The Story of Orion
How It Worked

Freeman Dyson
George Dyson
Stanislaw Ulam
Ted Taylor

Project Orion


Orion Drive   >   The Story of Orion   >   History
History of Project Orion

Here is a time for Project Orion and related developments. For a more detailed history, I recommend that you read Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957 to 1965 by George Dyson.

December 18, 1941       S-1 Project (later to evolve into the Manhattan Project) holds first meeting.
July 16, 1945       Trinity Test: The first atomic explosion
1947       Stanislaw Ulam proposes the idea of external nuclear pulse propulsion.
April 1955       A chance discovery in the Teapot series of atomic tests show objects suspended near to a nuclear explosion being propelled by the blast.
1955       Stanislaw Ulam and Cornelius Everett produce a report titled On a Method of Propulsion of Projectiles by Means of External Nuclear Explosions
1956       Ted Taylor joins General Atomics.
February 1957       Physicist Tom Wainright notes that nonmetallic material such as Bakerlite suffers comparatively little ablation in a nuclear explosion. This observation will later be adopted by Project Orion with the idea of coating the pusher-plate with a thin layer of graphite-based oil.
October 4, 1957       USSR launches Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite.
1958       Project Orion proposed by General Atomics.
1958       Freeman Dyson joins General Atomics.
June 30, 1958       ARPA funds General Atomics to perform a feasibility study on a nuclear bomb propelled space vehicle.
1959       The Atomic Energy Commission patents the concept of spacecraft propelled by nuclear bombs, crediting the invention to Cornelius Everett.
February 1959       General Atomics team begin testing a 1 meter (3 feet) diameter model at Point Loma, San Diego. (Despite modelling being beyond the scope of the ARPA contract with General Atomics).
June 19, 1959       Amendment 1 added to General Atomics Contract adding the requirement for a free flight test model to be constructed.
August 1959       ARPA extends the Orion contract for a further 12 months.
February 10, 1960       NASA rejects Orion
March 10, 1960       Orion transfered from ARPA to the US Air Force.
May 25, 1961       President John F. Kennedy publicly announces the goal of reaching the moon before the decade is out.
September 1961       NASA again refuses to become involved with Project Orion.
July 1963       General Atomics secures a small study contract from NASA. The first NASA support for Project Orion.
August 5, 1963       US, USSR and UK sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty prohibiting test detonations of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water.
October 10, 1963       Partial Test Ban Treaty comes into force.
1964       Werner von Braun writes a report recommending Orion, Nuclear Pulse Propulsion - Its Potential Value to NASA
January 1965       Lieutenant Colonel John R. Burke of the US Air Force Nuclear Power Division recommends proceeding with Orion, writing "Practically every DOD/Air Force and NASA evaluation over the past 3 years [prior to 1965] has concluded that ORION provides the only capability for missions well beyond those achievable with chemical or nuclear rocket propulsion. The results point to a technique of rapidly traversing interplanetary distances substantially superior to any other method known today.". Unfortunately, the Air Force was unable to continue with the program without NASA support, and so he continued, "Although the Department of Defense supports the concept as being technically sound, without NASA support the DOD and Air Force will not continue the program. All work on ORION techology will therefore cease in April 1965."
February 1965       General Atomics ends Orion research, remaining effort is limited to preparing records and a final report.
March 1, 1965       Freeman Dyson writes his famous article Death of a Project: Research Is Stopped on a System of Space Propulsion Which Broke All The Rules of the Political Game. The article is published four months later in the journal Science, and includes the words, "this is the first time in modern history that a major expansion of human technology has been suppressed for political reasons."
June 30, 1965       US Air Force formally ends Project Orion.


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