General Atomic, Project Orion, Freeman Dyson, and the Origins of Orbital Surveillance

Science historian (and son of Freeman) George Dyson contacted me after he saw my last post, with these great tidbits:

No surprise, the limits to resolution were one of the problems addressed from first principles in the original Project Orion (see attached). I know how happy Freeman was to work on this problem for JASON and how disappointed he was that the results were kept classified for so long.



I think Project Orion refers to this.  Today, “General Atomic” is General Atomics.

George tells me that the author of that report, William (Bill) Vulliet said in a April 1999 interview:

That was my first job [for Project Orion at General Atomic]. Ted [Taylor] gave it to me directly. He says, “Look into this, will you? With this concept of putting tons into orbit … we could do a lot of things, this is one of them… maybe let’s see what this is worth.”

I asked George if this document was available anywhere, and he replied:

I doubt if any copies other than this one exist in the wild outside of General Atomic and DOD archives. The bottom line is as follows:

“The Earth’s atmosphere will impose a limitation on the resolution of an orbiting surveying telescope in a manner similar to that imposed on Earth-bound astronomical telescopes. The magnitude of the atmospheric effects, however, will be much less when the telescope is outside the atmosphere and observing an object immersed in it than when object and telescope are reversed… a 600-cm aperture could be useful for Earth surveillance, when atmospheric effects are the only consideration. Such a telescope could theoretically resolve two points on Earth separately by 5 cm.”

Update: One more:

The importance of the large space ship is, of course, that it will be manned. Of all the complex and versatile devices in existence today, men are among the easiest to produce.

For a permanent site, astronomers regard as desirable a quantity of personnel similar to that found on earth observatories, i.e., eight or ten families, including a number of bona fide astronomers and the equivalent of a ‘night assistant’ or two. Such an observatory could be set up with just a few trips by spaceships of the 1000-ton category… The Palomar telescope, in fact, was built with a structural safety factor of 1000. Thus, after removal of some of its optical components, it would easily withstand an acceleration of 10 g completely assembled!

— Bryce S. Dewitt, The Scientific uses of Large Space Ships. GAMD-965, 14 September 1959.

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