Project Orion: Deep Space Force

Fun & Games
Project Orion: Deep Space Force


The first part of this article, “Project Orion: Saturn by 1970,” appeared in MAKE, Volume 12. It detailed the development in the late 1950s of Project Orion, an interplanetary spaceship to be powered by nuclear bombs. This portion of the article covers the envisioned deployment, closer to Earth, of a Deep Space Force. Orion was never built. Adapted from the book Project Orion, with new material.

“Although the ORION propulsion device embraces a very interesting theoretical concept, it appears to suffer from such major research and development problems that it would not successfully compete for support,” wrote NASA administrator Richard Horner to ARPA director Herbert York in February 1960. The Moon was in; Mars and Saturn were out.

Following NASA’s rejection of Project Orion, a small group of officer-physicists at the Air Force Special Weapons Center in Albuquerque, N.M., kept the project team at General Atomic on life support.

But continued Air Force funding, without a NASA mission, would require military applications that could justify advancing from a million-dollar feasibility study to the tens of millions it would take to begin development, starting with nuclear tests.

Possible military applications began with Freeman Dyson’s original suggestion that “to have an observation post on the Moon with a fair-sized telescope would be a rather important military advantage for the side which gets there first,” and grew more ambitious from there. “Space platforms should be examined also, as well as the movement of asteroids and the like,” suggested future Secretary of the Air Force Lew Allen in October of 1958.

“After NASA was formed, the Air Force had to justify supporting Orion on the grounds that it had military significance,” remembers Ted Taylor, one of the designers of Project Orion. “So I spent a lot of time thinking about that and really got carried away on crazy doomsday machines — things like exploding bombs deep under the Moon’s surface and blowing lunar rocks at the Soviet Union. There were versions of Orion in which the entire retaliatory ICBM force was in one vehicle, which was very hard, and any time anyone tried to fire at it, it would turn around and present its rear end at the bombs coming at it. We were doing something for the project that we didn’t want to do but had to, to keep it alive, we thought.”

A May 1959 Air Force briefing revealed some “possible military uses of the Orion Vehicle,” including reconnaissance and early warning, electronic countermeasures, anti-ICBM, and “ICBM, orbital, or deep space weapons.” Finally, there was “The Horrible weapon — 1,650-ton continent-buster hanging over the enemy’s head as a deterrent.”

The problem was how to distinguish the defensive from the offensive when deploying weapons in space. “Only delicate timing would determine whether satellite neutralizations were offensive or defensive,” explained a secret telex on “Global Integration of Space Surveillance, Tracking, and Related Facilities,” marked “For Eyes of the USAF Only,” from the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Neb., on May 31, 1959.

“There presently exist no military requirements beyond cis-lunar space,” a classified Air Force summary expounded. “However, one must note that one reason there are no military requirements for a deep space vehicle is simply that no one has ever before seriously considered sending a large, manned, useful payload to this area for military purposes.”

Air Force Capt. Donald M. Mixson stepped in to fill the gap. “He’d have been the first man on board,” says his partner, Col. Don Prickett. Mixson and Prickett saw Orion as a way to sustain the type of creative, fast-moving effort that the proliferation of peacetime bureaucracy was bringing to an end.

“Mixson and Prickett were fed up with the Air Force system and Orion was a way to put a burr under the Air Force saddle blanket,” explains Orion’s lead experimentalist, Brian Dunne. Mixson shuttled back and forth between Albuquerque, Washington, D.C., and La Jolla, Calif., intermediating between the physicists who saw Orion as a way to visit Mars and the generals who saw Orion as a way to counter the Soviets on Earth.

Military Implications of the Orion Vehicle appeared in July of 1959 and was, according to a declassified Air Force summary, “largely the work of Mixson, aided by Dr. Taylor, Dr. Dyson, Dr. D.J. Peery, Maj. Lew Allen, Capt. Jasper Welch, and First Lt. William Whittaker. The study examined the possibilities of establishing military aerospace forces with ORION ships and these were conceived as: 1) a low altitude force (2-hour, 1,000-mile orbits), 2) a moderate altitude force (24-hour orbits), and 3) a deep space force (the Moon and beyond). The report recommended that the Air Force formally establish a requirement for the ORION vehicle in order to prevent the ‘disastrous consequences’ of an enemy first.”

Gen. Thomas S. Power, who had succeeded Gen. Curtis LeMay as SAC’s commander in chief, initiated Air Force QORs (Qualitative Operational Requirements) for a “Strategic Aerospace Vehicle,” a “Strategic Earth Orbital Base,” and a “Strategic Space Command Post” with Orion in mind. Prickett flew out to General Atomic with Mixson for a briefing with the general. “It was a wide-open discussion on potential, and what we were going to do with it when we got it,” says Prickett. “And Power of course didn’t have any problem knowing what to do with it.”

By 1960, the world’s nuclear stockpile was estimated by John F. Kennedy at 30 million kilotons, whose primary mission was to deter a first-strike attack. Orion offered an alternative to keeping all this firepower — some 10,000 times the total expended in World War II — on hair-trigger alert. A declassified summary incorporates Mixson’s description of Deep Space Force:

Once a space ship is deployed in orbit it would remain there for the duration of its effective lifetime, say 15 to 20 years. Crews would be trained on the ground and deployed alternately, similar to the Blue and Gold team concept used for the Polaris submarines. A crew of 20 to 30 would be accommodated in each ship. An Earth-like shirtsleeve environment with artificial gravity systems, together with ample sleeping accommodations and exercise and recreation equipment, would be provided in the space ship. Minor fabrication as well as limited module repair facilities would be provided on board.

On the order of 20 space ships would be deployed on a long-term basis. By deploying them in individual orbits in deep space, maximum security and warning can be obtained. At these altitudes, an enemy attack would require a day or more from launch to engagement. Assuming an enemy would find it necessary to attempt destruction of this force simultaneously with an attack on planetary targets, initiation of an attack against the deep space force would provide the United States with a relatively long early warning of an impending attack against its planetary forces. Furthermore, with the relatively long transit time for attacking systems, the space ships could take evasive action, employ decoys, or launch anti-missile weapons, providing a high degree of invulnerability of the retaliatory force.

Each space ship would constitute a self-sufficient deep space base, provided with the means of defending itself, carrying out an assigned strike or strikes, assessing damage to the targets, and retargeting and restriking as appropriate. The space ship can deorbit and depart on a hyperbolic Earth encounter trajectory. At the appropriate time the weapons can be ejected from the space ship with only minimum total impulse required to provide individual guidance. After ejection and separation of weapons, the space ship can man-euver to clear the Earth and return for damage assessment and possible restrikes, or continue its flight back to its station in deep space.

By placing the system on maneuvers, it would be possible to clearly indicate the United States’ capability of retaliation without committing the force to offensive action. In fact, because of its remote station, the force would require on the order of 10 hours to carry out a strike, thereby providing a valid argument that such a force is useful as a retaliatory force only. This also provides insurance against an accidental attack which could not be recalled.

“Such a capability, if fully exploited, might remove a substantial portion of the sphere of direct military activity away from inhabited areas of the opposing countries in much the same manner that seapower has,” another General Atomic study concluded, echoing the argument that had struck such a responsive chord at SAC. Mixson, according to Freeman Dyson, “had read Admiral Alfred T. Mahan’s classic work, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, and his imagination had been fired by Mahan’s famous description of the British navy in the years of the Napoleonic Wars: ‘Those far distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world.’”

Was it crazy to imagine stationing nuclear weapons 250,000 miles deep in space? Or is it crazier to keep them within minutes of their targets here on Earth?

“Orion would be more peaceful and probably less prone to going off half-cocked,” says David Weiss, an aeronautical engineer and former test pilot who shared Mixson’s enthusiasm for Deep Space Force. “We were looking at a multinational crew, the same sort of thing that’s going on in NATO, and we would have had safeguards — a two- or three-key system in order to launch anything.”

The deterrent system we ended up with, instead, depended either on B-52 crews kept under constant alert, or on missile crews stationed underground in silos, or underwater in submarines, waiting, in the dark, for a coded signal telling them to launch.

“At SAC, this was always the weak point,” continues Weiss. “You were sitting there listening to your single side-band and it would come through either on a cell-call frequency, which is assigned to you, or on a barrage broadcast, and it would tell you to open up your target packets.” There were about 20 minutes available to verify the extent of an enemy attack — or false alarm — before launching an irrevocable response.

The Blue and Gold Orion crews would have spent their tours of duty on six-month rotation beyond the Moon — listening to 8-track tapes, picking up broadcast television, and marking time by the sunrise progressing across the face of a distant Earth. With one eye on deep space and the other eye on Chicago and Semipalatinsk, the Orion fleet would have been ready not only to retaliate against the Soviet Union but to defend our planet, U.S. and U.S.S.R. alike, against impact by interplanetary debris.

Once Orion ships were in deep space orbit, the outer planets would be within easy reach. The temptation would have been impossible to resist. “When you would go out privately with people in the Air Force, here in La Jolla, and talk about what’s Orion for, it was to explore space, no question about that,” remembers Taylor.

The 1960s might not have become the Sixties had events unfolded as envisioned by Taylor, Mixson, and Prickett. The Fifties might have just kept on going, thanks to Deep Space Force.

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George Dyson

George Dyson, a kayak designer and historian of technology, is the author of Baidarka, Project Orion and Darwin Among the Machines.

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