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Mar 21 2015

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Project Orion was more serious than initially thought

Starfleet was closer than you think. The Air Force in the early ’60s was prepared to dedicate 20% of its space budget to Project Orion. Here’s a comparison between Apollo and Orion:

Preceding but also concurrently developed with Apollo, this extremely ambitious project had unbelievable payload capability. Where Apollo at 3,500 tons could only put two tons on the Moon, the smaller Orion (about the same total mass, 4,000 tons) could soft-land 1,200 tons (600 times as much) on the Moon, and the larger (only three times as heavy as Apollo, or 10,000 tons) could soft-land 5,700 tons (nearly 3,000 times as much) on the Moon, or take 1,300 tons of astronauts and consumables on a three-year round-trip to Saturn and back!1 The fission powered Orion could even achieve three to five percent the speed of light, though a more advanced design using fusion might achieve eight to ten percent the speed of light.

There were plans for LEO, GEO and Lunar orbit squadrons of Orion vessels, and Strategic Air Command even developed the requirements for a Strategic Earth Orbital Base (SEOB) that was to be both offensive and defensive in capability.

I’ve always been intrigued by Project Orion (it’s a major part of one of the best Sci-Fi books of all time: Footfall), but I couldn’t disagree more with the author’s conclusion:

Secretary McNamara’s and Dr. Brown’s conservatism and lack of vision has left humanity in a local minima, trapped in a gravity well, unable to access the vast wealth of the inner solar system, and left the life on our entire planet bare and defenseless against what has emerged as a credible threat: asteroids and comets.

We have traded the grand visions of 1962 for a much more tawdry reality, one where instead of going to space in ships with large crews that could roam the inner solar system in voyages measured in months, and would have laid the foundation for humans to reach other stars, our species has accepted small tin cans that may just be able to send a handful of specialists to Mars before the Apollo lunar landing centennial.

First off, even if Project Orion had become a branch of the US Military and received full funding through the years (almost impossible to believe), there’s no reason to believe that this would have resulted in a viable space economy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in ’89. all military budgets were slashed and there’s no reason to believe that Orion would have survived unscathed. And anyway, EPA and public opinion would have had a say on nuclear launches — we barely have enough plutonium to power batteries for deep-space exploration missions and its use is protested whenever made public. Orion would not have survived in today’s culture.

Second, SpaceX is going to have a Martian colony up and running on Mars by the early ’30s. Count on it. That’s about 35 years early that the article’s author expects.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.newspaceraces.com/2015/03/21/project-orion-was-more-serious-than-initially-thought/

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