The Trouble with Rockets

  • Paul Gilster


George Pal’s Destination Moon was, in its day, the most realistic science fiction film ever made. Upon its release in 1950, Pal labeled the work “a documentary of the near future,” and included within it astronomical sequences by Chesley Bonestell, the artist whose haunting celestial landscapes were the precursors to the images returned by Mariner and Voyager. Science fiction legend Robert Heinlein was a co-author of the script, which was (loosely, to be sure) based on his novel Rocketship Galileo. Among the Academy Award-winning special effects is a cartoon sequence featuring Woody Woodpecker.


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  1. p. 60
    “carrying loo pounds of fuel.” —An excellent discussion of the rocket problem can be found in Bernard Haisch and Alfonso Rueda, “Prospects for an Interstellar Mission: Hard Technology but Surprising Physics Possibilities,” Mercury 29, Issue 4 (July/August 2000), p. z6. The article draws on ideas presented at a July, 1998, workshop at Caltech called “Robotic Interstellar Exploration in the Next Century.” The conference was sponsored by the Advanced Concepts Office of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Office of Space Science at NASA headquarters.Google Scholar
  2. p.60
    “three hundred million supertankers to make the roo-year journey and stop!”—From an interview with Marc Millis at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, April 3, 2003. Millis also discussed these numbers in his article “Breaking Through to the Stars,” which ran in Ad Astra: The Magazine of the National Space Society 9, no. 1 (Jan./Feb. 1997), pp. 36–40. A revised version of this article can be found online at Scholar
  3. p.60
    “the equations that relate mass to velocity change.”—Robert Zubrin provides an analysis of the “rocket equation” in Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1999), p. 36. See also Eugene Mallove and Gregory Matloff, The Starflight Handbook: A Pioneer’s Guide to Interstellar Travel (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1989) pp. 38–4o.Google Scholar
  4. p. 61
    “for its asteroid encounter.”—From Marc Rayman’s mission log on Deep Space 1(August 22, 1999 entry), posted online at Rayman was chief mission engineer and deputy mission manager for Deep Space 1.Google Scholar
  5. p.62
    “channeled by magnetic fields to produce thrust”— Duncan Graham-Rowe, “Nuclear Fusion Could Power NASA Spacecraft,” New Scientist 23, January 2003.Google Scholar
  6. p.63
    “chemical propulsion is pretty non-optimal.”“—Telephone interview with Les Johnson, January 6, 2003.Google Scholar
  7. p.63
    “a four-month return voyage.”—Steven D. Howe, “Reducing the Risk to Mars: The Gas Core Nuclear Rocket,” Space Technology and Applications International Forum, Jan. 1998. Available online at—mrpbar/staifpaper.html. Howe also explores nuclear propulsion in “Nuclear Rocket to Mars,” Aerospace America, Aug. z000, p. 39. See also his “High Energy-Density Propulsion: Reducing the Risk to Humans in Planetary Exploration,” Space Policy 17, Issue 4 (November 2001): 275–83.Google Scholar
  8. p.64
    “a prime target for future astronomy.” —MITEE is discussed on Plus Ultra’s Web site at Scholar
  9. p.65
    “radiating waste reactor heat into space.”— Leonard David, “Prometheus: The Paradigm Buster,”, July 2, 2003.Google Scholar
  10. p. 65
    “this is stadium lighting, kilowatts instead of watts.”—As quoted in “Nukes in Space,” U.S. News er World Report,April 28, 2003 p. 55.Google Scholar
  11. p.66
    “a dual shock-absorber system.” —George Dyson tells the Orion story—one in which his father, Freeman Dyson, played a huge part—in Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2002).Google Scholar
  12. p. 67
    “rich in ice and hydrocarbons.”—Ibid., p. 191.Google Scholar
  13. p.67
    “to navigate through the shoals of three federal agencies.”—Freeman Dyson provides this and much more information about Orion in Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).Google Scholar
  14. p.68
    “the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 198os.”—Freeman Dyson wrote the obituary for Orion in a classic article called “Death of a Project: Research Is Stopped on a System of Space Propulsion Which Broke All the Rules of the Political Game,” Science 149, no. 368o (July 9,1965), p. 141.Google Scholar
  15. p.68
    “with arrival at Alpha Centauri in 130 years.”—Freeman Dyson, “Interstellar Transport,” Physics Today, Oct. 1968.Google Scholar
  16. p. 68
    “without inventing entirely new technologies.” —As noted by Geoffrey Landis in “The Ultimate Exploration: A Review of Propulsion Concepts for Interstellar Flight,” presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, February 2002.Google Scholar
  17. p.69
    “as part of its defense against alien invaders.”—Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Footfall (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987).Google Scholar
  18. p.69
    “Both Poul Anderson and Stephen Baxter have worked entertainingly with the idea.”—Anderson in Orion Shall Rise (New York: Pocket Books, 1983), Baxter in Manifold: Space (New York: Del Rey, 2001).Google Scholar
  19. p.69
    “after which it is safe to explode a series of atomic devices next to it for propulsion.”—Vernor Vinge, Marooned in Realtime (New York: Baen Books, 1989).Google Scholar
  20. p.69
    “2001: A Space Odyssey.”—The comment on Kubrick and quote from Taylor are from “Deep Impact: Filming a Cosmic Catastrophe,” The Planetary Report, 18, no. 3 (May/June 1998), pp. 12–15.Google Scholar
  21. p. 69
    “against the ship’s thick ablative tail plate.” —As quoted in George Dyson, Project Orion, 271.Google Scholar
  22. p. 69
    “that would be dissolved in ordinary water.” —Robert M. Zubrin, “Nuclear Salt Water Rockets: High Thrust at 10,000 sec ISP.” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 44 (1991), 371–76.Google Scholar
  23. p. 70
    “a close-up look at our neighboring star systems”— John Cramer provides a summary of Zubrin’s ideas in one of his science columns for Analog Science Fiction and Fact, “Nuke Your Way to the Stars,” in the mid-December, 1992, issue of the magazine. This column can also be found online at Scholar
  24. p. 71
    “whereas the neutrons produced by the deuterium/tritium reaction cannot”—Landis, “The Ultimate Exploration,” 4.Google Scholar
  25. p. 71
    “where collisions between them are likely and fusion possible.”—See Zubrin, Entering Space, pp. 84–85 for a good explanation of fusion concepts.Google Scholar
  26. p.71
    “to keep the hot plasma from contacting the chamber’s walls.”—Dwain Spencer, “Fusion Propulsion for Interstellar Missions,” Annals of the New York Academy of Science 14o (December 1966): 407–18. Spencer’s paper is one of the first to discuss practical fusion concepts in relation to interstellar flight.Google Scholar
  27. p. 72
    “the engine would use lasers to ignite fusion in the pellets.”—R. Hyde, L. Wood, and J. Nuckolls, “Prospects for Rocket Propulsion with Laser-Induced Fusion Micropellets,” American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Paper 72–1063 (November 1972). The Hyde design is also discussed in Saul J. Adelman and Benjamin Adelman, Bound for the Stars (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981), pages 195–96.Google Scholar
  28. p.72
    “who foresees the use of helium-3 as a fuel source for the twenty-first century.”—As quoted in Julie Wakefield, “Moon’s Helium-3 Could Power Earth,”, June 30,200o.Google Scholar
  29. p.72
    “a key paper by Friedwardt Winterberg”— F. Winterberg, “Rocket Propulsion by Thermonuclear Micro-Bombs Ignited with Intense Relativistic Electron Beams,” Raumfahrtforschung 15 (1971): 208–17.Google Scholar
  30. p.72
    “initiating fusion in small amounts of high density materials with lasers,”—J. Nuckolls et al., “Laser Compression of Matter to Super-High Densities: Thermonuclear Applications,” Nature 239 (1972): 139-42.Google Scholar
  31. p. 73
    “along with 20,000 tons of deuterium.”—Within the British Interplanetary Society final report on Project Daedalus are the two primary articles on its propulsion system. These are A. R. Martin and A. Bond, “Project Daedalus: The Propulsion System—Part I: Theoretical Considerations and Calculations,” pp. S44—S62; and the same authors’ “Project Daedalus: The Propulsion System—Part II: Engineering Design Considerations and Calculations,” pp. S63—S82. Martin and Bond review ICF concepts in a later paper, “Nuclear Pulse Propulsion: A Historical Review of an Advanced Propulsion Concept,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 32 (1979), pp. 283–310.Google Scholar
  32. p.73
    “rather than a heroic effort on the part of a planet-bound civilization.”—R. C. Parkinson, “Project Daedalus: Propellant Acquisition Techniques,” in Project Daedalus Final Report (1978), pp. S83—S89.Google Scholar
  33. p. 73
    “dense enough—and hot enough—to light the fusion reaction.”—A good overview of inertial confinement fusion concepts is found in Brice N. Cassenti’s “Nuclear Pulse Propulsion for Interplanetary Travel,” American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings, vol. 552 (1), (February 2, 2001): 881–85.Google Scholar
  34. p.73
    “Very tough.” —Telephone interview with Terry Kammash, August 14, 2003.Google Scholar
  35. p.74
    “their inner walls coated with fusion fuel.”—See T. Kammash and D. L. Galbraith, “A High Gain Fusion Reactor Based on the Magnetically Insulated Inertial Confinement Fusion (MICF) Reactor,” Nuclear Fusion 29 (1989), pp. 1079–1099.Google Scholar
  36. p. 74
    “replacing the laser with the most exotic material known on Earth: antimatter.”—Kammash developed this concept in a study for NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts called “Antiproton Driven Magnetically Insulated Inertial Confinement Fusion (MICF) Propulsion System,” available at the NIAC Web site, www.niac.usraGoogle Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2004

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  • Paul Gilster

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