Now before I get completely buried in claims stating that I’m blind to the mindless destruction and geopolitical instability wrought by a whole half-century of nuclear brinkmanship, allow me to clarify. I am most definitely against the use of nuclear weapons, but not against the use of nuclear explosives. Sound strange? Yeah, I guess when I phrase it that way it kind of does. As they currently stand, the global supply of nuclear weapons held between the major nuclear powers stands at roughly 17,000. Most of these, especially in the United States, just sit in old Cold-War era launch tubes in the mid-west, awaiting that dreaded order to launch–which to this day has thankfully never occurred (although we came terrifyingly close several times). The point remains that in our hard earned era of 21st century relative peace, nuclear powers still retain the ability to destroy one another (and the world) in a Wargame styled full-exchange thermonuclear war. It’s really quite silly when one considers the role globalized capital has played in unifying international interests and breaking down traditional barriers to diplomacy and cooperation (perhaps we will see Kant’s “Pacific Confederation” in our lifetimes after all!)
However, I digress, my point is that we as a civilization actively maintain an aging stockpile of anti-everyone weapons that really serve no functional purpose in our age other than to “deter” others from using them. Attempts have been made in the past to use nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes, such as OPERATION “Plowshare” and “Chariot,” plans devised in the 1950s to essentially use nuclear weapons to cut away large swaths of earth in order to make harbors or canals. Insane yes, but this was the 1950s, and our collective understanding of the dangers of nuclear fallout were at that point embryonic at best. It’s hard to find any example of nuclear explosives having practical use on the planet– the risks of contamination, EMP, and fallout are simply too great to bear. So, we horde our weapons in holes, hangers, and hardened shelters, hoping to never have to use them in aggression ever. But what if we could harness the raw energy yielded by these explosives in a manner that minimizes the risk to life on earth while simultaneously broadening our understanding of interplanetary science? Look no further than “Project Orion.”
Yes. Let’s take our stockpiles of fission bombs, and place them in space aboard vessels specifically designed to use them as a means of wildly efficient propulsion (compared to our current systems). For those unfamiliar, Project Orion was a type of propulsion system proposed in the late ’40s that would have used small controlled detonations of nuclear warheads to the rear of a spacecraft, compressing a massive shock-plate, and transferring the subsequent momentum onto the craft, accelerating it forward. It’s hard to think of a solid analogy, but I can remember as a kid placing tiny firecrackers under metal coffee cans, and watching from a safe distance as the resulting blast launched the can a good twenty to thirty feet into the air (Here is a guy on YouTube doing a much less safety conscious version of the same stunt). Crude, but the physics is more or less the same, just scaled up by several megatons. Imagine in the near future a craft being launched and assembled in orbit that would possess enough Delta-V to reach some of our loftiest space exploration goals by the end of the decade! I’m not saying it would be a cheap or even safe endeavor, but I personally would much rather have the risk of nuclear weapons on the planet’s surface removed, and can think of no better way other than disassembling them entirely and placing them under a mountain. So I ask you this: What kind of future do you want with regards to nuclear explosives? One where we slowly let them rust in tubes in Kansas, or one where you can literally ride their explosions and reach subluminal speeds, destined for exotic locations like Saturn, Neptune, or even Alpha Centauri? I know which one I want.
P.S. For further information, here’s a BBC documentary (I have yet to finish) with Freeman Dyson talking about the feasibility of this system– the dude knows what’s up, and here is another video animation of what this system might look like.