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TED2002

George Dyson: The story of Project Orion

February 2, 2002

Author George Dyson spins the story of Project Orion, a massive, nuclear-powered spacecraft that could have taken us to Saturn in five years. His insider’s perspective and a secret cache of documents bring an Atomic Age dream to life.

George Dyson - Historian of science
In telling stories of technologies and the individuals who created them, George Dyson takes a clear-eyed view of our scientific past -- while illuminating what lies ahead. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm a historian.
00:12
Steve told us about the future of little technology;
00:14
I'm going to show you some of the past of big technology.
00:17
This was a project to build a 4,000-ton nuclear bomb-propelled spaceship
00:21
and go to Saturn and Jupiter.
00:27
This took place in my childhood -- 1957 to '65.
00:30
It was deeply classified.
00:34
I'm going to show you some stuff that not only has not been declassified,
00:36
but has now been reclassified.
00:40
(Laughter)
00:42
If all goes well, next year I'll be back and I'll have a lot more to show you,
00:46
and if all doesn't go well, I'll be in jail like Wen Ho Lee.
00:50
(Laughter)
00:53
So, this ship was basically the size of the Marriott Hotel,
00:58
a little taller and a little bigger.
01:02
And one of the people who worked on it in the beginning
01:04
was my father, Freeman, there in the middle.
01:07
That's me and my sister, Esther, who's a frequent TEDster.
01:09
I didn't like nuclear bomb-propelled spaceships.
01:12
I mean, I thought it was a great idea, but I started building kayaks.
01:15
So we had a few kayaks.
01:18
Just so you know, I am not Dr. Strangelove.
01:20
But all the time I was out there doing these strange kayak voyages
01:24
in odd, beautiful parts of this planet,
01:27
I always thought in the back of my mind about Project Orion,
01:30
and how my father and his friends were going to build these big ships.
01:33
They were really going to go, they were actually going to go.
01:37
Ted Taylor, who led the project, was going to take his children.
01:40
My father was not going to take his children;
01:42
that was one of the reasons we sort of had a falling out for a few years.
01:44
(Laughter)
01:49
The project began in '57 at General Atomics there.
01:51
That's right on the coast at La Jolla.
01:55
Look at that central building right in the middle of the picture:
01:57
that's the 130-foot diameter library,
01:59
that is exactly the size of the base of the spaceship.
02:03
So put that library at the bottom of that ship --
02:06
that's how big the thing was going to be.
02:08
It would take 2,000 or 3,000 bombs.
02:10
The people who worked on it were a lot of the Los Alamos people
02:13
who had done the hydrogen bomb work.
02:15
It was the first project funded by ARPA.
02:17
That's the contract where ARPA gave the first million dollars
02:19
to get this thing started.
02:22
"Spaceship project officially begun. Job waiting for you. Dyson."
02:23
That's July '58.
02:27
Two days later, the space traveler's manifesto explaining why --
02:29
just like we heard yesterday -- why we need to go into space:
02:32
"trips to satellites of the outer planets. August 20, 1958."
02:36
These are the statistics of what would be the good places to go and stop. (Laughter)
02:40
Some of the sizes of the ships,
02:44
ranging all the way up to ship mass of 8 million tons,
02:46
so that was the outer extreme.
02:49
Here was version two: 2,000 bombs.
02:51
These are five kiloton yield bombs about the size of small Volkswagens;
02:56
it would take 800 to get into orbit.
03:00
Here we see a 10,000 ton ship
03:03
will deliver 1,300 tons to Saturn and back;
03:06
essentially a five year trip.
03:09
Possible departure dates: October 1960 to February 1967. (Laughter)
03:11
This is trajectories going to Mars;
03:15
all this was done by hand with slide rules.
03:18
The little Orion ship
03:20
and what it would take to do what Orion does with chemicals:
03:21
you have a ship the size of the Empire State Building.
03:24
NASA had no interest; they tried to kill the project.
03:26
The people who supported it were the Air Force,
03:28
which meant that it was all secret.
03:30
And that's why when you get something declassified,
03:32
that's what it looks like. (Laughter)
03:34
Military weapon versions that were versions that carried
03:37
hydrogen bombs that could destroy half the planet.
03:39
There's another version there that sends retaliatory strikes at the Soviet Union.
03:41
This is the real secret stuff: how to get directed energy explosions
03:45
so you're sending the energy of a nuclear explosion --
03:49
not like just a stick of dynamite,
03:51
but you're directing it at the ship.
03:53
And this is still a very active subject.
03:55
It's quite dangerous,
03:57
but I believe it's better to have dangerous things in the open
03:59
than think you're going to keep them secret.
04:01
This is what's happened at 600 microseconds.
04:03
The Air Force started to build smaller models and actually started doing this.
04:05
The guys in La Jolla said, "We've got to get started now."
04:10
They built a high-explosive propelled model.
04:13
These are stills from film footage that was saved by someone
04:15
who was supposed to destroy it but didn't
04:19
and kept it in their basement for the last 40 years.
04:21
So, these are three-pound charges of C4;
04:23
that's about 10 times what the guy had in his shoes. (Laughter)
04:26
This is Ed Day putting ... So each of these coffee cans has three pounds of C4 in it.
04:30
They're building a system that ejects these at quarter-second intervals.
04:35
That's my dad in the sport coat there holding the briefcase.
04:39
So, they had a lot of fun doing this. But no children were allowed;
04:42
my dad could tell me he was building a spaceship
04:45
and going to go to Saturn,
04:48
but he could not say anything more about it.
04:50
So all my life I have wanted to find this stuff out,
04:52
and spent the last four years tracking these old guys down.
04:54
These are stills from the video.
04:56
Jeff Bezos kindly, yesterday, said
04:58
he'll put this video up on the Amazon site -- some little clip of it. (Applause)
05:01
So, thanks to him.
05:04
They got quite serious about the engineering of this.
05:06
The size of that mass, for us, is really large technology
05:08
in a way we're never going to go back to.
05:12
If you saw the 1959 ... This is what it would feel like in the passenger compartment;
05:15
that's acceleration profile. (Laughter)
05:19
And pulse system yield:
05:22
we're looking at 20-kiloton yield for an effect for us of 10 million Newtons.
05:24
Well, here we have a little problem,
05:28
the radiation doses at the crew station: 700 rads per shot. (Laughter)
05:30
Fission yields during development:
05:36
they were hoping to get clean bombs -- they didn't.
05:38
Eyeburn: this is what happens to the people in Miami who are looking up. (Laughter)
05:42
Personnel compartment noise: that's not too bad;
05:45
it's very low frequencies, it's basically like these subwoofers.
05:49
And now we have ground hazard assessments
05:52
when you have a blow-up on the pad.
05:54
Finally, at the very end in 1964, NASA steps in and says,
05:56
"OK, we'll support a feasibility study for a small version
05:59
that could be launched with Saturn Vs in sections and pieced together."
06:02
So this is what NASA did, getting an
06:06
eight man version that would go to Mars.
06:12
They liked it because the guys who kind of live there would be like, "It's just like
06:14
living in a submarine."
06:16
This is crew compartment. It switches, so what's upside down
06:18
is right side up when you go to artificial gravity mode.
06:21
The scientists were still going to go along;
06:23
they would take seven astronauts and seven scientists.
06:25
This is a 20 man version for going to Jupiter:
06:27
bunks, storm cellars, exercise room.
06:30
You know, it was going to be a nice long trip.
06:33
The Air Force version: here we have a military version.
06:36
This is the kind of stuff that's not been declassified,
06:39
just that people managed to sneak home and after,
06:42
you know, on their deathbed basically gave me.
06:45
The sort of artist conceptions:
06:48
these are basically PowerPoint presentations
06:50
given to the Air Force 40 years ago.
06:53
Look at the little guys there outside the vehicle.
06:55
And one part of NASA was interested in it
07:01
but the headquarters in NASA, they killed the project.
07:03
So finally at the end, we can
07:06
see the thing followed its sort of design path
07:09
right up to 1965 and then all those paths came to a halt.
07:12
Results: none.
07:16
This project is hereby terminated.
07:18
So that's the end. All I can say in closing is,
07:20
we heard yesterday that one of the 10 bad things that could happen to us
07:23
is an asteroid with our name on it.
07:27
And one of the bad things that could happen to NASA
07:29
is if that asteroid shows up with our name on it nine months out
07:32
and everybody says, "Well, what are we going to do?"
07:35
And Orion is really one of the only, if not the only,
07:38
off-the-shelf technologies that could do something. (Laughter)
07:42
So I'm going to tell you the good news and the bad news.
07:48
The good news is that NASA has a small, secret
07:50
contingency plan division that is looking at this,
07:55
trying to keep knowledge of Orion preserved in the event of such a misfortune.
07:58
Maybe keep a few little bombs of plutonium on the side.
08:03
That's the good news. The bad news is,
08:06
when I got in contact with these people
08:08
to try and get some documents from them,
08:10
they went crazy because I had all this stuff that they don't have,
08:12
and NASA purchased 1,759 pages of this stuff from me. (Laughter)
08:15
So that's the state we're at: it's not very good.
08:20
(Applause)
08:24

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George Dyson - Historian of science
In telling stories of technologies and the individuals who created them, George Dyson takes a clear-eyed view of our scientific past -- while illuminating what lies ahead.

Why you should listen

The development of the Aleutian kayak, its adaptation by Russians in the 18th and 19th centuries, and his own redevelopment of the craft in the 1970s was chronicled in George Dyson’s Baidarka: The Kayak of 1986. His 1997 Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence (“the last book about the Internet written without the Internet”) explored the history and prehistory of digital computing and telecommunications as a manifestation of the convergent destiny of organisms and machines.

Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship, published in 2002, assembled first-person interviews and recently declassified documents to tell the story of a path not taken into space: a nuclear-powered spaceship whose objective was to land a party of 100 people on Mars four years before we landed two people on the Moon. Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, published in 2012, illuminated the transition from numbers that mean things to numbers that do things in the aftermath of World War II.

Dyson’s current project, Analogia, is a semi-autobiographical reflection on how analog computation is re-establishing control over the digital world.

The original video is available on TED.com
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