Encyclopedia Astronautica
Orion OLV


American nuclear-powered orbital launch vehicle. Nuclear-pulse drive launch vehicle seriously developed by General Atomics in the United States from 1955-1965. The design allowed vast payloads of hundreds of tons to be hurled to the planets. By 1958 the Orion team saw themselves in direct competition with Von Braun's chemical rockets. They hoped to a land a huge manned expedition on Mars by 1964 and tour the moons of Saturn by 1970. However politically NASA would not argue for the exception to the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty necessary to allow firing of nuclear explosions in space.

Zis is not nuts, zis is super-nuts

    Mathematician Richard Courant on viewing an Orion test

The nuclear pulse drive was conceived of H-bomb designers Stanislaw Ulam and Cornelius Everett at Los Alamos in 1955. Ted Taylor at Los Alamos further developed the concept. By the winter of 1957 Turner was working at General Atomics after developing the Triga small research reactor design with Freeman Dyson. Dyson managed to take a one-year sabbatical from his post at Princeton in order to work with Taylor on development of the nuclear pulse design at Los Alamos in 1958.

The nuclear pulse design, dubbed Orion, was a counter-intuitive approach to using the huge potential of nuclear energy for spacecraft propulsion without the costly development required for nuclear thermal or nuclear electric systems. Atomic bombs would be ejected aft of the rocket and exploded some distance away. Propellant (water or wax) surrounding the bombs would be transformed into high-energy plasma and bounce off a pusher plate at the rear of the rocket and push it forward. Shock absorbers would even out the ride. Although the plasma from the explosion would have a temperature of 80,000 deg K, the impulse would be brief and only a tiny layer of the ablative pusher plate would sublimate after each explosion. A method was developed of 'greasing' the plate between explosions to protect it.

Two shock absorber designs were explored. The first consisted of three donut-shaped gas-filled cushions, each one meter high, looking like a stack of tires. Six-meter high aluminium pistons rose from these absorbers. This system would limit peak G forces to 3 to 4 G's. But it would be a bumpy ride for the passengers. Therefore the second design was more complex but allowed the shock absorbers to operate in synchronisation in order to further even out the G-forces. This would limit peak forces to 1.5 to 2.0 G's.

The design allowed vast payloads to be hurled to the planets. A typical design had a payload of hundreds of tonnes, meaning no high-tech environmental recycling systems or lightweight structures or equipment would be needed. The pusher plate was typically about one third of the weight of the craft. The General Atomics team saw themselves in the post-Sputnik period as in direct competition with Von Braun's chemical rockets. Dyson and the other believers thought they could land a huge manned expedition on Mars by 1964 and tour the moons of Saturn by 1970. Dyson particularly was anxious to bypass Mars and explore the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. They hoped to make these trips personally, in their lifetime.

Briane Dunne, the head of hardware development for the project, was less optimistic. He believed a practical design would not be ready until 2010-2050.

In the summer of 1959 Von Braun won the competition for selection of chemical or nuclear pulse rockets for use in the space program in the immediate future. The project was moved to the US Air Force, but the Air Force was not interested. Nevertheless the project struggled along for six years. Von Braun had enthusiasm for the design for use in Mars expeditions. A single launch of a Saturn V could orbit an Orion spacecraft that could take an expedition to Mars and back, whereas nuclear thermal or chemical designs would take 6 to 12. Therefore the General Atomics team later designed increasingly detailed but smaller and more limited designs for this approach. But Von Braun could not convince the NASA hierarchy of the scheme. It would put NASA in the position of arguing for an exception to the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to allow firing of nuclear explosions in space. Finally funding was deleted entirely in 1965.

As a lark, at the end of the project, Dyson designed and published his theoretical designs for the ultimate nuclear pulse spacecraft - a starship. The pusher plate would be kilometres in diameter, and one megaton H-bombs would be ignited several kilometres behind the plate to propel it. Accelerations would be low, so the light structure would have to be built in space. Two versions were proposed, but even the faster model would only allow the grandchildren of the participants to reach Alpha Centauri.

Status: Cancelled 1965.

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Associated Countries
See also
  • Orion Nuclear-pulse drive launch vehicle seriously developed by General Atomics in the United States from 1955-1965. The design allowed vast payloads of hundreds of tons to be hurled to the planets. By 1958 the Orion team saw themselves in direct competition with Von Braun's chemical rockets. They hoped to a land a huge manned expedition on Mars by 1964 and tour the moons of Saturn by 1970. However politically NASA would not argue for the exception to the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty necessary to allow firing of nuclear explosions in space. More...

Associated Manufacturers and Agencies
Bibliography
  • Brower, Kenneth, The Starship and the Canoe, Bantam, 1979.

Associated Launch Sites
  • Wallops Island Small NASA launch site for sounding rocket launches and occasional Scout launches to orbit. Air launches are conducted from the Drop Zone Wallops Island, 37.00 N 72.0 W. With the last orbital launch in 1985 and the decline in sounding rocket launches, Wallops fell into near-disuse as a launch center. Its fortunes revised with the establishment of Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in 2005 and orbital launches resumed in 2010. More...
  • White Sands White Sands Missile Range occupies an area 160 x 65 km in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico, across the Sacramento Mountain range from Roswell. In the 1930's, Robert Goddard, after surveying weather conditions and population densities, had selected Roswell for his pioneering rocket tests. White Sands, a true desert area, was even more unpopulated than Roswell. German advances in rocketry during World War II impelled the US Army to begin programs to exploit this technology. The White Sands Proving Ground was established for testing German and American long-range rockets on 9 July 1945. Seven days later the first atomic bomb was exploded at Trinity Site, near the north boundary of the range. The first launch of a Tiny Tim rocket was on 26 September 1945. On 11 October a Tiny Tim boosted a WAC Corporal rocket from the tower. This was the first use of Launch Complex 33, later to be used for V-2, Nike, Viking, Corporal, Lance and Multiple Launch Rocket System testing. More...
  • Poker Flat Sounding rocket launch site. In use from 1969 to present. Poker Flat Rocket Range (PFRR) contains five major launch pads. Pads 1 and 2 each have a 7.5K launcher, pads 3 and 4 each contain 20K MRL launchers, and pad 5 contains a 4K twin boom launcher. Pad 3 is equipped with a moveable launcher enclosure which can be used to protect a rocket on pad 3 and workers from the severe winter weather. More...
  • Andoya Andoya Rocket Range (ARR) is the world's northernmost permanent launch facility for sounding rockets and scientific balloons and is responsible for all scientific-related balloon and rocket operations in Norwegian territory. ARR provides complete services for launch, operations, data acquisition, recovery and ground instrumentation support. The range has conducted more than 650 rocket launches and hosted scientists and engineers from more than 70 institutes and universities. More...
  • Kiruna The sounding rocket launch site at Kiruna was officially opened in September 1966 under the auspices of ESRO (European Space Research Organisation). When ESA was created in 1972 and replaced ESRO, Kiruna came under the management of the Swedish Space Corporation, a state-owned limited liability company under the Swedish Ministry of Industry. The 'Esrange' is located 45 km from the town of Kiruna and has seven permanent pads able to launch the largest sounding rockets, including the Black Brant 9, Skylark 12, and Castor 4B-boosted vehicles. More...
  • Natal Sounding rocket launch location known to have been used for 233 launches from 1965 to 2007, reaching up to 1100 kilometers altitude. More...

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