Still Enamored With Orion

I see that Brian Wang is continuing to post on the potential benefits of nuclear-explosion propulsion, here and here (where he takes on Charlie Stross), and here, where he talks about it in the context of unmanned Mars missions and a high-speed asteroid interceptor.

I do think that there’s potential for this vehicle off planet, but I remain highly skeptical that it will ever launch payloads from earth, regardless of how theoretically cheap it might be. Particularly in the Age of Obama.

And frankly, when I read things like:

Nuclear Orion can achieve launch costs of less than $1/kg and perhaps a tiny fraction of that.

…it reminds me of the old claims from the early days of nuclear power that it would be “too cheap to meter.”

Actually, he understates Shuttle costs as being “$5000 to $6000 per pound,” even if it is an “accepted figure.” At current flight rates, I would guess that (at least to ISS), the current costs are about a billion per flight for about 40,000 (or less) lbs, or more like $25,000/lb (or more, depending on the payload). Which makes Orion look even better, of course. But it also displays my long-standing claim that the single most sensitive variable with regard to launch costs is flight rate, and any vehicle design consideration is a secondary matter.

I think that Brian’s mistake is demonstrated in the false choice of the title of this post which was a response to this one of mine:

Small and Expensive Versus Big and Possibly Infrequent Space Launch

The implication is that small is intrinsically expensive. But it’s not.

Small is only expensive when a) you throw the vehicle away and b) you don’t fly it very much. I would suggest that Brian read this piece on the subject of the reasons for high launch costs, which I wrote over four years ago to allay exactly this kind of misunderstanding, and (if he can afford the time and money — it’s really a bargain at the cost if one can get to Phoenix) attend the Space Access conference a month from now, where he can get up to speed on the current state of chemical-rocket launch technology (and its economics and business prospects).

10 thoughts on “Still Enamored With Orion”

  1. And of course, like comercial aircraft, they’d have to have the kind of demand/traffic that would keep those big boys flying not only often, but nearly full.

    If you don’t expect that kind of traffic, you run into the problem that nuclear pulse (with bombs, not beam-ingnited pellets or the like, which are not yet an option anyway) doesn’t scale down well to small vehicles…

  2. In my newest link (see the highlighted date in this comment), I have analyzed a one off based on modifying the old underground nuclear tests done by the Russians and the Americans in the 5-10 Megaton range.

    If we do not count the sacrificed salt dome or area under an unused island (or if we do and assign the actual market value of one million or less) then we can make the shaft, reconfigure some nukes, do the simulations and prep the shaft for collapse and perhaps have a rapid deployment cover for the exit along with the collapsed shaft. I don’t see how the costs go over $1 billion for a 100,000-200,000 kg launch, which could be valued at $1-5 trillion if we deliver stuff to the moon or high orbit or $100-500 billion if we imagine something being ten times cheaper. The launch cost are based on the best unmanned launch costs now or available soon not against crappy old shuttle.

    Even this one and done, payoff all of the incremental costs does not come out to more than $20-50/kg. And it can be done fast. The costs obviously come down if it is repeated. It all depends on how many remote underground areas we want to give up. The variable costs for the nukes, propellant that will become plasma and the projectile and the site costs and prep is low.

    This would not be the first time we gave up underground areas. For nuclear testing or for the oil and gas and coal industry. People seem to be making big plans to use a lot of underground areas for CO2 storage.

    This is building upon the shoulders of the Orion Project (Dyson, Ted Taylor and others), Thunderwell & Pascal A&B (Feynman), the nuclear arms industry (trillions in development and research).

    Yes, this is going big. But I believe that it would be very useful to have a lot of water, fuel, refine metals, hardened electronics, polymers and other supplies up in space. Fuel and supply depots on the moon and in orbit would be very useful for the chemical rockets and future spaceplanes to have. Supply depots in low-mid earth orbit would immediately lower the costs of space operations.

    Big payloads and tiny payloads go hand in hand.

    Jump start the space program. Lob the materials for Orions onto the moon. Send the robots and people up later to make the ships to go fast to the Mars and Saturn.

    100,000 tons on the moon. 10 – 4,000 ton Orions. Plus supplies for a monster lunar base.

    I do not believe that anyone has plans to do have 100,000 tons on the moon within the next 30 years with any other plan. And not even getting started before using 100 billion

  3. Simply getting Orion to work reliably would likely be effectively impossible, if the vehicles are as large as some want (pusher plate the area of 30 football fields? How many of those are you planning to lose during the test flights?)

    My feeling is that Orion-like vehicles will only ever be used in space, in no small part because they can be incrementally tested (once we have lots of infrastructure there) without great risk of losing the things. But this is not a scenario that reduces launch costs or, most likely, that will occur anytime soon.

  4. Sorry the link is the highlighted name.

    The proposal is simpler and cheaper and safer than Orion. It is one shot/pulse and into space. It is a true nuclear bomb powered cannon. The cannon being a chamber underground with a shaft for the projectile to move through. The chamber is only to contain the 15% of undirected energy and the fallout. the chamber does not have to enhance or direct the projectile.

    The plate does not have to take multiple hits, just one.

    This program is not to make a vehicle it is make a cargo carrying projectile. Why would it have tolerances made so close that there is the remotest chance of not containing the cargo. It is all newtonian mechanics.

    This is pretty much exactly what the ablative oil coated metal balls did when they were exposed and undamaged from a nuclear blast.

    Very little new technical ground is being developed here.

    It is possible to do some smaller tests, just as smaller underground tests were performed in the 1960-1975. Plus the petaflop supercomputers that are designed and tasked to simulate nuclear explosions would give a very accurate picture of what will happen.

    Underground nuclear explosions were done and most very successfuly contained the nuclear material.

    What is going to increase the costs ? We are leveraging the multi-trillion investment and testing in nuclear weapons. We are using the $50 billion per year that the US is still spending on nuclear weapons.

    Tests can start off with the smaller kiloton nukes that are in the stockpile or they could use the big lasers and computers and such that are already tasked to simulating nuclear explosions.

  5. I would think there is some possibility of designing an asymmetrical thermonuclear device, more or less a shaped charge that would blow most of its energy in one direction. The idea would be to shape the hohlraum so that the X-ray gas squeezes the LiD in such a way as to set off a shock wave going in one direction. You might tamp the other side with a lot of U238, too. I dunno, it’s tough because you might be relying a lot — too much? — on inertia to confine the other side. But near the end they were very clever about squeezing all kinds of tricks out of fusion bombs.

    That means you still need to confine an atomic blast, but it could be fairly small, a kiloton or so. That’s certainly plausible.

    There’s codes that could prove this out, I expect, but, ha ha, they’re about the most closely guarded secrets that exist.

  6. This all has to be done by the guys who control the nuclear bombs. The Casaba-howitzer program (still classified) is referred to by George Dyson and presumably Freeman Dyson as the proof it is possible to mostly direct the force of the explosion where you want. 85% is the claim. Plus there is some shaping of the filler/propellant which will become the plasma.

    I am telling them. Hey you could do this. Save potentially trillions.

    Plus probably better for the environment. How much pollutants from 10,000 or so rocket launches with chemical fuel production and fumes into the atmosphere ?

  7. If you confine yourself to LOX and liquid hydrogen, (as with the Space Shuttle Main Engine) the pollutant figure is “zero,” unless you consider water vapor to be a pollutant.

    In fact, the depressing thing about the follow-on to Shuttle is that it is a large aluminum perchlorate solid booster which would pollute very much.

    Nobody seems interested in blowing the dust off of Phil Bono’s designs for Douglas Aircraft – the “plug” engine, developed for Projects Hyperion and Ithacus, which would have had per-pound costs in the $25-$100 range (in modern dollars – at the time, the estimates were more like $12.50 – $25/pound) – not as bargain-basement as Orion, but I’m skeptical about the $1/pound claim myself. If nothing else, the financial corollary of Parkinson’s Law (costs for a given project escalate to use up alloted funding) would curse Orion until its per-pound costs went up to a Hyperion/Ithacus price range.

    But Federal programs are not designed to SAVE money, but to shuttle as much money as efficiently as possible into the pockets of the favorite Congressional districts and contractors of the party in power.

  8. The problem now is that the current prostitute, er, President isn’t going to support ANY new initiatives in space – his covert Marxism agenda is all going to destroy all government research with any possible military applications. We’ve done gone and finally elected a Soviet agent of influence, just in time for Vladimir Putin to revive Sovietism in Russia. When the Russians call Obama “a reliable partner in arms control,” they’re making the understatement of the century. He’s more like their reliable hand puppet. He studied at the feet of Marxist Saul Alinsky, whose motto was “Don’t scare the middle class,” with the unspoken rejoinder “until it’s too late.”

    So talking about trying to convince Obama to approve ANY space technology which doesn’t run on “clean coal” (another contradiction in terms,” but one favored by a reliable contributor to several Obama campaigns) is going to be a non-starter. And Socialism America-style will be at least three successors-deep in the line of Presidential succession (something to which we’ve been paying morbid attention in this country since the disaster of November, 2008 for the first time since Watergate).

    I think that China and Russia will have space all to themselves (the Greens will keep Europe out of the race) at least until 2012. I think the Mayans were just four years late in their prediction of the Great Disaster.

  9. I assume Brian’s launch from underground tube would still involve letting off a number of bombs on the way up. How many bombs would that be & how much radioactivity could we expect per bomb? I assume Bomb technology has improved & we can make them significantly cleaner yhan 50 yeard ago.

    While I am a believer in the radiation hormesis theory, that low level radiation, at the sort of level people in Kerala India or even Denver live under, fear of radiation does seem to be the deal breaker here.

  10. It’s not just the amount of radiation per nuclear propellant charge in the atmosphere, but its fate in the environment and composition. I live in Denver, as it turns out, where the prime sources of ionizing radiation are cosmic rays and uranium/uranium decay chain nuclides in the soil. Neither pose a serious threat to enter my body and cause local cancers and/or somatic mutations.

    Those hypothetical nuclear propellant charges might be cleaner now than they would have been back in the 1960s when Dyson and Taylor were drawing up plans for Orion, but that’s a relative term. Even “clean” fusion-boosted small-yield fission nuclear devices still will contribute fission products to the atmosphere, leading to an irreducible rise in the cancer rate for those in the vicinity and far away as some of these fission products are ingested by humans eventually.

    (By comparison, the textbook case for radiation hormesis – in which many Taiwanese citizens were exposed to radiation from buildings with cobalt-60 in their steel reinforcing rods over many years, considered not ingested ionizing radiation but gamma radiation encapsulated in the building structure and filtered through building walls and other structure.)

    Of course, if what we’re talking about is a near-earth asteroid intercept mission, then the cost/benefit ratio couldn’t be clearer – you have to be ALIVE to get cancer from airborne fission products later on in life. An Orion-derived asteroid intercept ship makes very good sense from a safety as well as a functional standpoint, even if it were launched from the continental US and not one of the poles.

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