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Harry Stine: Building the Infrastructure

Before getting started on today’s post, a reminder that Tau Zero founder Marc Millis and I will be among those interviewed on the History Channel show Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe tonight at 10 PM Eastern US time (0200 UTC on Thursday). Many of the ideas discussed on that show parallel those found in Harry Stine’s program for interstellar exploration. Stine drew on the work of Stephen Dole, whose 1964 book Habitable Planets for Man identified 14 stars within a distance of 22 light years in the spectral classes between M2 and F2. Dole thought there was a 43 percent probability of at least one habitable planet around one of these 14 stars, and Stine’s interstellar program began with a series of probes that would investigate them, looking first for gas giants.

The idea is that a gas giant flags the presence of other, smaller planets, key information in Stine’s day. Forty years later, we know how to find gas giants through radial velocity and transit studies. It’s true that ‘hot Jupiters’ are relatively straightforward to find because of their pronounced radial velocity signature, but in coming decades we’ll have the technology in place to characterize entire solar systems using space- and ground-based instruments. Unmanned probes won’t be sent just to send back a ‘ping’ when they find a gas giant, as Stine would have it. They’ll be highly intelligent scientific stations that will give us a continuing presence in the destination system.


Stine, who died in 1997, was a familiar figure in science fiction and rocketry circles in the latter half of the 20th Century. A physics major at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he moved on to work at White Sands Proving Grounds and later became head of the Range Operations Division at the U.S. Naval Ordnance Missile Test Facility. His later career included employment at several aerospace companies in addition to numerous books. At left is the cover of his 1954 novel Starship Through Space, which went into depth on the operations of a star-faring vehicle in every respect save its propulsion system, which remained unexplored.

But propulsion is starflight’s greatest challenge, and two decades later it would be Project Orion that caught Stine’s eye. I have no idea when the first mention of Orion appeared in a science fiction magazine and I’ll ask this site’s resident SF gurus to help me out with this one. But Stine’s 1973 article in Analog is the first non-fiction treatment of Orion I’m aware of in the SF magazines.

Stine was taken with the idea of detonating nuclear or thermonuclear devices behind the craft, cushioning the blow with shock absorbers and using the explosion itself to drive the vehicle forward. He knew, too, that Dandridge Cole had played around with still more efficient nuclear-pulse designs that contained the explosion inside a huge spherical chamber, the benefit here being that venting the explosion through a rocket-like nozzle allows you much higher thrust and specific impulse. Says Stine:

Containing the explosion of a thermonuclear device may be a staggering idea to most people, but to an engineer it is just numbers. Give the idea to an engineer, and he’ll design it with an adequate safety factor and also determine how to make it. Engineers don’t get excited by big numbers or big gadgets.

Well, some engineers don’t, though I know many an engineer who would quail at the thought of building some of the Stine-era concepts routinely discussed by the likes of Cole, Gerard O’Neill and Robert Forward. But Stine seems to have drawn the line at Cole’s ideas, seeing an Orion-like propulsion system built in Earth orbit as the best solution. As to radiation, a 20-year development program of a newly awakened Orion project would give us the expertise to routinely work with nuclear materials in orbit, and a space environment in which, Stine notes, “the average small solar flare burps out more radiation than our largest conceivable thermonuclear device,” would forestall the objection of dangerous side effects to the planet.

Those gas giants I mentioned earlier weren’t to be identified solely because they flagged the presence of smaller worlds. Stine also saw them as what he called ‘interstellar filling stations’ for refueling starships. The point here is that a true program for interstellar exploration has to go beyond one-shot missions. What Stine envisioned was making starflight into a continuing effort of exploration and colonization, and that meant return capability as well as refueling for continuing on to other systems if desired. Although it doesn’t appear in his notes, I’m assuming that Freeman Dyson’s 1968 paper “Interstellar Transport,” which uses the early Orion work as the basis for a thermonuclear, interstellar Orion, played a role in Stine’s thinking.

Putting the Orion technology to work involved interstellar expeditions made up of fleets of between three and ten starships traveling together, on journeys lasting up to 100 years. With multiple target stars, we’re talking about a series of such fleets, each constructed using space-based resources that would feed off the new industries of resource extraction Stine assumed were a logical next step as we moved past the Moon and Mars. In fact, sustaining and growing that kind of infrastructure is in his view one of the reasons for starflight in the first place. See his book The Third Industrial Revolution (Putnam, 1975) for more.

Project Orion, terminated by the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, left the concept of nuclear-pulse propulsion hanging, but Robert D. Enzmann, then working at Raytheon Corporation, went on to develop conceptual engineering designs for the starship Orion could become. I’ll close this three part series on Stine’s “A Program for Star Flight” tomorrow with a look at the Enzmann starship, a design that is seeing renewed interest in the interstellar community.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Richard May 15, 2013, 18:08

    The Orion proect: an incredible concept and one of the great “what if” divergence points in history. The orginal concept was a huge ship wth hundreds of scientific crew, a two year visi to Mars in the late 60s and then a swing past saturn in 1970.
    Each launch was calculated to require about 100-megatons which at the time was roughly what was being detonated in atmospheric tests andyway.
    As the contamination issue became more troublesome the Orion team talked with Von Braun about putting a “mini Orion” atop a Saturn V and putting an 8-person team on the Moon.
    It’s an incredible story and makes our present efforts seem glacially slow, cautious and woefully unambitious.
    I wrote an overview of the project on my blog here: http://frontiermultimedia.com/humans-on-mars-in-the-late-1960s-the-moons-of-saturn-by-1970-what-might-have-been/

  • A. A. Jackson May 15, 2013, 22:09

    There is a story that in 1945 ,someone, maybe Stanislaw Ulam himself, remarked at a party soon after Trinity that everyone should start drawing up patents for the use of nuclear energy or devices.
    George Dyson notes that when Ulam was with a group of friends (he loved to brainstorm with other people) Richard Feynman sketched the idea of a nuclear rocket, but never took the idea anywhere or got a patent. Some where I heard it was during or not long after this that Ulam came up with the nuclear pulse propulsion idea. As Dyson notes Ulam and Reines authored a memorandum about it in 1947 (according to Dyson still classified!).
    Feynman’s thoughts were developed by many at Los Alamos and became Project Rover , all this under radio silence. Just goes to show how dumb secrecy can be, because Les Shephard of the BIS figured all the same stuff out, published in 1948 while the Los Alamos guys had to wait till almost 10 years later to publish.
    I don’t know how Dandridge Cole found about it , tho he was a senior engineer at Martin and probably had access to classified meetings and documents. His was a ‘contained’ explosion concept , which I think also came from Los Alamos and may have been in the Ulam-Reines memo.

    Boy! In science fiction. I don’t know that anyone thought of it before Dyson’s article in Physics Total. Then I can’t remember it being used right away.
    We know Fred Ordway was working on Orion* concepts for von Braun when hired away by Kubrick to be technical adviser on 2001. Was not used in the film , main reason given, probably right, Kubrick , after Dr. Strangelove was fatigued by nuclear weapons, but I have also heard he felt it just did not have the ‘gravitas’ of the nuclear propulsion system they did use in the movie.

    I met G Harry Stein only once, at a National Amateur Meet in Houston, 69 or 70 I think. I was in the Apollo program then, I remember we did talk about spaceflight and his science fiction , but everything ended on a bad note.
    We got to talking about 2001: A Space Odyssey , Stein got really mad , apparently about Kubrick, not about 2001 but because he did not like Dr. Strangelove! An old Cold War warrior he didn’t like satires about nuclear war. That ended the conversation.

    *Why the Pan Am Clipper in 2001 (the shuttle) was called Orion, Kubrick at least like the name.

  • David May 15, 2013, 23:08

    I have long wanted to look at Project Orion again . Though we have maintained space stations in orbit I think maybe Russia s moon base might be a good launch pad …anyway I look forward to tomorrows post

  • ljk May 16, 2013, 9:26

    Very nice article on Orion, Richard, and nice blog in general. Regarding Dyson’s concerns over irradiating the Nevada desert and inadvertently killing people with each Orion ground launch (he was starting to sound like Oppenheimer over the atomic bomb), had they considered launching the parts and assembling them in space? At that time they were still considering the construction of a large multipurpose space station that might have fit the bill in terms of putting Orion together there. Yes we did dream big then, didn’t we?

    For those who worried about the nuclear material being released in the event of a carrier rocket explosion or crash, it should be kept in mind that many thousands of missiles and rockets had nuclear packages atop them during the Cold War (and now) which were designed to handle launch and plunging through the atmosphere after arcing through space to their targets, so the technology for keeping Orion’s fuel secure was in place.

    As you quote at the end of your piece:

    Freeman Dyson wrote the final report wrapping up the Orion Project in 1965. In it he wrote: “The men who began the project in 1958 aimed to create a propulsion system commensurate with the real size of the task of exploring the solar system, at a cost which would be politically acceptable, and they believe they have demonstrated the way to do it.” he went on to note that: “there was no more brave talk of Mars by 1965 and of sampling the rings of Saturn by 1970. What would have happened to us if the government had given full support to us in 1959, as it did to a similar bunch of amateurs in Los Alamos in 1943?”

    Finally, Dyson told Ulam (Orion’s founder) that: “My concern is to make sure that the public knows what has happened, so that they will be ready to come back to these ideas when the time is ripe.”

  • ljk May 16, 2013, 10:08

    For A. A. Jackson:

    The USS Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey has a number of technical issues due to the constraints of needing to be cinematically aesthetic. This included the lack of fins for dissipating all the heat from the nuclear reactor because Kubrick thought it made the Discovery look like it had wings. Still that vessel remains one of the better efforts at depicting a real spaceship in a science fiction film, which is not surprising considering how many real rocket experts were involved in 2001.



    You and others might find this relevant document of interest:

    Realizing “2001: A Space Odyssey”: Piloted Spherical Torus Nuclear Fusion Propulsion by Williams, Craig H.; Dudzinski, Leonard A.; Borowski, Stanley K.; Juhasz, Albert J.


    Stein seemed to have attitude similar to Edward Teller. They even kind of look alike judging by the image of him in today’s Centauri Dreams post!

    In a way I can understand why Stein (and Teller) would not have cared for Dr. Strangelove, for unlike Kubrick and most of his audience, they actually had to deal with the issues of nuclear deterrence. It might have been relatively easy for a film director to mock the idea of “ten to twenty million dead, tops, depending on the breaks” as acceptable casualty limits in a nuclear war, but not for the folks who would have a real role in such a nightmarish possibility.

    FYI: Originally Dr. Strangelove was to be a serious treament of the Cold War, but the more he researched the situation, the more he realized how bleakly absurd it was regarding a “winnable” nuclear conflict and so many other aspects of the aptly named MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction.

    For the serious side of Dr. Strangelove, see the 1964 film Fail Safe. Still emotionally gripping. Note especially the comment made about the purpose of any rescue crews sent to New York City in the event it was nuked: Not to look for survivors, but to secure as many bank records as possible to keep the remnants of the United States functioning as a nation.

  • Dmitri May 16, 2013, 13:23

    When Russians tested the first H-bomb its blastwave reached the classified city where scientists and staff lived – 90 km away. The flash of distant detonation and blastwave in the city was shot on a film. At the same time Shah of Iran was visiting the Soviet Union. The film was shown to him and his staff to demonstrate the powers the USSR has. There was a particular scene where a unsuspected pedestrian walked in the middle of the street, the blastwave knocked him down and he stayed on ground awhile. On that scene wife of the Shah got nervous breakdown and she needed medical attention.

    Freeman Dyson in his first documentary on Orion project admitted when they needed real funds they had to turn to inform military of the project. Of course they got interested. The sheer size of Orion would have allowed to send 200 marines into arbitrary point of the World in 20 minutes. They also imagined an Orion full on warhead as the ultimate Doomsday device hanging in the space over the USSR.

    Ain Laats, the 1944 Estonian refugee, who ended up with family in Germany and later in USA, became Draper Labarotory employee and engineered inertial guidance and navigation system for the ballistic missiles. Later he participated in the Apollo mission on navigation side. He told that his sole goal as refugees was to do everything in his powers USA to become the sole dominant force in the World. It was principle and personal.

    The Shuttles had covert objective to alert its orbit and to do a manoeuvre over Moscow where it could have been able doing a somersault drop a (gliding?) nuke warhead on the city. This fear rushed Russians to start over their frozen reusable space vehicle program, which lead to Buran.

    Prior that Russians had the Spiral space plane program which would have been launched as the Virgin Galactic’s White Knight, later the booster would have made M6 and brought the vehicle on LEO and on 80 km altitude it would have glided on the target leaving 7 minutes from detection to impact. 7 minutes is the critical threshold where you can detect but can’t intercept. The Spiral would have been not traceable for NORAD. Deployable in 2 hours – from loading the vehicle to hitting the target.

    Actually all who has been involved in designing nuclear weapons or platforms for the warheads have done it from ideological bias but in hope theirs will hit the target first and the opposite side ones won’t reach the destination. But actually they also admitted the fear of global annihilation kept the sanity in check.

    If there would have been a first wave, all Hiiumaa and the Northern coastline of Estonia would have had received the first strike to clear out the route to Moscow.

  • william collins May 17, 2013, 0:41

    I saw the show ; I thought it was well done; Mark , Paul et al came across as well-versed, enthusiastic , and realistic space travel advocates. By this, I mean that they did not sugar coat the difficulties of human interstellar space travel even asthey work towards the attainment of that goal. (Even if STL is the realistic way to get to the stars.)

  • Richard May 17, 2013, 4:52

    It always strikes me that the technology “that nevermade it” always seems more interesting and innovative than what actually happens.

    I’m with you ljk: a from-orbit launch of Orion seems an obvious compromise, but I suppose it was just one too many issues. Especially interesting for me was the problem of how you deliver a fast stream of bombs behind the pusher plate. Seems one of those technical riddles that invites a hundred different solutions. I thought it a pity that when Stephen Baxter used the Orion ship in his Ark novel that he didn’t try to expand on the concept but just lifted the concept.

  • ljk May 17, 2013, 10:29

    Richard said on May 17, 2013 at 4:52:

    “I thought it a pity that when Stephen Baxter used the Orion ship in his Ark novel that he didn’t try to expand on the concept but just lifted the concept.”

    I find it ironic and rather unbelievable that in both Baxter’s novel Ark and the 1951 film version of When Worlds Collide, those who would not be allowed to escape Earth on the only spaceship available did not consider taking over and trying to get onboard until almost the time of their launches. Instead I imagine in such desperate situations, where it was long obvious that only a handful of people would be chosen for the journey, that certain groups would have put a stop to the whole operation long ago out of spite and other reasons.

    Combine this with the rather grim details of life (and death) aboard the Ark and the difficulties as they encounter one target exoworld after another that turns out to be less than ideal for habitation (I would think that even in desperate situations, probes would be sent ahead to scout out the target planets first), and I do not see this as a sterling recruitment poster for supporting interstellar travel.

    While I also do not support the whitewashing that is also part of voyaging to the stars, such as talk of sending a Worldship to the first Earthlike exoplanets we find, where apparently everything will go just hunky-dory for our colonists, SF works like this come across as more like soap opera melodramas with characters and situations you would not want to spend an evening with at a restaurant let alone a lifetime stuck inside a big tin can in deep space.

    So much is not taken into consideration when it comes to Worldships, including will they even be necessary when the time comes that we can actually travel between the stars. I am not an advocate of interstellar traveling primarily as a means to escape a troubled Earth: Not only may it become impossible to build and launch if human civilization is already on the brink of collapse when it is decided to use such a method for preserving at least a portion of our species (and it will only be a relative few), it also takes away from the idea of exploring for the sake of knowledge and human advancement.

    If we do send people into the galaxy, they will very likely be going out there permanently anyway, so why push the desperate need for survival angle? It also shows a lack of faith in modern humanity being able to overcome its problems, and anyone who is even a mild space advocate has heard the mantra about needing to solve our problems on Earth first, so why feed that unrealistic and narrow-minded dragon some more?

    Instellar travel, be it with robot probes or Worldships, should be made part of the grand and positive solutions to improving our species, not a last-ditch lifeboat effort. That is how the Space Age was originally presented by its advocates so why change now just because it is currently trendy to have a dystopian future? If our world ever does go that dark route, I doubt we will be seeing the stars any time soon, even just a few of us.

  • A. A. Jackson May 19, 2013, 10:57

    Yes Ordway and Lang’s designs for the Discovery did have heat radiators.
    See 2001: Filming the Future by Piers Bizony and 2001:The Lost Science – 2012. Even models were built and Kubrick did understand the engineering physics, but cinematically it did not work. (It’s interesting tho that this is the only film about space flight that I know that uses the non transmission of sound in a vacuum for artistic effect. Actually Apollo 13 is another, but it’s confusing when the POV shot is outside the CM_LM stack there are RCS firings and we are hearing what the crew hears , rigorously with a POV like that we should of hear nothing.)

    I was in touch with Craig Williams about that paper: Realizing “2001: A Space Odyssey”: Piloted Spherical Torus Nuclear Fusion Propulsion. I have the NASA technical publication, but they had just cued off the movie and not talked to Ordway (I think Lang was dead by then).

    Fail Safe is a good film, Walter Matthau’s sort of break through film.
    Kubrick started by adapting Red Alert by Peter George, he did consult Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn and I think he had in a hand a screenplay similar to Failsafe.
    Then changed his mind.
    Being born in 1940 I was in my early 20’s at the time and even I thought “mutual assured destruction” absurd and paradoxical even if it was serious matter to Herman Kahn.
    I think Kubrick trumped all those ideas with a film story that is actually beyond satire, it’s movie that’s almost unclassifiable.