As the book title Too Dumb to Meter: Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends, and Duds on the U.S. Road to Atomic Energy implies, nuclear power has traveled a rough road. In this POWER exclusive, we present the eighth, ninth, and 10th chapters, “Flightless Birds and Flying Elephants,” “The Devil Flies Nukes,” and “Flatulence in Space,” the concluding chapters of the “Up in the Air: Flights of Radioactive Fancy” section.
8. Flightless Birds and Flying Elephants
While Sputnik didn’t surprise the intelligence agencies in the Eisenhower White House, the public viewed the Russian success as a major American technological defeat. Atomic enthusiasts saw an opening presented by the creation of the new, high-visibility space agency. The Rover program had been sitting on the Air Force–AEC back burner for two years. Under the direction of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation’s chief weapons development center, Rover program scientists and engineers had been working on early research and development of a nuclear rocket engine. Their goal was to develop an engine that would produce temperatures in excess of 2,200 K.
Eisenhower’s presidential executive order creating NASA also transferred all of the Air Force’s interests in the space rocket program, along with some $58 million in funds, to the new civilian space agency. The order specified that the transfer included “projects of the Advanced Research Projects Agency and of the Department of the Air Force which relate to space activities (including lunar probes, scientific satellites, and superthrust boosters).” This was the basis of what became, under NASA, the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program.
The AEC and NASA turned to Project Rover for a space propulsion program they hoped would mimic the Navy–AEC collaboration on the successful nuclear submarine. The Air Force and the AEC had already used the Rickover model for its ill-fated atomic-powered bomber project, which was about to die soon after the rocket program was to begin. After conceptual and engineering designs were completed, Rover/NERVA came to life at Jackass Flats in 1959. At that point the A-plane was clinging to bureaucratic life by its political fingernails, and the grip would soon slip; in eighteen months the new president would both cancel the bomber and announce a national goal of putting a man on the moon by 1970.
The Rover program ultimately fared no better than the A-plane, and its history eerily mirrored the terrestrial project. Project Rover aimed to use the power of the atom to put men into space. Its key was an engine humorously named Kiwi, for the flightless, nocturnal bird of New Zealand. The nuclear kiwi, indeed, was not designed for flight and never got off the ground. After fifteen years of effort and an expenditure of $1.5 billion dollars, Washington pulled the plug on the atomic-powered rocket. International arms control politics and NASA’s success with chemical propulsion doomed the atomic venture.
The program combined the AEC’s reactor research and development with NASA’s practical engineering experience in space flight, and aimed to produce a vehicle that could move humans from a terrestrial launch to the moon. The AEC focused on the rocket engine. The job of putting the nuclear engine into an actual missile that could fly landed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in a project known as Reactor in Flight Test (RIFT). The idea was to mate a manned space probe powered by the atomic engine to a chemically-fueled Saturn V rocket. The Saturn would lift the nuclear-powered vehicle into orbit, avoiding launch pad radiation, a clear problem for nuclear-powered rockets. From there, the atomic rocket would push the manned space capsule to Mars. The 1961 plan called for a March 1981 launch and an August 1982 Mars touchdown.
At the time, Marshall officials told Congress, “Possible applications of a nuclear Saturn would include carrying large payloads into Earth orbit, to the moon, or beyond. With chemical rockets, only about 5 percent of the total weight is payload. With a nuclear system, 16 percent can be payload.”
In the charming 1956 book The Exploration of Mars, authored with noted German expat rocket science and science writer Willy Ley, von Braun said, “It is entirely possible…that within a decade or so successful tests with some sort of nuclear rocket propulsion system might be accomplished.” The rocket scientist added, “But the chances are that nuclear rocket propulsion systems will find their first application not in ground launched rockets but in deep-space rocket ships.”
The formal alliance between the Atomic Energy Commission and NASA began in 1960. In 1961 the AEC created the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office, headed by a bright, personable thirty-seven-year-old NASA physicist, Harold B. Finger. Finger started working for NACA in 1944 at the Lewis laboratory in Cleveland. After training in nuclear engineering, he moved to Washington in 1958 to oversee NASA’s interests in nuclear engines. Finger became the first, and only, head of the joint AEC–NASA space propulsion office.
The Kiwi predated the marriage of NASA and the AEC, with the first flights at Jackass Flats taking place in July 1959. The primitive machine, firing a superheated, super-radioactive exhaust stream out of its rear end, was an ungainly conglomeration of tubes, pipes, flaps, and bits of metal, standing on the end of spidery scaffolding.
The obstacles that these and all nuclear rockets had to overcome involved the impact of the forces of atomic energy on the materials used to house those primal powers. Heat was required, but also an enemy. To provide enough hot gases to power a rocket, the nuclear reaction had to be close to the melting point of the fuel and the metals and materials containing them. Vibration was another problem. The enormous power of splitting atoms and turning the energy into propulsion produced prodigious shakes, rattles, and rolls. Those seeking to use those forces had to work hard to keep their machines from flying apart at the seams.
The Kiwi engines featured graphite as the main structural material, as well as an important element in sustaining the nuclear reaction. Graphite is a pure carbon solid, one of two “allotropes,” or crystal forms, of the element. Graphite has long been used in nuclear projects for a couple of important reasons. First, it is a neutron “moderator,” which means it can slow down neutrons as they fly out of a split atom of uranium, making it more likely that the neutron will slam into another uranium atom, producing more neutrons. This increases the chain reaction, requiring less uranium to sustain the fission of the uranium. Graphite is also very strong at high temperatures and actually gets stronger as temperatures increase.
But there are downsides to graphite. First, when it comes into contact with hot hydrogen gas—which was the coolant and propellant in the nuclear rockets—graphite erodes quickly. The other problem is that it can catch on fire, although not easily. As many have observed, graphite is simply a very high grade of coal, a step above anthracite, or hard coal. The British discovered the problems of graphite fires the hard way, at their Windscale plutonium production pile on October 10, 1957. The graphite-moderated reactor inexplicably caught fire. By the time firefighters and nuclear engineers got the blaze under control, the severely damaged plant had produced two large releases of radioactivity into the British countryside.
Engineers and scientists are wont to put the best face on their experiments. One of the truisms of the scientific endeavor is that even failures teach valuable lessons. That was true for the nation’s atomic energy research, including the Kiwi tests. The first Kiwi test, Kiwi-A, used plates of highly-enriched uranium dioxide as fuel. The reactor reached a temperature of about 2,700 K at a thermal power level of 70 MW. The scientists defined it as a success, for having “demonstrated the principle of nuclear rockets.” Unfortunately, noted a postmortem, “Vibrations during operations produced significant structural damage in the reactor core.”
[Kiwi-A2] followed in a matter of hours, using a different design for the fuel elements. Unlike the uncoated plates that contained the fuel in the first test, the second reactor had UO2 cylinders encased in graphite, held in channels coated with niobium carbide, a high-temperature ceramic. The machine ran for six minutes, reaching on output of 85 MW thermal (MWt). An engineering assessment commented drily that “some structural damage occurred in the improved design during its six-minute test.” The next Kiwi test came in October 1959, with the Kiwi-A3 reactor, again using a slightly different fuel array. The conclusion: “Some core damage occurred during the five-minute test…which reached power levels of 100 MWt, with some fuel elements showing blistering and corrosion. Generally this reactor test was considered successful.” Note the use of the passive voice. Who considered it successful? The engineers, no doubt, but it looks a lot like a Pyrrhic victory.
The AEC’s Raemer Schreiber, who oversaw Jackass Flats projects for Los Alamos, told a Time magazine reporter about the first Kiwi test, “The engine worked perfectly.” Time was among the great majority of U.S. publications at the time who acted as tame scribes for the atomic-industrial complex. In the 1959 report on the Kiwi-A tests, Time gushed that “Kiwi strutted its stuff.” Maybe it could strut, but it certainly couldn’t fly.
The list of Kiwi “successes” is astonishing. Kiwi-B1A’s test came in December 1961, with the aim of reaching 1,100 MWt. At 300 MWt, thirty seconds in, the engineers cancelled the test “due to a fire caused by a hydrogen leak in the reactor exhaust nozzle.” In September 1962, the engineers reran the December 1961 test, with the Kiwi-B1B machine. The run “was terminated within a few second when several fuel elements were ejected from the reactor exhaust nozzle.” In short, the reactor blew its guts out through its atomic anus. Of these early Kiwi tests, AEC–NASA nuclear rocket czar, Harry Finger, commented off-handedly nearly forty years later, “Problems showed up.”
In a 2000 retrospective at the American Nuclear Society international meeting, Finger focused on the experience with the Kiwi-B4A test in November 1962. Again, the machine was configured with new fuel elements in a new geometry. As with all prior tests, the Jackass Flats rocket crew had hopes the test would provide the basis for a later engine that could fly. “However,” Finger said, “the high expectations for that November 30, 1962 test were quickly turned off when the test started and flashes of light in the nozzle exhaust indicated core damage as the power increased over 250 MW.”
The timing of the failed Kiwi-B4A test could not have been worse. The bomb site boffins probably thought they had been smart in scheduling a reactor burn the week before President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and a coterie of followers showed up at the test site. The DC contingent appearing at the Jackass Flats show on December 8 included: AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg, White House science advisor Jerome Weisner, NASA chief Robert Seamans, White House national security advisor George McBundy, Lawrence Livermore National Lab veteran Harold Brown, Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger, and a host of lesser lights. The Washington entourage had earlier spent a day at Los Alamos, getting briefed on the broad range of the lab’s programs.
While the dignitaries were getting the typical snow job at the Test Site, said Finger, the failed Kiwi-B4A reactor had been moved to the maintenance and disassembly building, known to the acronym-addicted rocket crew as the “MAD building.” But the technicians hadn’t disassembled the engine “so we did not yet know what problem had actually occurred.” Finger had told the distinguished Washington guests that something untoward had taken place at the engine stand but didn’t know the extent of the problems. “On disassembly,” Finger said, “it was found that almost all of the fuel elements had been broken as a result of severe vibrations that had been experienced through the entire core.”
What followed from the Kiwi-B4A failure was a classic bureaucratic knock-down-drag-out donnybrook involving Finger and Los Alamos lab director Norris Bradbury, each fully armed with technical staff, along with cheering sections from NASA’s Lewis center in Cleveland, Ohio, and Alabama’s Marshall space flight center. Finger laid down the law: no hot reactor testing “until we had gone through thorough work to identify the causes of the failures and to develop well-defined solutions to those problems.” Finger recalled that Bradbury, reflecting the full-steam-ahead psychology of the Los Alamos bomb builders, “objected, saying that I would kill the program if there was no continued reactor testing. I responded that contrary to his position, there was no question we would kill the program if reactors continued to have major failures.” Finger won, and Kiwi retreated to the engineering drawing board.
A final Kiwi test, in January 1965, proved the most “successful” of all. The droll engineers at Jackass Flats called it Kiwi-TNT. The technicians tethered the Kiwi-B4 reactor to the test stand and let it run wild, without any control of the nuclear reactor, known in the trade as a fast excursion. According to the scientists, the purpose of the test was “to confirm theoretical models of transient behavior”—in other words, let’s see if we can blow it up. The reactor—for the first time—performed as advertised and blew up in a spectacle of flame, spewing debris hundreds of feet in the air: mission accomplished.
In its 1959 article on the “successful” first tests of Kiwi, Time magazine commented,
After a few days, when radioactivity dies down somewhat, the unshielded reactor will be hauled along a railroad track by a remote controlled locomotive to a special MAD (Maintenance, Assembly, and Disassembly) shop, where mechanical hands will take it apart. The condition of its still deadly interior parts (examined by periscope, TV, or through thick, transparent shields) will tell the Los Alamos men much about how to build nuclear rockets that actually fly. The code names for them are ready: Dumbo and then Condor.
As the boys at Jackass Flats were getting ready to test the first Kiwi power plant, a parallel design project was underway in New Mexico, at Los Alamos, code-named Dumbo. Named for Disney’s adorable flying elephant, it was abandoned in 1959. About the same time, the Rocketdyne Corp. of Los Angeles did an analysis for Los Alamos of the costs of atomic-powered spaceships versus chemical propulsion, using a hypothetical, generic atomic engine Rocketdyne called Condor, the nearly-extinct California carrion eating bird. Neither Dumbo nor Condor ever came to life.
The AEC nuclear propulsion program resumed hot testing rocket engines in the summer of 1965, with completely new designs. The new engines, ambitiously dubbed the Phoebus (Greek for “sun”) series, performed far better than the first attempts. The most promising test, Phoebus 2A, came at Jackass Flats in June 1968. This turned out to be the most powerful nuclear reactor ever tested, producing 5,000 MWt. It operated for twelve-and-a-half minutes at a temperature of up to 2,310 K, just short of the melting point of the fuel.
Phoebus’s fine performance came too late to rescue the already-stumbling nuclear rocket program. The United States was having great success with chemical rockets—headed to the moon by the end of the decade, as President Kennedy had promised in 1963. At the same time, international agreements limiting nuclear weapons testing and nuclear fallout were on the horizon, causing great anxiety and consternation across the wide-spread atomic weapons endeavor. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the war in Vietnam was beginning to stress the U.S. budget, and White House bean counters started looking seriously at plucking radioactive legumes.
In his 2000 retrospective, Finger ruefully commented, “Unfortunately, as many commentators at the time and historians of the space program have written, the technology of nuclear rocket propulsion was fully demonstrated as ready for flight mission applications, but the deep space missions whose accomplishment depended on nuclear propulsion applications were not part of the U.S. space program nor were any such missions planned. In addition, budget pressures led to the shutdown of the program in 1972.”
9. The Devil Flies Nukes
The AEC–NASA Rover rocket program had a nasty neighbor at Jackass Flats, just over the horizon from the tethered, flightless Kiwi. This was the aptly-named Project Pluto. Unlike the relatively benign Rover program, Pluto was a truly diabolical joint AEC–Air Force military effort. Its aim was to spread death and destruction as widely as possible over enemy territory, a worthy expression of the strategic vision of Curtis LeMay. One historian of nuclear power called it “the nastiest weapon ever conceived.” Fortunately, conception did not result in birth.
Pluto was named neither for the ninth planet in the solar system nor for Mickey Mouse’s friendly pooch, but for the Greek god of the underworld (and also namesake of the radioactive, fissile element plutonium). Georgia Tech’s James Mahaffey called it “the weapons system from hell.”
A direct descendant of the low-and-slow German V-1, this upgrade was to be a hypersonic (3,000 mph), low-flying, radiation-spewing, nuclear warhead-toting, pilotless cruise missile with a mission to destroy Moscow and other sites in the Soviet Union. Pluto was the most secret of an array of secret U.S. atomic weapons programs. Pluto was conceived as another arm of a massive nuclear first-strike capability aimed at keeping the Soviet Union hemmed in by the U.S. Air Force, a companion to the atomic-powered bomber. It was also part of a plan to continue the postwar ascendancy of the Air Force among the three military services.
Gen. Donald Keirn, the Air Force lifer who ran the nation’s military nuclear flight program with a dual appointment in the Pentagon and at the Atomic Energy Commission, described the service’s glowing goal in a 1960 paper: “To grasp the portent of nuclear power within the Air Force, visualize a fleet of nuclear-powered bombers continuously airborne around the periphery of a would-be aggressor or a force of supersonic, low-altitude ramjet missiles on ceaseless mobile ground alert within the borders of the United States. In this day of advanced technology these concepts are just being fully understood. Yet as far back as 1944 there were men in the Air Force who foresaw the possibilities.”
Pluto was officially a Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile, also known within the weapons hierarchy as SLAM. The first description of the concept came in a still-secret paper out of the Los Alamos weapons lab, the birthplace of flying nukes, in October, 1948. The title was “Self-flying Atomic Bombs or the New Mexico Jumping Bean.” Despite the secrecy, atomic entrepreneur Frederic de Hoffmann (founder of General Atomics, the creator of the Orion nuclear space project) let the radioactive lion cub out of the bag in January 1949 in a Los Alamos document titled “Minutes of an Informal Meeting on Nuclear Rockets.”
Pluto was not a rocket-powered weapon. The heart of Pluto was a nuclear-powered ramjet. This is an utterly simple machine that produces an enormous amount of energy and thrust, but requires air, making it unsuitable for space travel. Rockets provide their own propellant to push out the back of the engine for thrust, meaning they don’t need an atmosphere to function. In a ramjet, the engine is pushed forward so air is drawn in, heated to make the air expand, then exits the jet engine in a tremendous burst. Calling it “admirably innocent of moving parts,” Mahaffey describes the ramjet as “simply a big air nozzle with a nuclear reactor in the middle of it. Air was crammed into the front of the engine by the leading shock wave, was heated in the white-hot reactor core, and let at higher energy out the back.”
Ramjets had been around since 1913, when a French engineer published a paper describing a “flying stovepipe.” German scientists experimented with ramjet propulsion in 1939, but switched to pulse-jet technology for the V-1 unguided missiles. The two types of jet engines are similar, but the ramjet is simpler, with no moving parts. The ramjet’s shortcoming is that it has no ability to start from rest. It needs a big push to get air moving through the engine. The pulse-jet engine is able to provide its own startup and takeoff.
As a way to deliver weapons, Pluto also was admirably simple. It was designed to combine high speed, over three times the speed of sound (also known as Mach 3), with low altitude, so it could avoid enemy radar and swoop in so fast that enemy anti-missile measures would be handcuffed. In Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove, actor Slim Pickens, as B52-Stratofortress bomber pilot T.J. “King” Kong, describes how the plane will attack Russia by coming in low and fast. “They might harpoon us,” says Kong, “but they dang sure ain’t going to spot us on no radar screen.” The simplicity of the concept meant that Pluto would have to be a robust machine that could withstand a number of fierce physical forces both inside and outside the airframe. It had to be what one project engineer called “about as durable as a bucket of rocks.” Physicist Theodore Merkle, the father of Pluto’s infernal reactor, called it “the flying crowbar.”
Pluto would have been a versatile weapon of mass destruction. It would have carried up to two dozen hydrogen-bomb warheads to its targets, guided by a ground-following guidance system. The missiles would be launched upward over the target, falling to the ground in ballistic fashion. Beyond the warheads, simply slamming into enemy territory, as its German Buzz Bomb predecessor did, would have produced a large impact and spread radiation widely, on the scale of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion.
On top of that, Pluto’s flight would have spread terror far and wide. It was hardly a stealth weapon. First, it would have been an enormous bird of prey: eighty-eight feet long, weighing sixty-one thousand pounds when launched by a series of conventional chemical rockets to get the jet up to the speed where air was being rammed in. It would have been the equivalent of a flying locomotive.
Pluto would have been incredibly loud coming in at tree-top level, extremely hot, and intensely radioactive. Aerospace engineer John Terry White noted, “SLAM’s shock wave overpressure alone (162 dB) would devastate structures and people along its flight path. And, if that were not enough, the type’s nuclear-fueled ramjet would continuously spew radiation-contaminated exhaust all over the countryside.” Indeed, it was designed to be a devilishly diverse death machine, indiscriminate in the rain of radiation and force of explosion it brought down on its target and in its path.
The Air Force and the AEC decided in 1955 to move ahead with Project Pluto, choosing to keep it separate from the parallel Rover rocket program and the atomic bomber. Congress and the executive branch kept Pluto independently funded, with much of the details of its support out of sight in the so-called black budget. As the Eisenhower administration prepared to unveil the project, Democrats on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy saw a partisan opportunity. In January 1958, they launched a series of floor statements in the House and Senate calling for firm legislative branch sovereignty over nukes in space. The New York Times reported, “Getting a jump on other Congressional committees, the Joint Committee moved to stake out a claim for Congressional jurisdiction over outer space.” The Democrats accused the Republican White House of trying to skimp on projects Rover and Pluto.
While Los Alamos ran the rocket show, the Air Force and AEC chose Los Alamos’s bitter rival, Livermore, for the ramjet. Livermore picked the brilliant and iconoclastic Merkle to run its adventure in nuclear flight. Merkle earned his doctorate in physics at nearby University of California–Berkeley, Livermore’s parent, and went to work at E.O. Lawrence’s radiation lab in 1953, shortly after Edward Teller succeeded in persuading the AEC to turn Livermore into the nation’s second nuclear weapons lab. When Livermore created its nuclear propulsion group in 1955, it named Merkle to run the show.
Merkle was no plodding atomic bureaucrat. He was a thrower of furniture and breaker of crockery, as described by historian Gregg Herken. One contemporary called him a “bull in a china shop.” A co-worker more creatively characterized Merkle’s management style: “He wasn’t interested in untying the Gordian knot. He cut it.” Merkle would not find much favor in today’s world of soporific PowerPoint presentations, which graphic guru Edward Tufte argues dumb-down “the analytical quality of serious presentations of evidence.” Merkle eschewed “canned briefings” that scientists routinely trotted out to give to policymakers. Livermore colleague Richard Werner recalled, “You use chalk and you talk off the top of your head because you know it. He had no patience whatsoever with people who didn’t know how to do things.”
The scientists and engineers in Merkle’s atomic skunk works faced daunting technical obstacles, heat chief among them. The reactor had to be as hot as possible to get the most energy out of the engine, pushing the airframe forward. But the engine also had to be as small and light as possible so the aircraft could actually get off the ground. That meant it had to run very hot indeed. “The hotter, the better” is the mantra of the ramjet. The engine had to run for hours or days at 2,500F. At 2,650F, the aircraft would catch on fire.
At those temperatures, keeping the nuclear fuel from turning into a useless gas was also a major problem. But a Golden, Colorado-based firm that specialized in refractory ceramics came to the rescue. Coors Porcelain Co. agreed to make half-a-million pencil-shaped ceramic elements to hold the fuel and prevent it from vaporizing. As Merkle and his crew worked on the Pluto reactor—known by the code name Tory— they concluded that they needed a large, remote spot to test an earthbound version at full throttle. Naturally enough, since Livermore was intimately acquainted with the Nevada Test Site, the locus for the static tests turned out to be Jackass Flats, with an eight square mile section devoted to hell on Earth.
Working with an engine as hot (thermally and radioactively) as Tory called for special accommodations. An automated railroad would have to take the hot reactor from its tethered firing site to the MAD building, also known as the hot shop, where technicians could take it apart with remotely controlled, robotic tools and inspect it by three-dimensional television and through thick, radiation-proof ports. The Livermore boffins would watch Tory pulse and strain against its bonds as it spewed enormous amounts of heat and radiation from a shed far away from the test stand and featuring a fully-equipped fallout shelter.
Livermore hired Marquardt Corp. to help plan and design the Jackass Flats facility. Marquardt, founded by aircraft pioneer and barnstormer Roy Marquardt, whom one biographer called “a mix of Tom Sawyer, Tom Swift, and Harry Potter,” was a specialist in ramjet technology. The California-based company, formed in 1944, was the major developer of the ramjet engine for the BOMARC missile, the Air Force’s surface-to-air missile of the 1950s. Marquardt became a prime Pluto contractor.
Pluto’s MAD building had eight-foot thick walls. Erecting the building required the AEC to buy a gravel mine to supply the aggregate for the cast concrete to contain the radiation.
A ramjet needs copious amounts of air rammed into the front of the engine. In Pluto, that would have come by launching the unguided missile with chemical jets until it was gobbling enough air for the nuclear reactor to sustain flight. That can’t happen on the ground. So Livermore had to come up with a method of providing hot high-pressure air to the immobile Tory, tethered to the ground for testing. Marquardt calculated that an engine test of twenty-five minutes at full power would require 4.2 million pounds of air at 3,600 pounds per square inch of pressure. To store the pressurized air required an underground steel cylinder thirty feet across and three hundred seventy feet tall. Livermore borrowed pumps from the Navy’s Groton, Connecticut, submarine base to stuff the air into the tank. It took twenty-five labyrinthine miles of steel oil well casing to deliver the air to the mouth of the air-hungry jet. The air handling system accounted for $8 million of the nearly $20 million put toward construction of the Pluto test bed.
Pluto escaped the engineering drawing board and entered the corporeal world on May 14, 1961, with the firing of the Tory-IIA engine at Jackass Flats. The ramjet, shining bright red with high-temperature automotive manifold paint, ran for only a few seconds, but established that the superstructure around the machine to provide it with high-pressure air worked: the engine would ignite. Project officials naturally claimed a full success, but it’s hard to credit that, given the infinitesimal duration of the test, and what followed: Tory-IIB never even made it onto the railroad flatcar at Jackass Flats. The engineers were simply baffled by the complexity of the forces they were trying to tame and had to go back to the drawing board.
So the designers went back to basics, taking three more years to come up with Tory-IIC. In May 1964, the new engine roared for five minutes at 513 MWt. The test was so loud, said engineer James Mahaffey, “You could practically hear it running in Idaho.” Again, the Livermore engineers proclaimed the test a success and toasted it prodigiously at a local bar. Merkle and his crew were soon talking about a design for Tory-III.
Unbeknownst to the boffins in Nevada, Pluto was running out of support in Washington, and, more importantly, across the Potomac in Virginia at the Pentagon. Since the early days of the project, Defense Department officials, starting with Herbert York in the Eisenhower administration and continuing with Harold Brown of Kennedy’s Pentagon team, had questioned the worth of the Pluto project. In a summer 1961 hearing before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy’s research subcommittee, Brown defended proposed funding cuts on the grounds that the project had no military mission that distinguished it from far simpler, cheaper, and more developed technologies.
Brown told Rep. Mel Price (D-IL), chairman of the subcommittee and a fool for all things nuclear, that “in view of the high cost of developing examples of modern technology and applying them to make a useful military system, it is incumbent upon us to evaluate very carefully the nuclear powered ramjet vehicle, as to its technical development problems, its costs, and its schedules, as well as its military value in relation to other technologies or systems currently underway or being proposed.”
The JCAE didn’t want to hear Brown’s objections. James Ramey, the joint committee’s executive director (and later a member of the AEC), pushed Brown to move aggressively on Pluto. Brown bobbed and weaved. “Just how these will in the end compete with other possible ways of doing the same things, or how well it may compete with other ways of doing different things, we cannot say yet,” he responded. The Kennedy administration proposed a low-ball $7 million in the Air Force budget for Pluto for fiscal 1962 (on top of $30 million for Pluto in the AEC account), far below the $24 million the Air Force wanted. The Air Force brass did a typical end-run around the civilian Pentagon, getting the full amount for Pluto from the joint committee and the appropriations committee, which often did or outdid the joint committee’s bidding on matters nuclear.
But Brown and the civilians had sown seeds of doubt; even military planners outside of Livermore and Las Vegas were having some heartburn about Pluto. One problem was that the more conventional chemically-powered ballistic missiles could be launched safely from U.S. territory and get to their targets faster than Pluto. The missile, which gave itself away to adversaries from the moment of flight, was following the same fate as the atomic bomber. It was turning out to be less capable than first envisioned. Wags were saying that SLAM stood for “Slow, Low and Messy.”
Then there was the daunting issue of how to test fly the weapon, which had the potential, as historian Herken put it, to become “a flying Chernobyl.” The missile could not be flown over friendly territory. A crash landing could spread deadly radiation over thirty square miles.
So the scientists concocted a preposterous plan. They would fly the glowing bird in slow figure-eight paths over the South Pacific near a Wake Island takeoff. When the missile ran out of fuel, it would crash with a splash into the ocean. Herken quipped, “Pluto had begun to look like something only Goofy could love.”
Project Pluto crash landed in July 1964, the start of a new federal fiscal year, abandoned by the Pentagon as a missile without a mission. The New York Times reported in early June, “The House Appropriations Committee dealt an apparent death blow today to Pluto, the low-flying, atomic-powered missile that has been having political trouble getting off the ground.
“The committee, in reporting out the Atomic Energy Commission budget, cut off development funds for the project. It proposed that the missile be ‘mothballed’ until the Pentagon could decide whether it had a requirement for the weapon.”
10. Flatulence in Space
Jules Verne, the first practitioner of science fiction, sent men to the moon in 1865. In 1898, H.G. Wells sent Martians to the Earth in a conquering mood. Neither Verne nor Wells bothered with rocket propulsion. After all, Robert Goddard didn’t invent what became the modern rocket until 1914, although he was pondering rocketry and space travel in 1902.
While rockets are internal combustion engines, Verne and Wells both propelled their space travelers with forces outside of the space craft: explosions. Both Verne and Wells used artillery technology—chemical explosions pushing a payload (a cannon ball or a shell)—to move their creatures around the solar system. For a variety of reasons, this was a wildly impractical way to thrust heavy loads out of Earth’s gravity and into space.
But the ideas of Verne and Wells lingered in the back of the minds of a trio of creative mathematicians and physicists, who would resurrect them the 1950s and early 1960s as Project Orion. Orion, which won some support from the AEC, the Air Force, and NASA, but was never embraced with the fervor of projects with a clear military future, aimed to use many small nuclear bombs exploding outside of their spacecraft to create gas plasmas shoving men and material out of the thrall of the Earth and beyond the planet’s confining gravity.
Freeman Dyson, one of Orion’s principals, described it some fifty years later, in his compilation, Disturbing the Universe. Dyson wrote,
Orion is a project to design a vehicle which would be propelled through space by repeated nuclear explosions occurring at a distance behind it. The vehicle may be either manned or unmanned; it carries a large supply of bombs, and machinery for throwing them out at the right place and time for efficient propulsion; it carries shock absorbers to protect machinery and crew from destructive jolts, and sufficient shielding to protect against heat and radiation. The vehicle has, of course, never been built. The project in its seven years of existence was confined to physics experiments, engineering tests of components, design studies, and theory. The total cost of the project was $10 million, spread over seven years, and the end result was a rather firm technical basis for believing that vehicles of this type could be developed, tested, and flown.
This improbable project—conceptually using atomic farts to blast manned capsules around the universe—drew a lot of enthusiasm in the U.S. nuclear flight enterprise for only a short period. Orion eventually died on the road to Jackass Flats, where the concepts that had been tested with chemical explosives in Southern California were scheduled to get a baptism of radiation. The project expired before the scientists could mount the atomic tests in part because it lacked a dogged government sponsor. During Orion’s brief ascendancy, it drew some “gee whiz” reactions from President Kennedy. But in the end, the project succumbed not to its technical merits, but to Kennedy’s success in working with the Soviet Union to limit nuclear testing.
Most of the adventures in atomic energy during the postwar period of irrational enthusiasm were the work of engineers. Orion was different. The three geniuses behind Orion—and there can be no doubt of their genius— were mathematicians Stanislaw Ulam, Freeman Dyson, and physicist Theodore Taylor. They worked together at a remarkable private company (although as a government contractor) General Atomics, located in one of the most beautiful sites in the world, overlooking the Pacific Ocean near San Diego. They were brought together and harnessed to space flight by another groundbreaking physicist and remarkable entrepreneur of modern physics, Frederic de Hoffmann.
Ulam was a Polish Jew, born in 1909 in what is now the Ukrainian city of Lvov to a wealthy family. His bent for math became clear early in life: he taught himself calculus at sixteen. He earned a PhD in mathematics from the Lvov Polytechnic Institute in 1933. Invited by Hungarian computing pioneer John von Neumann to visit the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1935, Ulam met Harvard mathematician George D. Birkhoff. Birkhoff invited him to join the newly-created Society of Fellows at Harvard. In 1936, Ulam began teaching in Boston, commuting in the summers back to Poland until World War II began in the fall of 1939.
The University of Wisconsin named Ulam an assistant professor in 1940, and he became a U.S. citizen in 1943, when von Neumann asked Ulam if he would be interested in some work, requiring citizenship, related to the war. Ulam described his introduction to the Manhattan Project: “[Von Neumann] discussed with me some mathematics, some interesting physics, and the importance of this work. And that was Los Alamos at the very start. A few months later I came with my wife…arriving for the first time in a very strange place.” Thirty-four years old, Ulam was one of the older scientists working at the secret site in the remote New Mexican high desert.
At Los Alamos, Ulam linked up with Edward Teller to work on the many difficult problems involved in getting hydrogen atoms to fuse, producing an explosion that dwarfed even the terrible power of the atomic bomb. In the minds of several historians, Ulam, working with his former Wisconsin colleague Cornelius Everett, bore more responsibility for the H-bomb than Teller.
In 1946, while recuperating from brain surgery, Ulam came up with the all-important Monte Carlo method of statistically estimating the paths of neutrons in an atomic reaction. Ulam played a lot of solitaire while recovering from the surgery and noticed that he could predict the outcome of his games in advance by a few clues and patterns early in a game. “It occurred to me then that this could be equally true of all processes involving branching events,” Ulam wrote years later. “At each stage of the process, there are many possibilities determining the fate of the neutron. It can scatter at one angle, change its velocity, be absorbed, or produce more neutrons by a fission of the target nucleus, and so on.”
Based on this insight, Ulam came up with a way, using the primitive computers of the day (one of von Neumann’s contributions), to make predictions of neutron behavior necessary for the hydrogen bomb calculations. Ulam and Everett analyzed Teller’s design for the Super bomb. Ulam used his statistical methods and fertile mind to demonstrate conclusively that the design Teller doggedly held onto as a way to get the compression necessary to ignite and fuse hydrogen into helium could not work. Ulam then came up with a design using a fission explosion to compress the hydrogen isotope tritium to the point where the atoms would fuse, releasing an explosion of energy of mind-boggling force. Many histories and texts refer to the H-bomb as the “Teller-Ulam device.”
Ironically, a driving force behind Ulam’s work appears to have been his dislike of Teller, an animus Teller reciprocated. J. Carson Mark, a theoretical physicist who oversaw their work at Los Alamos, said, “Ulam used to make witty, pointed, scornful, shamefully disreputable remarks about Teller when Teller wasn’t there. Once in a while his feelings about Teller couldn’t have escaped Edward’s notice. Edward reciprocated those feelings generously, so each was talking down the other, and that went on for years.”
During the pioneering work on fusion, Ulam was already thinking about using nuclear explosions to send unmanned aircraft into space. He began discussing the idea with fellow mathematician Everett as early as 1946. Ulam came up with some preliminary calculations in 1947, in a document that is still classified. Mahaffey described the period as “the awkward time between the triumph of the atomic bomb and the push for the hydrogen bomb,” adding that “Ulam’s mind wandered off into the proposals for space exploration.”
In August 1955, after the H-bomb test (code named Ivy Mike) on the Eniwetok atoll in the far South Pacific’s Marshall Islands destroyed the Elugelab islet, Ulam and Everett wrote a detailed paper on the concept of nuclear explosions to propel missiles into space. In that document, “On a Method of Propulsion of Projectiles by Means of External Nuclear Explosion,” Everett and Ulam outlined “the use of a series of expendable reactors (fission bombs) ejected and detonated at a considerable distance from the vehicle, which liberate the required energy in an external ‘motor’ consisting essentially of empty space. The critical question about such a method concerns its ability to draw on the real reserves of nuclear power liberated at bomb temperatures without smashing or melting the vehicle.”
Earlier in 1955, Ted Taylor, the premier fission bomb designer at Los Alamos, worked with physicist and military officer Lew Allen, assigned by the Air Force to the New Mexico weapons lab, on a way to produce greater amounts of tritium, the rare hydrogen isotope needed in ever smaller and more powerful bombs. One experiment hung some iron and graphite balls from a bomb tower. After the bomb exploded, the scientists discovered that the spheres, predictably dubbed “Lew Allen’s balls,” traveled farther than could be explained simply by the force of the explosion and were not destroyed by the blast.
Taylor, who had emerged as a major figure at Los Alamos, began thinking seriously about Ulam’s ideas for using explosions to propel space vehicles after he saw the evidence from Lew Allen’s balls. “Being able to preserve things that were within twenty feet from the center of the explosion of tens of kilotons was a big surprise to a lot of people,” he said. Freeman Dyson, who signed onto the Orion project four years later, said, “These experiments helped us to persuade people that the idea of an Orion ship surviving inside a succession of fireballs was not absurd.”
Ulam’s original name for his propulsion compulsion was Helios (named after the Greek god of the sun). In 1958, Ted Taylor, who was then heading the project at the General Dynamics subsidiary General Atomics, renamed it Orion, which he said he picked “out of the sky.” Orion, the hunter, is one of the most prominent constellations in the sky. But Taylor’s never lit up the sky. It never got off the ground.
Taylor’s term at GA linked the theoretical work of Ulam, the peculiarity of Lew Allen’s balls, and his own conceptual ideas to the practical attempt to turn imagination into reality. Taylor proved to be a most practical genius in turning out ever smaller and more efficient nuclear weapons during his days at Los Alamos; he was also a most intuitive thinker, a designer who left his intellectual DNA across many of the threads of early nuclear research and development, including Project Orion. One historian described him as “halfway between an inventor and a scientist.” Carson Mark, head of theoretical studies at Los Alamos and Taylor’s boss, described Taylor’s approach to physics as “qualitative,” as compared to the conventional, quantitative mindset that characterized most of the Los Alamos researchers.
Born in Mexico City in 1925, the son of a YMCA official, Taylor quickly demonstrated a facility for blowing things up, and a deep yearning, combined with a scent of fear, for space travel. As writer John McPhee described it in the fine 1973 book, The Curve of Binding Energy, Taylor as a boy “began to have recurrent dreams that would apparently last his lifetime, for he still has them, of worlds, planets, discs filling half his field of vision, filling all his nerves with terror. And yet he could not imagine anything more exciting than having travelled to and being about to land on Mars. He wanted to go there desperately.”
After earning an undergraduate degree in physics from Cal Tech in 1945, Taylor entered the Navy, which, typical of the talent scouts of the U.S. military, assigned him to a ship transporting soldiers and sailors back to the United States from the war in the Pacific. The service ignored his entreaties for a slot in the atomic bomb program.
After mustering out of the Navy in 1946, Taylor enrolled in a PhD program in physics at the University of California–Berkeley. Uncomfortable with the pace and challenges of academic life, Taylor flunked out. Years later, he told McPhee, “Thermodynamics was dull. Sometimes I think I am incapable of understanding something I am not interested in. I studied it but did not learn. A lot of physics was a mystery to me, and still is.”
While the mind-numbing intricacies of practical physics eluded Taylor, he thrived on theoretical courses. Mathematician Robert Serber, who became Taylor’s mentor, recommended him for a slot at Los Alamos where Taylor’s capacity, as McPhee put it, as a “conceiver of things” flourished. Moving to New Mexico in 1949, Taylor rubbed and exchanged sharp intellectual elbows with giants such as Ulam, Oppenheimer, and Teller and formed a lasting friendship with Allen, who went on to become Air Force chief of staff, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the service.
In 1953, Taylor took a leave of absence from Los Alamos to complete a PhD under Hans Bethe at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. There, he met Freeman Dyson, who had studied under Bethe (although Dyson never earned a doctorate) and was teaching. Degree in hand, Taylor returned to New Mexico and remained at Los Alamos until 1956.
Of Taylor’s career at Los Alamos, Dyson wrote in a memorial essay, “He was famous in the community of bomb experts as the most creative and imaginative of the designers. His bomb designs were the smallest, the most elegant and the most efficient. He was able to draw his designs freehand, without elaborate calculations. When they were built and tested, they worked.” But Taylor was feeling a bit guilty about his bomb-making prowess, looking for a way to harness his skills to peaceful uses of atomic energy.
Freddy de Hoffmann, a Viennese-born physicist raised in Prague, Czechoslovakia, had immigrated to the United States in 1941, at the age of seventeen. De Hoffman was plucked out of Harvard in 1944, before his graduation, to work in Los Alamos, where he became chief assistant to Edward Teller from 1949 to 1951. At Los Alamos, de Hoffmann knew, worked with, and admired both Ulam and Taylor. De Hoffmann left Los Alamos for two years to complete his undergraduate degree and a masters and doctorate in physics at Harvard. During that period, he worked with Cornell’s Bethe, another Los Alamos veteran, as well as Taylor’s thesis advisor and Dyson’s mentor.
De Hoffmann became one of two Americans (he became a citizen in 1946) to join the international secretariat staffing the 1955 Geneva arms control meeting, where he determined to devote himself to the peaceful uses of atomic energy. At the same time, General Dynamics, the nation’s largest defense contractor (among other ventures, they owned the Electric Boat submarine manufacturer in Groton, Connecticut) was looking to capitalize on the business promise of nuclear power. GD Chairman John Jay Hopkins went to Los Alamos and asked Teller whom he would pick to run such a venture, no doubt hoping Teller would nominate himself. Teller, knowing de Hoffman’s skills as an entrepreneur and salesman, told Hopkins to hire de Hoffmann.
Hopkins in 1955 gave de Hoffman a line of credit of $10 million and told him to start what became General Atomics, headquartered in La Jolla, California. The first scientist de Hoffman hired was Taylor. In the summer of 1956, while getting GA underway, de Hoffmann invited a spectacular group of luminaries from atomic physics and mathematics for a summer institute held in a renovated schoolhouse on the California beach near Point Loma. Among those who attended were Teller, Bethe, and Dyson. “Our primary job,” he said, “was to find out whether there was any specific type of reactor that looked promising as a commercial venture for General Atomic to build and sell.”
Teller suggested development of an inherently safe reactor, one that even clumsy graduate students (which Dyson admitted characterized his career as an experimentalist) couldn’t bring to the point of danger. Teller knew that few institutions would be willing to experiment with reactors unless they were supremely safe. Their work resulted in TRIGA (Training, Research, and Isotopes, General Atomics), without a doubt the most successful nuclear reactor of all time, and eventually a prodigious moneymaker for GA, after debuting on the market in 1959.
After the summer of sun and physics on the California beach, Dyson returned to his home at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies in New Jersey. While Dyson was pondering questions such as the basis of quantum energy, the Soviet Union put Sputnik into orbit, and Taylor, in Los Alamos, was focusing on using bombs to push large loads into and through space. On the same October 1957 day that the USSR announced its space triumph to the world, Taylor issued a technical paper titled “Note on the Possibility of Nuclear Propulsion of a Very Large Vehicle at Greater than Earth Escape Velocity,” and dubbed the craft Orion. He quickly began lobbying the Eisenhower administration for funding, finding a sympathetic ear in the Air Force’s special weapons center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, where Lew Allen was the science advisor.
Dyson recalled that in 1958, “Freddy de Hoffmann passed through Princeton and told me the latest news of the operational trials of the prototype TRIGA. ‘By the way,’ he said, ‘Ted Taylor has a crazy idea for a nuclear spaceship, and he wants you to come out to San Diego and look at it.’ I went.” Dyson added that the backstory was Sputnik, and the U.S. plans for a major response, using chemical rockets to land men on the moon in ten years, at a cost of $10 billion or so. “Ted was interested in going into space,” Dyson recalled, “but was repelled by the billion-dollar style of the big government organization.”
The addition of the cerebral and lyrical British mathematician Dyson was the final ingredient to what became the Orion team, a group which had a fine time blowing up models in California with conventional explosives and dreaming of trips to Mars and Saturn. Dyson agreed to join GA for the 1958–1959 academic year to refine the concepts behind Orion and begin to test those concepts empirically. Dyson said, “We intended to build a spaceship which would be simple, rugged, and capable of carrying large payloads cheaply all over the solar system. Our slogan for the project was ?Saturn by 1970s.’”
Dyson also shared Taylor’s passion to use the tools of wartime destruction for peaceful purposes. “We have for the first time imagined a way to use the huge stockpile of our bombs for better purpose than for murdering people,” he wrote. “Our purpose, and our belief, is that the bombs which killed and maimed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki shall one day open the skies to man.”
In 1958 Taylor made a proposal to the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) for a mammoth four-thousand-ton spacecraft, to be powered by some twenty-six hundred small atomic bombs dropped out of the rear end and exploded, pushing the craft up from the Earth and into space. The Orion craft would carry a sixteen-hundred-ton payload, an order of magnitude beyond anything that was then achievable with conventional chemical rockets. He estimated it would be ready to fly by 1963–1964, at a cost of about $500 million, an estimate surely as wildly plucked out of the sky as the name Orion itself.
Mahaffey described the technology of Orion: a small nuclear device would be shot out the back of the craft through a tube, using compressed air. It would ignite two hundred feet behind the vehicle, “putting its back end just out of reach of the fireball from the explosion.” A thick steel pusher plate would catch the explosion and push the craft ahead, while the compartment holding the crew would be protected by giant shock absorbers. “Each explosion [would] add 30 miles per hour to the forward speed.” If the bombs detonated every three seconds, the craft would reach 3,000 mph in five minutes, making long-distance space travel possible.
Taylor first took the project to the White House for blessing. Eisenhower’s science advisor, George Kistiakowski, considered including the project as part of the Atoms for Peace program, but ultimately turned it down. Stan Ulam in January 1958 testified in support of the Orion project at a Joint Atomic Energy Committee hearing in Washington. “It is almost like Jules Verne’s idea of shooting a rocket to the moon,” Ulam told the atomic solons.
Despite his reluctance to push the project’s military utility, Taylor (with help from the Air Force’s Allen) later in the year closed a deal with ARPA for $1 million in fiscal year 1959 (beginning July 1, 1958). In July 1958, ARPA issued a press release noting the $1 million allocation of FY59 funds to GA for a “new concept of propulsion employing controlled nuclear explosions.”
The ARPA announcement provided evidence of a problem that would plague, and ultimately kill, Orion. It wasn’t clear whether the spaceship propelled by atomic flatulence was an example of atoms for peace or for war. Over the few years of its perilous bureaucratic life, Orion won funding both as a military project and a civilian initiative, but never won the love of either the military or the civilian space voyagers.
Orion came to life as the United States was flailing in response to the Russian flight of Sputnik. At the point of policy panic, the United States appeared ready to place bets on every number on the roulette wheel to space. George Dyson, Freeman’s son and later chronicler of the Orion project, described the timing as “a narrow window of opportunity between the launch of Sputnik and the commitment of the United States to an exclusively chemical approach to space.” But GA was unable in 1958 to convince either the Air Force or the newly-created NASA of the ultimate utility of Orion, winning only the small feasibility study from ARPA—which had a broad mandate to support research and development, whether the projects had military consequences or not.
With ARPA funding in hand and Dyson on the scene, Orion began its most productive period. By all accounts, it was great fun for all involved. The work consisted of making theoretical hypotheses and mathematical prognostications and then testing them by using copious amounts of conventional explosives (usually the very potent C-4) to see whether hypothesis made it into the realm of reality. Often it did, leading the physicists and engineers, mostly recovering Manhattan Project weaponeers, to earnestly believe that what worked at bench scale with chemistry would succeed in the radioactive crucible at Jackass Flats. Dyson described the eighteen months he spent in the sun and surf at La Jolla as one of the happiest times of his life.
In February 1959, the Orion band made the first of a bold series of tests on a three-foot diameter model of the craft, with results that emboldened the designers to believe that success at full scale—some thirty times the size of the model—was likely. It whetted their scientific appetites for more—and more realistic—tests. But technically, these tests were illegal. The ARPA contract contained unequivocal language forbidding modeling. The GA management took its case to ARPA, which amended the contract in mid-1959 to permit a full flight test of the three-foot Orion model. On November 14, 1959, looking remarkably like artists conceptions of Jules Verne’s ballistic spacecraft, the mini-Orion lifted off from Point Loma, and rose to 185 feet, where a parachute deployed and the missile floated back to Earth. That was the last time anything resembling Orion lifted off the ground.
While the model space ship was preparing for its short flight, and after, the Orion project was putting plenty of effort into the design of a full-scale, manned craft that would first require extensive testing at Jackass Flats. But project funding was running out, and GA had to scramble to keep the project intact.
Over its short history, Orion was a radioactive volleyball, bouncing among ARPA, NASA, and the Air Force. With the first ARPA round of funds disappearing, Taylor and Dyson persuaded the Pentagon to put up another four-hundred thousand dollars to keep the project alive while Washington sorted out who should own Orion. NASA, a logical candidate, wanted nothing to do with passing nuclear gas. The Air Force wasn’t much interested. They had bigger fish—the A-plane and Pluto—in the atomic frying pan. Also, the flyboys couldn’t perceive much of a military mission for Orion. ARPA dropped the project in 1960. Thanks to the support of Allen, the Air Force stepped in rather reluctantly to fund Orion. NASA put up a small amount for the project in 1963.
While it stayed on life support until January 1965, Orion effectively went into eclipse in 1963, when the Kennedy administration got the Soviet Union to agree to a treaty banning atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs. Whatever the virtues of Orion, it fundamentally depended on exploding thousands of nuclear weapons, either on the ground or in space.
Ironically, Freeman Dyson, who had returned to Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies in late 1959 but remained an Orion enthusiast, helped kill the program. Perceived as a hard-liner on nuclear weapons, Dyson became a major witness supporting the limited test ban treaty in Senate ratification hearings, testifying on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists and providing technical advice to the Kennedy administration in support of the test ban. “I met Ted Taylor in Washington” in the fall of 1963, Dyson later wrote, “and told him I had signed Orion’s death warrant.”
In a somewhat dyspeptic article in Science magazine in 1965, Dyson groused that the decision to kill Orion was “the first time in modern history that a major expansion of human technology has been suppressed for political reasons.” Fifteen years later, he amended his views. “Sometimes I am asked by friends who shared the joys and sorrows of Orion whether I would revive the project if by some miracle the necessary funds were to become available,” he said. “My answer is an emphatic no…I would not now wish to fly about in a ship that dumps radioactive debris upon the heads of the passengers in our other spaceship, Spaceship Earth.” He was even more dismissive when quoted in a 2010 article in Atlantic magazine: “The starship was like an existence theorem in math. It was to prove you could do it. I never really believed in it.”
The attempts of the atomic establishment to fly with nuclear power from the Earth into space proved to be failures. The ventures were either impossible (the bomber to nowhere), impractical (Rover and Orion), or intolerable (Pluto). But decades later, there were still plenty of cockeyed nuclear optimists around who somehow hoped to revive the flights of fancy.
In the meantime, the United States had also embarked upon another great adventure and feckless use of nuclear technology— not using nukes to fly, but to dig into the ground and accomplish grand feats of terrestrial engineering. Edward Teller, a man whose lust for nuclear technology never cooled, once again championed the cause—one of his greatest enthusiasms.
—Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER. Too Dumb to Meter is available from the POWER Bookstore or Amazon.com and is serialized by permission.