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Project Orion: using basic principles of physics


Project Orion: background
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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That started immediately after Sputnik. Sputnik was I guess in October... '58... '58, so two years after the reactor, and on the same day that Sputnik was announced, Ted Taylor, who was one of the people who had worked with me on the reactor at General Atomic, and by that time he had joined General Atomic as a staff member – he had moved from Los Alamos. In Los Alamos he had been a very successful bomb designer, now he's an anti-nuke – anyway, at that time he was sort of making the transition. So he came to General Atomic and on the night that Sputnik was announced he had the idea, which originally had been suggested by Stan Ulam, of using nuclear bombs to propel a spaceship, so as to beat the Russians, essentially that was the idea. I mean to make a quantum leap in space, doing it with nuclear energy instead of chemical. And the idea was simply: You take a huge space ship, large enough to carry a few hundred nuclear bombs, and you'd throw the bombs out of the back one at a time; each of the bombs would blow up and the debris would hit the bottom of the ship and you'd go boom, boom, boom, up into the sky. So it was a grand idea. It appealed to us very strongly as a method of unilateral disarmament, or even multilateral disarmament: it was a way to use the bombs for some good purpose, and incidentally get rid of them.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He published several books and, among other honours, was awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Project Orion, General Atomics, Sputnik, 1958, Los Alamos, Stanislaw Ulam, Ted Taylor

Duration: 1 minute, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008