Sunday, March 26, 2006

Book corner Actually, a non-archaeological book. Just finished reading PROJECT ORION - The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship (link conains a short interview with the author). The basic idea was that you would create a ship that consisted of three parts: A pusher plate, shock absorbers, and a crew compartment. Then you would drop some small hydrogen bombs out the back where they would explode and the resulting force would propel the craft. It sounds rather looney now, but the physics and engineering appeared sound. The book doesn't get very heavily into the physics at all, so non-math geeks will be perfectly at home. What killed it was largely the fallout (pun intended) from the limited test ban treaty and the existing Apollo program that garnered most of the available funding. Also the risks of exloding literaly hundreds of bombs in rapid (.5-second intervals) succession to get the thing off the ground. To get around the latter, they did discuss plans to use a Saturn V booster to get the damn thing out of the Earth's magnetic field and then use the bombs for propellant after that. Obviously carrying a couple thousand bombs into orbit wold have caused some concern (understatement intended) as well.

It seems odd to use a series of exlosions as a motive force -- they called it pulse propulsion -- now, given our images of a continuous motive force in the interim, from basic chemical propellants to sci-fi renditions. In fact, as the books notes, Stanley Kubrick initially wanted his spaceship from 2001 to use this type of propulsion. Hard to see this happening now, given a certain sector's revulsion to atomic anything. Recall the protests about the Casini mission a few years ago that carried a small amout of radioactive material for power.

Anyway, it's a good read if you're interested in that sort of thing. And it does, in fact, have some bit of archaeological import: Recall that the atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs produced large amounts of C-14 (see here). This testing has had some silver linings for the radiocarbon crowd as this known release of modern carbon has allowed them to track much of this carbon through the carbon cycle over the past 50 years or so. Hence, it allowed for a controlled release of modern carbon into the cycle with known beginning and end points.