Like cheap, shiny space suits and bug-eyed rubber monsters, nuclear-powered spaceships such as described in Project Orion today seem like little more than laughably naive 1950s science fiction tropes. It might have been otherwise--and still could be. George Dyson, son of supergenius physicist Freeman Dyson, wrote Project Orion to share some of his father's amazing research with the world. Much had been kept secret for years, but Dyson's unique insider status permits great depth and breadth on this important tale.
Conceived in the wake of Sputnik, Project Orion was a true vision of 50s engineering: a huge 40-person ship powered by hundreds of tiny atomic bombs, capable of much greater lift and efficiency than chemically driven rockets. Struggles between NASA, the military, Congress, and other parties doomed Orion, but Dyson has gathered hundreds of documents and interviewed most of the researchers and engineers who worked together, trying to reach "Saturn by 1970". His knack for storytelling makes the book a quick, delightful read; even the staunchest anti-nuke activist has to admit that lighting a cigarette off a parabolic mirror facing a bomb test is pretty cool. By the end of the 20th century, technology had caught up with the vision of Orion--it's considered one of our best bets for long-distance space transit. Whether or not that could ever happen politically, Project Orion is a compelling exploration of scientific imagination. --Rob Lightner