The propulsion technology the human characters conceive in the Netflix version of Liu Cixin’s novel The Three Body Problem clearly has roots in the ideas we’ve been kicking around lately. I should clarify that I’m talking about the American version of the novel, which Netflix titles ‘3 Body Problem,’ and not the Chinese 30-part series, which is also becoming available. In the last two posts, I’ve gone through various runway concepts, in which a spacecraft is driven forward by nuclear explosions along its route of flight. We’ve also looked at pellet options, where macroscopic pellets are fired to a departing starship to impart momentum and/or to serve as fusion fuel.

All this gets us around the problem of carrying propellant, and thus offers real benefits in terms of payload capabilities. Even so, it was startling to hear the name Stanislaw Ulam come up on a streaming TV series. Somebody was doing their homework, as Freeman Dyson liked to say. Ulam’s name will always be associated with nuclear pulse propulsion (along with the Monte Carlo method of computation and many other key developments in nuclear physics). It was in 1955 that he and Cornelius Everett performed the first full mathematical treatment of what would become Orion, but the concept goes back as far as Ulam’s initial Los Alamos calculations in 1947.

Image: Physicist and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Set off a nuclear charge behind a pusher plate and the craft attached to that plate moves forward. Set off enough devices and you begin to move at speeds unmatched by any other propulsion method, so the deep space concepts that Freeman Dyson, Ted Taylor and team discussed began to seem practicable, including human missions to distant targets like Enceladus. Dyson pushed the concept into the interstellar realm and envisioned an Orion variant reaching Alpha Centauri in just over a century. So detonating devices is a natural if you’re a writer looking for ways to take current technology to deep space in a hurry, as the characters in ‘3 Body Problem’ are.

Johndale Solem’s name didn’t pop up on ‘3 Body Problem,’ but his work is part of the lineage of the interstellar solution proposed there. Solem was familiar with Ted Cotter’s work at Los Alamos, which in the 1970s had explored ways of doing nuclear pulse propulsion without the pusher plate and huge shock absorbers that would be needed for the Orion design. Freeman Dyson explored the concept as well – both he and Cotter were thinking in terms of steel cables unreeled from a spacecraft as it spun on its axis. Dyson would liken the operation to “the arms of a giant squid,” as cables with flattened plates at each end would serve to absorb the momentum of the explosions set off behind the vehicle. Familiar with this work, Johndale Solem took the next step.

Image: Physicist Johndale Solem in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Solem worked at Los Alamos from 1969 to 2000, along the way authoring numerous scientific and technical papers. In the early 1990s, he discussed the design he called Medusa, noting in an internal report that his spacecraft would look something like a jellyfish as it moved through space. He had no interest in Orion’s pusher plate because examining the idea, he saw only problems. For one thing, you couldn’t build a pusher plate big enough to absorb anything more than a fraction of the momentum from the bombs being detonated behind the spacecraft. To protect the crew, the plate and shock absorbers had to be so massive as to degrade performance even more.

The solution: Replace the pusher plate with a sail deployed ahead of the vehicle. The nuclear detonations are now performed between the sail and the spacecraft, driving the vehicle forward. The sail would receive a much greater degree of momentum, and it would be equipped with tethers made so long and elastic that the acceleration would be smoothed out. I quoted Solem some years back on using a servo winch in the vehicle which would operate in combination with the tethers. Let’s look at that again, from the Los Alamos report:

When the explosive is detonated, a motorgenerator powered winch will pay out line to the spinnaker at a rate programmed to provide a constant acceleration of the space capsule. The motorgenerator will provide electrical power during this phase of the cycle, which will be conveniently stored. After the space capsule has reached the same speed as the spinnaker, the motorgenerator will draw in the line, again at a rate programmed to provide a constant acceleration of the space capsule. The acceleration during the draw-in phase will be less than during the pay-out phase, which will give a net electrical energy gain. The gain will provide power for ancillary equipment in the space capsule…

This is hard to visualize, so let’s look at it in two different ways. First, here is a diagram of the basic concept:

Image: Medusa in operation. Here we see the design 1) At the moment of bomb explosion; 2) As the explosion pulse reaches the parachute canopy; 3) Effect on the canopy, accelerating it away from the explosion, with the spacecraft playing out the main tether with its winch, braking as it extends, and accelerating the vehicle; 4) The tether being winched back in. Imagine all this in action and the jellyfish reference becomes clear. Credit: George William Herbert/Wikimedia.

Second, a video that Al Jackson pointed out to me, made by artist and CGI expert Nick Stevens, shows what Medusa would look like in flight. I recall Solem’s words when I watch this:

One can visualize the motion of this spacecraft by comparing it to a jellyfish. The repeated explosions will cause the canopy to pulsate, ripple, and throb. The tethers will be stretching and relaxing. The concept needed a name: its dynamics suggested MEDUSA.

Bear in mind as you watch, though, that Solem’s Los Alamos report speaks of a 500-meter canopy that would be spin-deployed along with 10,000 tethers. The biggest stress that suggested itself to readers when we’ve discussed Medusa in the past is in the tethers themselves, which is why Solem made them as long as he did. Even so, I became rather enthralled with Medusa early when I first encountered the idea, an interest reinforced by Greg Matloff’s statement (in Deep Space Probes): “Although much analysis remains to be carried out, the Medusa concept might allow great reduction in the mass of a nuclear-pulse starprobe.” With Dyson having given up on Orion, Medusa seemed a way to reinvigorate nuclear pulse propulsion, although to be sure, Dyson’s chief objection to Orion when I talked with him about it was the sheer impracticality of the concept, an issue which surely would apply to Medusa as well.

Like so much in the Netflix ‘3 Body Problem,’ the visuals of the bomb runway sequence are well crafted. In fact, I find Liu Cixin’s trilogy so stuffed with interesting ideas that my recent re-reading of The Three Body Problem and subsequent immersion in the following two novels have me wanting to explore his other work. I haven’t yet attempted the Chinese series, which is longer and presents the daunting prospect of dealing with a now familiar set of plot elements with wholly different actors. I’ll need to dip into it as Netflix ponders a second season for the American series.

Anyway, notice the interesting fact that what you have as a propulsion method on ‘3 Body Problem’ is essentially Medusa adapted to a nuclear bomb runway, with the sail-driven craft intercepting a series of nuclear weapons. As each explodes, the spacecraft is pushed to higher and higher velocities. I’m curious to know how the Chinese series handles this aspect of the story, and also curious about who introduced this propulsion concept, which I still haven’t located in the novels. I’m not aware of a fusion runway combined with a sail anywhere in the interstellar literature. Nice touch!

The Los Alamos report I refer to above is Solem’s “Some New Ideas for Nuclear Explosive Spacecraft Propulsion,” LA-12189-MS, October 1991 (available online). Solem also wrote up the Medusa concept in “Medusa: Nuclear Explosive Propulsion for Interplanetary Travel,” JBIS Vol. 46, No. 1 (1993), pp. 21-26. Two other JBIS papers also come into play for specific mission applications: “The Moon and the Medusa: Use of Lunar Assets in Nuclear-Pulse Propelled Space Travel,” JBIS Vol. 53 (2000), pp. 362-370 and “Deflection and Disruption of Asteroids on Collision Course with Earth,” JBIS Vol. 53 (2000), pp. 180-196. To my knowledge, Freeman Dyson’s ‘The Bolo and the Squid,’ a 1958 memo at Los Alamos treating these concepts, remains classified.