Space Travel Ticket That Everyone Has Forgotten About: Rocket with Nuclear Bombs Weighed 8 Million Tons
Space Travel Ticket That Everyone Has Forgotten About: Rocket with Nuclear Bombs Weighed 8 Million Tons

Space Travel Ticket That Everyone Has Forgotten About: Rocket with Nuclear Bombs Weighed 8 Million Tons

People haven’t landed on the moon yet, and many haven’t even dreamed of it, but Freeman Dyson, a visionary and respected scientist, was already working on the Orion project at the time. The massive atomic rocket was to transport entire colonies to distant planets and even stars.

A vision of the future

Almost 60 years have passed since humanity managed to get the first of us into space. Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin then flew around the Earth on the spaceship Vostok 1 and landed again after 106 minutes. The conquest of the cosmos has begun, but man has never moved beyond the Moon, to which we are still trying to return as part of the Artemis program .

However, the lack of ideas, visions and dreams is not to blame, people have always had more than they could ever make. However, one of these visions, which could have been realized and was actually being worked on, is the Orion project. A giant rocket propelled by the explosions of hundreds of atomic bombs.

Orion, the road to eternity

The capabilities and capacities of the Orion spacecraft are essentially incomparable to conventional rockets using chemical combustion engines. An advanced interplanetary version weighing 10,000 tons was able to transport up to 6,100 tons to the Earth’s low orbit – such parameters will embarrass even the largest chemical rocket Sea Dragon, which NASA was also really interested in . The proposal was so serious that Washington spent $ 85 million on its development, NewAtlas writes .

However, the largest iteration of the system had a hull with a diameter of a haunted 400 meters and a weight of an incredible 8,000,000 tons – this is the weight of a larger colony with a lot of people on board. However, almost half of this weight was made up of only bombs whose rocket needed 1080 and one of them weighed up to 3000 tons. By comparison, the largest tested nuclear bomb in the world, the Soviet Tsar bomb, weighed “only” 27 tons.

The designers themselves said on the margin of the largest version that it was an interstellar ark. In addition, there was no technical obstacle to its construction, as all the materials needed for construction were available in 1958, or some of them were planned in the near future.

One bomb weighed, in the case of the developed version, 140 kg and reached a diameter of 15 cm. They were fired behind the pressure platform by a machine gun-like mechanism. The whole machine had to survive hundreds of explosions of such atomic bombs, which is why its design was fundamentally different from conventional missiles. The technicians forced to approach the project in a completely new way have found that the larger such a rocket, the more efficient it is.
A cross section of an atomic bomb designed to propel Orion.


That’s why the Orion ships were to weigh thousands or even tens of thousands of tons, and a place of modern materials and weight-saving where they could come up with a range of technology than in the construction of a submarine. The rocket was even to be built by a submarine company instead of an airline, as usual.

Here we see a certain parallel with the Starship rocket , which passed the first altitude test this week and was initially constructed for SpaceX by a company building reservoirs.

The problem was finding something big enough to justify the use of such a giant machine. The Orion project is so advanced that many documents about its development are still top secret. A number of scientists and technicians participated in its design and research, including experts from the Manhattan Project, which led to the testing of the world’s first nuclear bomb.

Spaceship similar to the Daedalus project in the trailer for Kerbal Space Program.
Development began with a much smaller version, for which engineers designed a large number of components and technologies down to the last detail. One of the most important was the pressure surface at the end of the rocket, directly exposed to the explosion of a nuclear bomb, the energy of which was to be absorbed by a huge silencer located behind it.
Experiments have shown that the pressure surface loses less than 1 mm of its thickness with each explosion, which is more than an acceptable number for such a massive rocket. If the surface is covered with an oil layer, it may not even lose material at all, as greasy fingerprints on the test surface have accidentally shown.

The main reason for such a massive shock absorber is primarily the elimination of impact acceleration, as the rocket could experience an overload of up to 10,000G with each explosion, which is deadly for many machines and technology, let alone for the human crew heading for Mars. Nowadays, SpaceX and their Starship rocket , which is the closest to the interplanetary transport we have so far, want to get us on this red planet .

The pressure surface at the bottom and a huge damping mechanism above it.

But Orion wasn’t just on paper. Back in 1959, the first test meter of a tall model powered by conventional chemical explosives took place. His flight lasted 23 seconds, reached a height of 56 meters and then parachuted successfully landed back on Earth without damage.

The Orion project had many problems that engineers had to solve. However, the largest remains the radioactive fallout. Especially in the case of the largest version, however, it was a rocket, the goal of which consisted only of preserving the existence of humanity, at least in space, in the event of its inevitable extinction on Earth. With the detonation of several hundred nuclear bombs weighing 3,000 tons in the Earth’s atmosphere, it is more than obvious that the impact on terrestrial life would be catastrophic.

Orion rocket cross section.
The project was prematurely (and for the good of us all possible just in time) terminated by an agreement on a partial ban on nuclear weapons testing in 1963, which did not allow any detonation of an atomic bomb at an altitude of over 100 km. However, this did not mean the end for all similar projects.

Projekt Daedalus a Longshot

Orion may have died, but the people did not give up and new, equally insane projects soon came. One of the most shocking is the Daedalus project, which the British Interplanetary Society worked on between 1973 and 1978. However, while Orion exploited nuclear decay, Daedalus envisaged internal fusion – tiny granules composed of deuterium and helium-helium (helium-3) bombarded by electron beams and subsequently exploding. in the form of small thermo-nuclear bombs, they were supposed to propel the whole machine forward, writes David Darling .

Daedalus spacecraft with the largest rocket in the world to date, Saturn V.

The whole process of construction of this ship had to take place in orbit, which meant a huge number of flights of classic missiles. The Daedalus weighed 54 000 tonnes, with up to 50 000 tonnes of fuel – the cargo was only 500 tonnes of the total weight. Daedalus was able to reach our nearest star in 50 years at a maximum speed of up to 12% of the speed of light.

Another similar project was Longshot, which aimed at the star Alpha Centauri B and used a fission nuclear reactor instead of a fusion, NASA reported . The specific impulse of such a drive reaches up to 1,000,000 s – for comparison, conventional chemical rocket motors usually have a specific impulse in the range of 200 to 400 s.

The future of nuclear energy in space

While a rocket powered by nuclear bomb blasts does not seem to happen, at least not in the foreseeable future, it is not the end of nuclear energy in space. It remains a reliable source of heat and electricity for some missions and spacecraft operating too far from the Sun to make do with solar panels.

In addition, NASA wants to use a small nuclear reactor during the Artemis program on the moon, writes CNBC . It is supposed to provide 10 kW of power and provide enough electricity for astronauts, among whom the first woman will land on the moon . However, whether the future will also bring a more exciting use of this powerful energy remains a question that can again be answered only by the time and fruits of future technologies.

Bruce Dorminey
I'm a science journalist and host of Cosmic Controversy ( as well as author of "Distant Wanderers: the Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System."  I primarily cover aerospace and astronomy. I’m a former Hong Kong bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and former Paris-based technology correspondent for the Financial Times newspaper who has reported from six continents. A 1998 winner in the Royal Aeronautical Society's Aerospace Journalist of the Year Awards (AJOYA), I’ve interviewed Nobel Prize winners and written about everything from potato blight to dark energy. Previously, I was a film and arts correspondent in New York and Europe, primarily for newspaper outlets like the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe and Canada's Globe & Mail. Recently, I've contributed to Scientific, Nature News, Physics World, and Yale Environment I'm a current contributor to Astronomy and Sky & Telescope and a correspondent for Renewable Energy World. Twitter @bdorminey