Back in the back when, we still knew how to dream big. The razor edge of the future wasn’t slicing things down, but building them up. Our achievements were giant and we walked shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Prometheus.

But now, things are smaller. Our great leaps bring devices that once used to occupy entire wings of buildings into our pockets. They shrink the world, and extend our life. But they do not inspire awe.

The Orion Project was one of the last great science projects before the Information Age and the computer changed the face of technology. Orion was a research and development project devoted to new ideas in rocket propulsion. Specifically, they were looking at ways to realistically create nuclear pulse propulsion – or in layman’s terms – they were looking at ways to strap an atomic bomb to the back of a ship and blow it into space without killing everyone aboard.

Nuclear pulse propulsion was the brain child of Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish scientist that worked on the Manhattan Project and who would go on to invent and patent the hydrogen bomb. He conceived that by harnessing the blast wave and the heat differential from the plasma produced, one could propel a ship with increasing velocity from each subsequent blast. Nuclear pulse propulsion could give human kind a realistic method of inter-planetary travel. A string of atomic firecrackers to send us to the stars, if you will. At the end of his life, Ulam would say that despite all of his advances in nuclear science, the idea of nuclear pulse propulsion was what he was most proud of.

Eleven years after Ulam proposed it, the US government gathered together another Manhattan Project-level brain trust to see if the reality of nuclear pulse propulsion was feasible. The project was headed by Ted Taylor of General Atomics and Freeman Dyson, a British physicist who later developed the concept of the Dyson sphere.

The two men worked for five years developing theoretical designs for a ship that used a nuclear pulse system as its primary form of locomotion. Their work lead them to develop shaped nuclear devices that would create a specific shape of plasma shockwave when detonated, and ship designs that called for craft larger than anything ever built – the shock absorbers alone would need to be several stories tall on even the smallest ship. Their ideas were grand; radical beyond anything their peers were conceiving.

According to the math, nuclear pulse ships would be the fastest things humanity had ever built. At maximum speed, an unmanned ship could go from Earth to Pluto and back inside of the same calendar year, with a slower, manned ship being able to make it to Saturn and back in the same time. (They hadn’t quite worked out a way to not liquify people at the top-end speeds that their ships would be capable of.) The technology also scaled beautifully, with it costing barely more fissionable material to move an object the size of a city versus an object the size of a sky scraper. In one of their reports, Taylor and Dyson suggested that the testing of a nuclear pulse rocket should be coupled with the staging of a permanent moon since the rocket was going to have to go around the moon in order to burn off all of the energy it built up breaking orbit.

Unfortunately, the reality of detonating nearly a dozen nuclear bombs to send a building-sized ship into orbit was fairly grim. The fallout from the launches would spread over hundreds of miles, poisoning the land for years. Dyson estimated that the nuclear fallout would cause terminal cancer in at least one person somewhere in the world for every launch. And if a ship happened to break up in the upper atmosphere? Whole continents could die.

Ultimately, the terms of the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 killed Orion. All nuclear detonations would have to be conducted underground, and under no circumstances were nukes to be allowed in space. With that, Orion passed into history books and the idea of nuclear pulse propulsion was given back to academia.

The dreams of riding atomic fire to the stars on ark-ships a mile long at speeds a thousand times faster than any human has ever travelled have stayed just that – dreams. Instead of thinking about that, we now think about how communications technology is going to smash us all together into a single hive-mind, or how you can grow a replacement liver inside of a pig, and then barbecue and eat said pig. We’ve lost the grand and take hold of the grotesque. I’d give away all of my devices in a heart beat for just a single trip through the stars.