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Reconnaissance Orion Launch Site

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Launch/Landing Pad Overview: Arming/Loading Operation.

Top image is a wide-area view of the pad. Lower image is a zoomed-in detail shot of the completed propulsion module on the pad, the vehicle construction-gantry with arming-conveyor gangway extended, and details of crew and vehicles involved in the loading/arming operation.

Image is part of a future historical setting, see my journal entry Orion’s Arm Future History, A Synopsis.

A Timeline Graph is to be found here: Timeline

Nuclear Pulse Propulsion Ground-Launch Facility

I’ve put considerable thought into the problem of launching nuclear pulse spacecraft, in regards to particular issues of blast and shock wave, thermal effect, and fallout mitigation. While Orion’s nuclear pulse-units do not produce the same category of event as strategic or tactical nuclear weapons, thermal and blast-wave effects in the immediate vicinity of the launch pad would be significant. Reasonable economics dictates that if you are going to launch on a regular schedule, than you cannot destroy the physical infrastructure necessary to carry out on-going launch operations with each launch.

There are real risks associated with operation of any nuclear propulsion system. Risk can be managed by rational attention to the nature of the risk and proper mitigation. Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site has an excellent section dealing with atomic radiation, you can read his introduction to the topic here.

Rhys Taylor has written an excellent analysis of the actual risks associated with atmospheric operation of an Orion, available here

There are three ways to deal with radiation: Time, Distance, and Shielding. In the context of operating nuclear pulse systems, all three of these are factored into launch site design – your Orion launch site will be situated in the center of a very large access-restricted exclusion zone many hundreds of miles across. No other activity occurs within the exclusion zone – insuring that management, decontamination, and mitigation is unhindered.

Fallout from a nuclear detonation is a function of dust, dirt, and debris sucked up into the fireball – when you detonate a nuclear device on or very near to the ground the blast excavates a crater and destroys above ground structures in the immediate vicinity of the explosion, producing debris – this is the material that gets sucked up into the fireball of a nuclear detonation, irradiated, and then spewed out of the top. This radioactive plume coalesces in the atmosphere before eventually falling back to earth. It's a mix of isotopes with varying half lives. The most vicious of these are short lived and are gone in a time frame of minutes to hours. The milder ones (mostly less dangerous than radiation emitted by your granite counter-top) can hang around for millennia.

Only a small percentage of fallout is debris from the nuclear device itself, the fragments of the bomb, the bomb casing, and detonation mechanisms – a percentage of this material survives as particulate matter which is dispersed by the detonation, which is why it is necessary to operate within a sufficiently large exclusion zone. Ted Taylor, theoretical physicist and prominent nuclear weapon designer, the man who designed Orion’s pulse units, was convinced that the devices could be manufactured to specifications that insured very clean detonations.

Minimize the potential for debris to be sucked up into the fireball and you drastically reduce the amount of fallout. In order to do this you eliminate the presence of above-ground structures near the pad that might suffer damage due to shock and thermal effects. Your launch pad will be a very large flat surface paved in armor plate of sufficient strength to withstand the blast, covered by a layer of, and/or dusted with, graphite – which is extremely resistive to radiation – a surface launch pad workers can approach immediately after a launch operation, which can be easily decontaminated.

In principle there is no reason Orion cannot be used for the purpose it is optimal for, lifting enormous payloads into orbit.

Reconnaissance Mission Spacecraft

Reconnaissance spacecraft lift-off via rocket propulsion, climbing to a sufficient altitude to avoid the ground reflection blast-wave – attaining an altitude between 700 and 1,000 feet before initiation of nuclear pulse operation.

On mission completion, the vehicles return to a landing on the same pad from which they launch to be refurbished and used again. 

More information on the spacecraft is to be found here: Reconnaissance Mission Spacecraft.

The vehicle is assembled on the pad using a single construction-gantry which can be lowered into a bunkered shaft prior to launch. The gantry serves as a vertical warehouse during vehicle assembly; several rail-mounted platforms are situated on the vehicle-side [of the gantry] on which cherry-picker type carriages can be mounted to place workers near any part of the spacecraft. Additional truck mounted cherry-picker platforms (not pictured) would give complete access to the exterior of the vehicle during assembly or refurbishment.


The large super-graphics visible in the upper image identify launch pads to descending spacecraft – this feature was inspired by a Joseph Flaherty piece on WIRED: The Hidden Beauty of Airport Runways, and How to Decipher Them, shared from Winchell Chung’s G+, which caught my eye and influenced the launch/landing pad markings I’ve created for this image. The WIRED piece exposed me to Lauren O’Neil, a Brooklyn based designer, who has made a meticulous study of airport runways and logged the results on a Tumblr called Holding Pattern, which is an interesting source of inspiration for anyone designing a science fictional space port setting. In response to Winchell Chung’s post,  William Hostman pulled together a trutype font based on the highly geometric specialized font used for runway designators – the print, painted large enough to be seen by pilots of descending aircraft, is used at airports around the world. I used Google SketchUp to turn William Hostman’s “runway designators” font into the 3D letter/number objects which became part of the model used to create this image.  

Related Images:

Reconnaissance Mission Spacecraft

Expedition to Earth


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aramis-erak's avatar
Thanks for the mention, glad you liked the font. -Wil
William-Black's avatar

Thanks making the font available, your effort certainly provided a resource which I think adds to authentic feeling of the artwork.
NyrathWiz's avatar
Stunning, as usual!
The launch pad markings, truck, gantry, and other infrastructure add that air of authenticity which is your hallmark. 
William-Black's avatar
Hey, thank you Winchell, for all the really awesome thought provoking and inspiring posts. 
Euskelo's avatar
Nicely done. I like the two different viewpoints.