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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Steam Engine Time

Back in early November of last year NASA and DARPA announced that they were quietly moving forward with Project Orion, the "100-year starship" first designed in the late 1950's and then scrapped due to Cold War politics. At that time I wrote what turned out to be only the first in a large number of posts about Orion. In the course of researching that post I went, among many other places, to Wikipedia. At the time they had a very short article on Orion, with very little real information.

This afternoon I started researching Orion for yet another upcoming post. I'm planning to write a bit about what the voyage planning and living conditions would be like on an 88-year trip to Alpha Centauri. I needed to get dimensions of the payload space to begin planning how that could be parsed out among 1000 colonists and everything they would need to survive that long, and how that would then transition to colonizing a world without oxygen, four light years away from the nearest COSTCO.

So, shamelessly, I went back to Wikipedia. I was shocked and pleased to find that the current article on Orion had about five times as much information as had been there in November.

I'm also seeing references to Orion cropping up in some unusual places. Non-science-y places. It seems like a general awareness of the Orion Project is slowly creeping into our collective conscious. I think when people learn that we've had the technology to build a ship to the nearest stars since the Eisenhower administration, but that we haven't actually bothered to do so, they're pretty appalled. That's good. It's reasonably appalling.

The fact that Orion planning has survived the DARPA budget cuts so far, in this year of mindless runaway budget disemboweling, is very telling.

The steam engine was actually first invented by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century CE, but nothing was really done with it until the late 1700s, when suddenly inventors all around the world, independently of each other, began inventing and applying steam engines. Planet earth had finally reached "steam engine time", and so the world steam-engined.

We may have reached whatever critical mass is necessary to start finally building a nuclear pulsed-fission ship to the stars. It's Orion time.


  1. You are saying that the US and Russia, along with all the new nuclear powers, will get together again to rewrite the Partial Test Ban Treaty ('63) just for a nuclear rocket that doesn't fit in the future space budgets of any nation...
    I'm more intent on M2P2 or other wimpy weak but more realistic drives.

  2. Yes, that's what I'm saying. The Cold War is over, China won. It's time to put such silliness behind us and turn our swords into plowshares.
    Orion would cost no more to build than Apollo. Yes, by all means, take it out of the hands of the governments and corporations and put it in the hands of the people. There are seven billion of us, the costs are hardly exorbitant, and the technology already exists.
    M2P2 could not get us to Alpha Centauri in less than 2000 years, and I'm being extremely (extremely) generous. Even if the technology actually existed, which it doesn't, yet.

    That said, I think M2P2 (mini-magnetospheric plasma propulsion) has very real promise for interplanetary travel.

  3. Robert's right, we simply don't have any other means of propulsion available which can reach the nearest stars within a human lifetime. Orion is what we have, for better or worse.

    Robert, I notice you've studiously avoided discussing Deadalus or Icarus. Is that just because we don't quite have the technology yet? It seems likely that we will, soon.

  4. Actually I plan to discuss Icarus specifically, and pulsed fusion propulsion generally. But the reason I have, to date, avoided this topic is that I'm trying to stick with real-world technology. Deadalus was "just around the corner" when I was a kid, and that's been quite some number of years now. Orion we could build with off-the-shelf technology, today.