The late ’50s and ’60s were a different time from the anxious era that is today. Nuclear power and space travel were both cool and wonderful new technologies. The only thing that could be cooler and more wonderful would be to combine the two. One suggestion was the US government-sponsored Project Orion, a family of spaceships pushed along by exploding atomic bombs. Dandridge Cole (1921-65), an engineer for the Martin aircraft company (now part of the Lockheed Martin design bureau), had similar ideas about the same time.

One of the most grandiose of the vehicles suggested by Cole was the Aldebaran concept, a gigantic nuclear-powered launch vehicle he proposed in 1959. Cole believed that Aldebaran type vehicles would be in everyday use starting in the 1980s, each launch routinely carrying 60 million pound (about 27 000 tonnes) payloads into low Earth orbit or soft-landing 45 million pounds (20 000 tonnes) of cargo on the Moon. Compare this performance to that of today’s Ariane 5 (21 tonnes to LEO).

The titanic Aldebaran vehicle would take off from the ocean (the Martin company was a flying boat specialist). The ship alongside in the fantastic artist’s impression is the then new liner SS United States which is about 300 m long (note too the tiny helicopter lowering cargo into a dinky little cargo bay).

Aldebaran would have operated by drawing air in through the intakes in the ‘wings’ and heating it to very high temperatures (by detonating a couple of small, “clean” nuclear devices every second of flight in the huge hemispherical engine chamber) and ejecting the resultant hot and radioactive exhaust out of the vehicle’s rear. (I am unclear how it would have functioned in the vacuum of space). In some ways this propulsion technique is a hugely scaled-up, nuclear powered reinvention of the WW2 pulsejet as used on the V-1 flying bomb. The sound and fury of an Aldebaran launch would have been a stunning spectacle as well as stunningly unhealthy (the exhaust is a stream of nuclear fallout).

Cole’s ideas were actually a little ahead for their time and were not greeted with any enthusiasm by his employers or their potential customers, NASA and the USAF, and were not pursued (however similar ideas were secretly studied into the 1960s by the US government Livermore Nuclear Laboratories; the details are still classified). This staggeringly ambitious concept remains a dream from other days.

You can read more about Cole’s designs and similar research in “The Helios concept” by Scott Lowther in Aerospace Projects Review Vol 1 No3 or here.

(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Education Director)


4 Comments

Colin · September 29, 2010 at 20:44

Scott Lowther has recently added fascinating scale drawings of this and other nuclear space propulsion concepts at his blog (the Unwanted Blog).

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