Image courtesy Syfy

Project Orion: The Real Science Behind Syfy’s “Ascension”

Syfy’s ambitious 6-hour series Ascension is about a gigantic, nuclear-powered starship launched in 1963 to send hundreds of people on a 100 year trip to Proxima Centauri.  It sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but it’s based on a very real, very secret project that came close to becoming a reality.

Project Orion, started in 1958, was launched by physicists Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson.  The concept was to use nuclear explosions as a means of propelling a ridiculously large spacecraft to the far reaches of our solar system and beyond.  The thing about using nuclear bombs as a means of thrust is it’s far more efficient than using standard chemical rockets and it could all be built using technology of the era.

Image courtesy Syfy

The Orion-class “Ascension” as depicted on Syfy’s site.

If it weren’t for the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 the space race could’ve looked very different.  Giant nuclear-powered ships traveling the solar system wouldn’t be a thing of speculation, it’d be an every day reality.  That’s one of the things that makes the premise of Ascension so exciting; it could’ve actually happened.

The show takes you into an alternate timeline where we moved ahead with Project Orion and built a gigantic starship to colonize another solar system.  I like to imagine that the government secretly went forward with the plan and there’s about 600 people halfway to the nearest star system right now.  My only wish is that I were one of them.

Orion concept rendering by Adrian Mann of  Click image to visit his site.

Orion concept rendering by Adrian Mann of

In the video at the top of this post, George Dyson, son of Freeman Dyson, presents a TED talk on the project his father co-launched.  He’s got a ton of information about the project, but one of the more interesting things I took away from it is that a lot of the documentation on Project Orion is still classified.  With many aspects of the project still considered secret by the government it kind of makes Ascension feel more like a documentary than science fiction.  That’s a bonus layer of realism for the show’s premise of a secret starship project.

Image courtesy NASA archives

From NASA archives: A basic Orion concept diagram

If you’re still not convinced a spaceship can be powered by a series of explosions take a gander at the video below.  It’s a clip from the 2003 BBC documentary To Mars by A-Bomb that shows a scaled down rocket using conventional explosives to prove the concept actually works.  Even Arthur C. Clarke believed in the idea.

For all we know, when Syfy’s Ascension premieres we might be watching a dramatized version of real events.

For more about Ascension click on the links below for our interviews from San Diego Comic Con:

Ascension at SDCC 2014: Andrea Roth Is A Space Doctor

Ascension at SDCC 2014: Tricia Helfer Knows Her Ascension

Ascension at SDCC 2014: EP Phliip Levins Fills In The Blanks

Ascension at SDCC 2014: Brian Van Holt On Murder In Space

Ascension at SDCC 2014: Al Sapienza On Being Frozen In Time

For more beautiful renderings of spacecraft, visit Adrian Mann’s Aerospace Illustration site.  Adrian does beautiful work and was kind enough to donate the Orion concept image used near the top of this post.  Thank him by checking out all the amazing images on his site.

Ascension premieres November 24 on Syfy

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Tom Gardiner