to build giant structures such as aircraft carriers. Orion simply married the two forms of know-how.

Ultimately it was politics, not technical difficulties, that doomed Orion. The U.S. government formed NASA in 1958, with the expectation that it would assume control of all non-military space projects. However, NASA didn't want to be involved with Orion in any way. The idea of their astronauts sitting on top of a payload of nuclear weapons didn't appeal to the agency.

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