In "Ascension," a three-part SyFy miniseries that launches tonight (Dec. 15), 600 people live aboard an Orion-class nuclear spacecraft on a mission to Proxima Centauri. The mission launched in 1963, when the Space Race was in full swing and the Cold War made the threat of global nuclear war an uncomfortable possibility. This leads to Project Ascension, led by a Werner von Braun-esque Abraham Enzmann, who dreamed up a spaceship taller than the Empire State Building that is propelled by nuclear bombs.
There is certainly a lot going on in "Ascension" to grab the average space fan, not the least of which is the fact that the ship Ascension itself is based on Project Orion, a real-life 1960s project by the U.S. government to build a 4,000 ton spaceship propelled through space by nuclear explosions. "Ascension" takes the potential of Project Orion and asks the simple question: What if the U.S. actually did it?
Science fiction powered by space facts
The real-life Project Orion began in the late 1950s and ran through the early 1960s until it was shut down after the passage of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, according to a project description on NASA's Glenn Research Center website. But the promise of such a craft was tantalizing, especially given how it worked.
"About five bombs per second are dropped out the back and detonated to propel the craft along. A huge shock plate with shock absorbers make up the base of the craft," reads one NASA description. "Experiments using conventional explosives were conducted to demonstrate the viability of this scheme. Although this vehicle was conceived to take a crew to Mars, it can also be considered for sending smaller probes to the stars."
In his book "Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship," author George Dyson (son of famed scientist Freeman Dyson who worked on Project Orion) writes that the project, which began in 1957, aimed to launch manned missions to Mars by 1965, with trips to Saturn by 1970. According to Dyson, the project ran through 1965, was overseen by General Atomic and gained NASA's interest in 1963 because of its high specific impulse for space propulsion.
Engineering a space colony
SyFy's "Ascension" embraces its space history, with the crew of its ship garbed in 1960s style, using retro tech and showing a glimpse of what life on a generational colony spaceship would be like. The show begins in the present day, 51 years after the ship's launch, as the mission hits its midpoint.
Without giving too much away, the show does make a point of describing the psychological effects of a decades-long spaceflight, particularly on children who have to grow up knowing they will be stuck inside a spaceship — the "glorious tin can" as one character puts it — for most of their lives.