What's Wrong With Orion?

From Insty, it turns out that NASA’s Orion is having a little problem with cost overruns.  Who could have predicted that?

Of course the REAL problem with NASA’s Orion is that they stole the name from the real Orion, a nuclear spaceship design that could have given us the entire solar system decades ago if it weren’t for the nuclear test ban treaty.

A 1959 report by General Atomics explored the parameters of three different sizes of hypothetical Orion spacecraft:

Ship diameter 17–20 m 40 m 400 m
Ship mass 300 t 1000–2000 t 8,000,000 t
Number of bombs 540 1080 1080
Individual bomb mass 0.22 t 0.37–0.75 t 3.00 t

The biggest design above is the “super” Orion design; at 8 million tons, it could easily be a city. In interviews, the designers contemplated the large ship as a possible interstellar ark. This extreme design could be built with materials and techniques that could be obtained in 1958 or were anticipated to be available shortly after. The practical upper limit is likely to be higher with modern materials.

Most of the three tons of each of the “super” Orion’s propulsion units would be inert material such as polyethylene, or boron salts, used to transmit the force of the propulsion unit’s detonation to the Orion’s pusher plate, and absorb neutrons to minimize fallout. One design proposed by Freeman Dyson for the “Super Orion” called for the pusher plate to be composed primarily of uranium or a transuranic element so that upon reaching a nearby star system the plate could be converted to nuclear fuel.

The key is that this thing could have been operational with 1950’s tech. As far as I’m concerned, if Doctors Dyson and Pournelle said it was doable then it was.  Nuclear power is still the only thing that’s going to allow us to get large amounts of mass into Earth orbit and beyond.  Nothing else has enough specific impulse to do the job.

Update:  Welcome Instapundit readers!   Please don’t melt the servers. 🙂

Update: Welcome Transterrestrial Musings readers!

Update: More on scaling chemical rockets here.

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0 Responses to What's Wrong With Orion?

  1. Bart says:

    Yeah but, the mechanism for delivering the bombs beneath the blast plate was essentially a Coca-Cola bottling assembly. I wouldn’t want to be on-board when that thing jams. I’d rather have something solid state, like maybe opposing particle beams of matter and anti-matter which meet below the plate. When we get to the point where we can generate large volumes of anti-matter at the flick of a switch, maybe that will become an option.

    In the meantime, if we are ever going to get back to the moon, at some point, everyone has to stop carping that their favored approach didn’t make the cut and get on board to finish something that will work, recognizing that there are going to be inevitable glitches and cost overruns along the way.

  2. Eric Jablow says:

    Read The Curve of Binding Energy by John McPhee for the late Ted Taylor’s account of his and Freeman Dyson’s designing and developing Orion and its prototype.

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  4. M. Simon says:

    There may be another alternative soon:

    Fusion Report 13 June 008

  5. Koblog says:

    NASA rejected Northrop Grumman’s Orion proposal (without protest) because it was deemed too expensive and Lockheed Martin’s design was said to be better.

    Once the Orion contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin the cost was immediately renegotiated upward, the “superior” design significant changed and the schedule slipped.

    Moral of the story: win the contract by whatever means necessary (cost and design accuracy optional) then build it at whatever cost and schedule you want.

    Oh, and if you don’t win at first. protest. See: KC-45 Tanker and Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program (BAMS).

  6. DensityDuck says:

    Koblog: I work on Orion. We wanted to do it the way the proposal said, and we were entirely able to do that. The government didn’t want that. If you want to blame someone for the contract changes, blame the customer.

  7. Frederick Davies says:

    I still think that rather than nuclear pulse propulsion, we should be trying for nuclear rockets like NERVA. They achieved 800+ sec of specific impulse in actual ground test firings in the 1960s.

  8. I liked the LOX-Augmented Nuclear Thermal Rocket (LANTR) better than Orion. You get the end-burn Isp of NERVA with an early-burn T/W ratio more like a conventional chemical rocket. But I don’t really believe that higher Isp is necessarily the key to a cost breakthrough. Skilled labor, not propellant, drives the cost of space launches. Maxwell Hunter argued that lack of intact abort capability, with its associated quality control nightmares, was driving the labor costs.

  9. Wyatt Wingfoot says:

    Geez, Pan-Am had one of these already going in 1968, er, 2001!

    See: Pan-Am Orion III Space Clipper

  10. koblog says:

    Well, DensityDuck, I may have to agree with you. The customer may well be at fault. But it makes the whole proposal process a farce. NASA’s stated reasons for selecting LMC were design, cost and schedule.

    The almost immediate changes in design, escalation of cost and extension of schedule (after using those same reasons for rejecting NGC) tell me that NASA was simply going through the motions with the proposal process, intending to give LMC the contract all along.

    NASA would save a lot of time and money by simply granting their supplier of choice a no-bid contract.

    And, sadly, after it’s all said and done, Orion is Apollo on steroids with less functionality than the shuttle.

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  12. DensityDuck says:

    koblog: No; it means that NASA wanted what they are now asking for all along, and the “competition” was about whose proposal team had a better Powerpoint presentation.

    Also: Less functionality? Sure! Which means less weight, less complexity, less testing, less intricate engineering or technology development…NASA had absolutely no need for ANYTHING that the Space Shuttle could do. None of it. The STS was designed by the Air Force, who wanted a fast-response launcher for Keyhole vehicles. The only reason NASA was able to do anything with it was arms-control treaties.

    Indeed, you could look at the STS as the USAF’s way of giving the middle finger to NASA. The USAF had wanted an aerodynamic vehicle all along; see the X-15 and X-20. And gee golly, look what the STS turned into, despite early studies showing that a VTVL capsule was exactly what NASA needed!

    (Edited to fix the emphasis – Alan)

  13. DensityDuck says:

    Grr. That’ll teach me to post at a phpBB board before coming here.

  14. alan says:

    I fixed it for you.

  15. DensityDuck says:


  16. tim says:

    Please, does anyone really believe Lockheed is going to deliver this product. Whens the last time a lockheed project came in on time and anywhere near budget. My prediciton 4 years from know the moneys gone and the projects cancelled.