The Forgotten History of Project Orion

Question: What was Project Orion?

Freeman Dyson: This was in the year 1957 when the Russians sent up the first satellite, which they called Sputnik, which means companion.  It was a companion for the earth.  So this Sputnik was up there in space and it was making everybody nervous because if the Russians could send satellites into space they could also throw missiles at us and we at that time didn’t have any missiles which we could throw at them.  So it was a scary moment and so it was a moment when you could get money very easily for crazy projects and so my friend, Ted Taylor, who was a young physicist, actually younger than me, he had this idea of building a spaceship with nuclear bombs, which sounds crazy and in a certain way it is crazy, but it could have actually… it could have worked and so I thought that would be exciting to do.  I had never done anything like that.  I had been always just a mathematician and working on paper, but so that gave me a chance to do something real, so I moved to San Diego in California and joined a company called General Atomic, which is still there and went to work on this spaceship and it looked as though we might even get the green light actually to go ahead and build it, but in the end of course we didn’t.  The fatal flaw of that whole scheme is that it spreads radioactivity all around.  You’re exploding bombs in big numbers, so you really do make a tremendous mess, and so in the end common sense prevailed and they decided to go ahead with ordinary rockets and not with nuclear bombs, but we had a great time.  We studied the theory of this and the engineering.  We had a lot of good engineers and we actually did little tests of chemical explosives building little model spacecraft, which would go pop, pop, pop, pop, just up in the sky and come down again and just to show that we knew how to do it, so we had every Saturday morning we didn’t get paid for that, but every Saturday morning we’d go and fly our little models.  The rest of the week we’d do the serious stuff.  So I spent a year and a half there and the project actually lasted for seven years, but by the end of the first year it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to fly.

Question: What were the theoretical possibilities of the Orion mission?

Freeman Dyson:  If it had been given the green light we could have gone to Mars in about five years.  I mean the thing started in ’58 and we planned to have a Mars mission already within five years and we’d be scooting all around the solar system.  I mean it was a very, very high performance ship, far better than anything we have today, and it would have easily gone to Mars and back and to Jupiter, the satellites of Saturn and all the interesting places in the solar system.  We could have gone scooting around, and of course we intended to go ourselves.  This was a big ship and it was with a crew.  We imagined we would have a crew of about 40 people, so it was on the grand scale, and it would have been comparatively cheap because it was built like a submarine, not like an airplane.  It was heavy engineering and so a lot cheaper than aerospace.

Question: Will we ever be able to accomplish those feats through some alternative technology?

Freeman Dyson:  Well the joke is of course that we do such marvelous missions now with small payloads.  I mean when we worked on Orion we were talking about 1,000 tons of payload just for one ship, and so we thought of ourselves as sort of like the Darwin on the Beagle going out for five years and with all our provisions and having to take along a squash court so that you could stay fit, and we could take along almost anything you wanted, and of course nowadays the whole way of operating in space is so totally different.  Now you measure the payload in pounds, not in tons, and so we have a ship which is now orbiting around Saturn called Cassini, which of course doesn’t have people on board.  It has wonderful instruments on board and the total payload of that thing is a few thousand pounds and it’s doing far more exploring than we could have done.  So if we had a thousand tons of payload today we wouldn’t know what to do with it. 

Question: Will humankind ever reach the stars?

Freeman Dyson:  Yes, I think so, but of course my guess is no better than anybody else’s, but technically it could be done.  Of course it’s much too expensive just for the next hundred years or maybe the next thousand years, but we have lots and lots of time, so I would imagine that we will be scooting around on a much grander scale, but it could…  On the other hand, we could decide we’re not interested, so let’s not do it and that remains to be seen.

Recorded March 5th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

With NASA’s future in doubt, the physicist recalls designing an ingenious (and sadly, radioactive) rocket that could have had us "scooting all around the solar system" 50 years ago. Will we ever find a better way to reach the stars?

Big Think Edge
  • Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.

Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Master Execution: How to Get from Point A to Point B in 7 Steps, with Rob Roy, Retired Navy SEALUsing the principles of SEAL training to forge better bosses, former Navy SEAL and founder of the Leadership Under Fire series Rob Roy, a self-described "Hammer", makes people's lives miserable in the hopes of teaching them how to be a tougher—and better—manager. "We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book," says Roy. "Real leaders inspire, guide and give hope."Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favor, but what happens in turbulent times? Roy teaches leaders, through intense experiences, that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. In this lesson, he outlines seven SEAL-tested steps for executing any plan—even under extreme conditions or crisis situations.