Dr. Dyson’s Space Patrol

by Daniel Brenton on February 26, 2009

in Space

    We can salvage something from our all-too-horrible Cold War past that can save us from our all-too-possible extinction.

Dr. Dyson's Space Patrol or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (Again)

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

Start: Now, if you’re any kind of space geek at all, you know who made the above statement.

My grandmother didn’t like John Kennedy. I’m not sure how strongly I should put that — Kennedy, after all, was God-forsaken Democrat (yes, the family was pretty much all card-carrying Republicans), but being a fundamentalist Christian woman, she would probably not express what she really felt.

The Space Program in her mind was, of course, a complete waste of taxpayer money, a sort of government make-work program for Werner von Braun and his Rocket Boys.

Of course, as I became increasing fascinated with space flight, my grandmother became correspondingly annoyed with my fascination.

She, and I’m sure many others, have missed one of the real points of the Moon Race. On May 25, 1961 with the above words President Kennedy captured the imagination of enough of the American people to launch us on a decade-long ascent to the highest pinnacle acknowledged in our species’ collective consciousness.

He asked for the Moon, and America delivered.

Intentional or not, this act may have in truth saved the human species. With these words Kennedy slapped the face of the Soviet Union’s cherubic and mocking Nikita Khrushchev with a gentleman’s glove of challenge, shunting the Cold War into the heavens, into a symbolic struggle for technological and and astronautical supremacy which may very well have successfully distracted us from incinerating ourselves in our own seemingly Hell-bent drive for Mutual Assured Destruction.

God bless you, Mr. Kennedy.

We have the means, forged in midst of those uncertain times, to protect us from an even greater threat to ourselves than our own species.

(Yes, Virginia, there are things more dangerous to our world than we are.)

Our Own Personal Apocalypse Averted … Sort of

As a child I was fascinated with nuclear energy, fed, I’m sure, by the reassuring optimism of Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland and his educational cartoons about the atomic genie we as a world had released. After Walt had put his magic on the unleashed power of the atom, I could almost believe it would be the technological miracle that would manifest a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.

The promise of atomic power applied to space flight was equally seductive. This promised smaller and/or faster trips to other planets than even the big chemically propelled rockets of the time, opening up even more of the Final Frontier.

Of course, the darker side of the Atomic Age was a waking nightmare that followed us into the peace of our deepest sleep. Even as a child I was aware (my father would say morbidly aware) of the reality that at any moment intercontinental ballistic missiles could arc over my horizon and bluntly dismiss my strategically insignificant life.

With Glasnost and the subsequent the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Bloc, the human race breathed a collective sigh of relief, feeling an abiding peace that we were no longer walking in the shadow of the Apocalypse. In truth we were still walking in it, but for a time, at least, it didn’t seem like it.

A Not-So-Personal Apocalypse Which Hasn’t Been Averted at All

We face an equal threat, just as real, but beyond the reach and influence of our petty terrestrial politics and, at the moment, largely out of our control. We face the threat of our Earth being struck by interplanetary objects, asteroids or comets massive enough to raise tsunamis or plunge us into a naturally-created nuclear winters.

Popular entertainment forms render this this very serious reality into differing accounts of dismissible “sci-fi.” There have been novels, video and computer games, movies, and so on, all with differing levels of authenticity. The film Deep Impact, was far more realistic than Bruce Willis’ Armageddon, yet both films portrayed some space program-based effort to spare the human race from extinction.

To get a real picture of this threat, I discovered quite a bit of information available on NASA’s Asteroid and Comet Impact Hazard website (I mean, NASA’s supposed to know, right?).

In an MSNBC article from November 1, 2005 posted on the site1, Science editor Alan Boyle’s question and answer session with Planetary scientist Don Yeomans, the manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, gives a more serious but sedate view of the actual threat. When asked about the issue of a recent “near miss” because the object was hidden by the glare of the Sun during its approach and discovered only afterward, Yeomans pointed out the real defense is long-term observation, identifying, tracking, and predicting the paths of these objects. The toughest scenario is long period comets, whose orbits, by the present state of the art, can’t really be predicted until they are inside the orbit of Jupiter, which on average would give us only about nine months to respond.

Can you imagine our government mounting any kind of effective effort in that tiny amount of time?

The truth of it is that, barring some secret effort kept hidden from us, there is no hardware in place right now to deal with any of these scenarios. Given enough lead time, very small unmanned spacecraft can nudge the course of an intruding object sufficiently to save us from extinction with only the tiniest applications of force. But in the event of these “short notice” kind of scenarios there is nothing standing between us and global catastrophe.

But it is possible, and we simply cannot afford the luxury of not making this actual.

Thinking Unthinkable (and Really Cool) Thoughts

In the 1940′s and ’50′s the mind-bending concept of lofting gargantuan vehicles from the Earth’s surface and propelling them at tremendous speeds through space propelled by atomic explosions was explored by various contractors in the nuclear industry. But in the late 1950s, Theodore Taylor and Freeman Dyson, under the auspices of the General Atomics corporation, mounted the most ambitious study of these efforts, this one known as Project Orion. 2, 3

The principle to this is simpler than one might expect. Atomic or thermonuclear charges are designed to vaporize a plug or disk of a specific material, called a “propellant,” into a burst of high-velocity plasma (gas so superheated that it becomes ionized). This plasma would in turn strike a shock-absorbing bumper on the back of vehicle, smoothing out the concussion. The energy of the plasma is transferred to the vehicle, accelerating it.

In terms of the total amount of energy being expended by these charges, the technique squanders vast amounts of it, yet the tiny amount that this technique does harness is sufficient to drive space craft — no, make that space ships — of unprecedented mass and size.

I frankly find the idea both deeply compelling and faintly horrible. The sheer audacity of riding atomic charges through the stratosphere is a nightmare image that fills me with awe.

The fiction writer in me is drawn to the notion of this actually having been accomplished in the early 1960′s for some reason of terrible urgency, a crew of military men and atomic scientists catapulted from the cratered face of the Nevada Test Site’s Jackass Flats into the heavens for a mission of deeply hidden purpose. And now, nearly half a century later, the great lifeless hulk of this vessel is coasting silently in some distant orbit holding the suppressed and finally forgotten secret of some dark destiny.

Seductive, isn’t it?

What shot Orion down is the simple fact that the propulsive charges produce fallout. Even if assembled and used solely in space, some radiation generated when the ship maneuvers near the Earth would eventually find its way back into our ecosystem.

How much would find it’s way back is only one of the questions that falls into the political debate over the use of atomic power in space, and where solid science is ignored and loses any meaning. I don’t dismiss the issue, but it is an emotional one, and there is that faction that wants nothing to do with nuclear devices in any form — on the Earth or being carried into space.

However, I see an opportunity here to kill a flock of birds with only a few stones.

Reforging the Spoils of the Cold War

The basic Orion technique for space flight is the only technically feasible way available to us at this time to mount deep space missions with short enough travel times to be effective against the threat of a “short notice” interplanetary object. Considering the possibility of extinction level events, the unsavory aspects of this method should not exclude it from consideration. The possibility of fallout or fuel-dispersal accident cannot realistically be eliminated, but they can be mitigated.

I propose we build two or four of these craft in high earth orbit, probably geosynchronous orbit, above the Earth’s magnetosphere. This adds greatly to the cost, but would help shield the earth from the operation of the vehicles. Though the new Ares series of heavy-lift boosters is currently in development, there has long been the suggestion of using the current Space Shuttle hardware (solid engines, the big fuel tank, and the Shuttle rocket engine assembly) to launch large payload modules into space in the place of hauling the Shuttle Orbiter. Payload into low Earth orbit, per shot, would be on the order of 100 tons. (As the Six Million Dollar Man’s Oscar Goldman would say, “We have the technology.”)

Right now there is an issue of the disposal of nuclear waste. Part of this issue is that our nation has a policy of not reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in order to prevent it from becoming weapons-grade material. What I’d like to suggest is that maybe we can put at least a dent in the problem by proceeding to process some of our stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel into weapons grade material for use as propulsion charges for these Orion-type vehicles.

It would of course be far less expensive (and would eliminate the risks associated with transporting the propulsion charge into space) to build these on the ground, maintain them, and launch them should the day they are needed arrive. (One would hope a little fallout would be tolerated as an acceptable trade-off in the face of extinction.) But these craft need to be tested, and the mission profile, mission support, and crew need to be put through their paces.

To properly flight test these ships, I would want to see missions mounted by pairs of them (for redundancy) to some target object, such as one of what are known as the “Trojan” asteroids that lead and follow the planet Jupiter in its orbit. Depending on the mission profile, the ships could:

  • Shatter the object with nuclear devices in passing;
  • Rendezvous with the object and “nudge” it into another trajectory;
  • “Land” on the object and mine it with a grid of propulsion charges intended to detonate simultaneously to vaporize the object or pulverize it into a dispersing cloud of gravel;

… or whatever scenario the Brain Boys and Brain Girls (should I say Brain Persons?) back home deem the best for the situation. Naturally this kind of mission would be an excellent opportunity for planetary scientists to gain more understanding about how the Solar System works, and an Orion-type vehicle could accommodate a vast array of scientific sensors and equipment in its payload, and maybe even a team of scientists to boot.

As you have probably noted, I am suggesting these vessels be manned, as opposed to controlled by a combination of remote management and artificial intelligence. There would be a number of advantages to an unmanned approach, but the main disadvantage would be a lack of real-time human decision-making ability at the location. Radio waves take three quarters of an hour, give or take a few minutes, to reach something as far as Jupiter. But beyond the time delay, the value of having people there, on site, able to see and react instantly to conditions artificial intelligence might not grasp and remote operators might not see or wouldn’t see at all or for the better part of an hour could spell the difference between success or failure.

Beating our Swords … into Shields

Dr. Dyson's Space PatrolShould my words come to those who can act on these things, I submit to you that the spoils of the Cold War — the perfection of the technology of nuclear weapons, and the know-how of the Moon Race — can and should serve us, as a species, for our survival on our only home.

I can think of no more noble redemption for that dark time.

Thank you again, Mr. Kennedy.

We owe you. Every single one of us.



1. NASA’s NEOs and Planetary Defense in the News webpage http://impact.arc.nasa.gov/news_detail.cfm?ID=166

2. Michael Flora’s excellent article on Project Orion at: http://www.islandone.org/Propulsion/ProjectOrion.html

3. Project Orion, George Dyson, Henry Holt and Co., 2002.


Copyright © 2006-2009, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.

This article is revised from a previous version (no longer available) which was published on this site, Sept. 16, 2006.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Angela February 27, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Wow, I really enjoyed this, Daniel. We SHOULD be putting this to use and very well COULD. Certainly hope we don’t face this type of situation but agree, could very well be part of our near future. Thanks for the excellent, well-written and entertaining thoughts into the future.


Daniel Brenton February 28, 2009 at 11:39 am

Angela –

Thanks for that.

I know this isn’t an original idea on my part, but I feel it deserves continued exposure. Obviously right now in America we’re focused on things closer to home, but at some point we’re going to have to belly up to the bar and make something happen.

And the sooner the better, in my humble opinion.


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