Colonize Space... with Nukes

By Anatoly Karlin

Look, I realize Elon Musk is really cool and all, but this latest is just not that significant. The Falcon Heavy can carry 63 tons into orbit – but only if the rocket isn’t reused. If it is, it’s just a sad 8 tons. That already rules out commercial applications involving very expensive payloads (e.g. most satellites), so long as reliability remains significantly worse – Musk himself estimated it at 50% for the Falcon Heavy – than for proven workhorses like the Soyuz (97% success rate) or the Ariane (95%).

this essay was first posted HERE

More importantly, 10 ton or even 100 ton payloads aren’t gonna cut it if were are serious about establishing a LARGE, credibly autonomous Mars colony that could serve as a refuge from terrestrial existential risks.

I.e. something like this:


Instead of some crappy campsite at 0.376g:


So how do we go about this?

Today, there are just two more or less realistic (for now) methods to move millions of tons into space.

Space Elevator

Cool and all, but discussions begin and end with an intractable problem: The materials needed to build it are either too weak, or too ridiculously expensive.

Highly vulnerable to accident and sabotage (and sabotage disguised as accident) as well. At orbital speeds, even a small wayward satellite can really wreck your day.

Nuclear pulse propulsion

Has been technically feasible since when it was first proposed in the 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, and developed into workable designs by Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson in the late 1950s.



Basic idea: Mount spacecraft/payload onto a pusher plate, and explode a series of shaped nuclear charges to accelerate the thing into space. You could explode them in rapid succession if sudden acceleration is of no concern (cargo only), or in spaced out intervals if carrying human crews. There was a good description of how the riding an Orion craft might feel like in Stephen Baxter’s Ark.

Atomic Rockets has an extremely comprehensive article on Project Orion.

8 miserly tons? Fuhgeddaboutit! Even the most modest Project Orion design from 1959 could support 1,300 tons, which is an order of magnitude greater than the most powerful heavy launch rockets either then or now.

There are almost no limits to what can be achieved – if anything, it is small Orion craft that are more of a challenge than large ones:

Orion drive spacecraft scale up quite easily. However, unlike other propulsion systems, they do                          not scale down gracefully. Surprisingly it is much more of an engineering challenge to make a small Orion. It is difficult to make a nuclear explosive below a certain yield in kilotons, and small nuclear explosives waste most of their uranium or plutonium. But it is relatively easy to make them as huge as you want, just pile on the megatons.So in the 1960′s when General Atomic made their first pass at a design, it was for a titanic 4,000 metric ton monster.

At the extreme end, there was the Super Orion design, able to carry a payload of 8 million tons (including 3 million tons of cargo) – that’s six orders of magnitude greater than the Falcon “Heavy”. Brian Wang notes that this is equivalent to about 30 supercarriers. Supercarriers are small towns in themselves, able to autonomously support thousands of human lives for months on end. The equivalent of 30 of them might be enough for a viable generation ship.

In between these extremes, there were a wide variety of possible configurations and propulsion methods.

One particularly crazed individual even made a design for propulsion based on a continuously detonating stream of radioactive water. (Yes you read that right).

Then there are the military applications:

When the Orion nuclear pulse propulsion concept was being developed, the researchers at General Atomic were interested in an interplanetary research vessel. But the US Air Force was not. They thought the 4,000 ton version of the Orion would be right sized for an interplanetary warship, armed to the teeth.

And when they said armed, they meant ARMED. It had enough nuclear bombs to devastate an entire continent (500 twenty-megaton city-killer warheads), 5-inch Naval cannon turrets, six hypersonic landing boats, and several hundred of the dreaded Casaba Howitzer weapons — which are basically ray guns that shoot nuclear flame (the technical term is “nuclear shaped charge”).

This basically a 4,000 ton Orion with the entire payload shell jam-packed with as many weapons as they could possibly stuff inside.

Keep in mind that this is a realistic design. It could actually be built.

This never came to be thanks to the very weak President Kennedy getting horrified by this assortment of weaponry… somehow I don’t think Trump would have had this problem.

Anyhow, the main problem is ofc fallout. Or rather, the hysterical propaganda around it:

However, there is a recent report that suggests ways of minimizing the fallout from an ORION doing a ground lift-off (or a, wait for it, “blast-off” {rimshot}). Apparently if the launch pad is a large piece of armor plate with a coating of graphite there is little or no fallout.

By which they mean, little or no ground dirt irradiated by neutrons and transformed into deadly fallout and spread the the four winds.

There is another problem, though, ironically because the pulse units use small low-yield nuclear devices.

Large devices can be made very efficient, pretty much 100% of the uranium or plutonium is consumed in the nuclear reaction. It is much more difficult with low-yield devices, especially sub-kiloton devices. Some of the plutonium is not consumed, it is merely vaporized and sprayed into the atmosphere. Fallout, in other words. You will need to develop low-yield devices with 100% plutonium burn-up, or use fusion devices (with 100% burn-up fission triggers or with laser inertial confinement fusion triggers).

Wikipedia notes that the USSR achieved 98% fusion yield in its experiments with nuclear canal excavation:

A 100% pure fusion explosive has yet to be successfully developed, according to declassified US government documents, although relatively clean PNEs (Peaceful nuclear explosions) were tested for canal excavation by the Soviet Union in the 1970s with 98% fusion yield in the Taiga test’s 15 kiloton devices, 0.3 kilotons fission, which excavated part of the proposed Pechora–Kama Canal.

In the end, a combination of Cold War nuclear proliferation treaties and environmentalist hysteria about all things nuclear killed all these beautiful 1950s visions of nuclear trains and trucks and interstellar spaceships dead.

Considering that the nuclear taboos is now greater than ever – there are many demented national leaderships who are banning nuclear power – the chances of anyone resurrecting Project Orion must be considered very small. If anyone does it, it will most likely be either China, which doesn’t answer to demotist whining, or Russia, where the construction of floating nuclear power stations suggests that the anti-nuclear taboo is less than overwhelming.

Otherwise, the chances of us getting off this sad clump of rock in bulk and on a sustainable basis – and these two things are interlinked – must be close to zero for the foreseeable future.