A Letter to the Kids: Secrecy

Amanda and Johnathan,

Have you ever thought about classified matters.  Secrets.

If you work for the government this will come up.

I had a friend who was world famous among a few thousands of people. There’s an odd concept in itself. Robert William Bussard – whose name I have never heard pronounced right –  was very knowledgeable in plasma physics and the science and history of the nuclear age. He even wrote a couple of  THE  books on nuclear rocket propulsion.  What he was most famous for we could not talk about. If you look up ROVER/KIWI/NERVA that was one of his major fields.  Working on classified government projects and, at times, being a government official puts an honorable man, such  as he was, through odd mental gymnastics.  He would never talk about NERVA, but years later  the project was redone as TIMBERWIND. [There is a topic in itself: why redo successful projects badly?]  He still couldn’t say a word about Nerva, but he told me three, I think, reasons why TIMBERWIND would fail. One was that you need turbulent flow on both sides of a heat exchanger. Laminar flow is lovely but the effective volume of gas touching and exchanging heat with the membrane is tiny. In turbulent flow it is hugely larger. He couldn’t hint why this was so important to him. It was obvious to me. This was before the browser, but if you Google videos for KIWI you will see the project before and after completion. These were essentially a nuclear reactor with fuel pumped through it. Preferably hydrogen. It goes in slow. As much energy as possible is transferred to the H2 and it comes out fast and hot. A rocket. The efficiency and safety of the motor is based on exchanging the heat from the reactor to the fuel as quickly as possible. A bad heat exchanger puts out hot H2. A good one puts out monatomic hydrogen . That’s about as good a specific impulse as you are likely to get. A great heat exchanger puts out separate jets of protons and  electrons. I have no idea if that was achieved. I doubt it, but I guarantee that was in Dr. Bussard’s mind. He was good with plasma, and ionized gasses can be controlled and made to sit up and beg. In the videos you can see of KIWI there are a couple where the energy is too  great for the heat exchanger and the reactor essentially spits itself out through the rocket nozzle. I understood why heat exchangers were so important to him. But he could not tell me. The whole world knew parts of this badly but he was not allowed to discuss it until there was another nearly identical project. Even then he could only discuss the project that he was not read in on. Inefficient mental evasions.

A few years ago George Dyson wrote a book about the shocking nuclear rocket. Project Orion. A crazy idea that might work.  And by crazy I mean mind-boggling. Parts of it I had known most of my life. But other parts make me wonder if the stupid, loathsome classified practices are needed. Project Orion was a best seller. But you cannot get a new copy.  It went out of print while it was selling well. You can find a used copy.  Or you could ask me nicely. It seems to be reclassified.  And, heaven help me, I thing that may have been wise.  Of course, the secret was out to all the world including Arabic editions. Barn door, horses.

Essentially ORION consisted of a rocket about the size  and mass of a Sheraton hotel. You set off a nuclear bomb under it. It MOVES. Toss another.  Soon you are in orbit. So far big deal. Even if it could work it is not exiting. Apollo was a big, dumb booster.  This is a bigger, dumber booster.  But some of the minds behind this were Ted Taylor, Fred DeHoffman and Freeman Dyson. If this doesn’t cause you to sit up, I need to talk to your science teachers. It still has serious issues. But the auxiliary ideas that made it more efficient frighten me.

Ted Taylor was the man who took the Oralloy  atomic bomb from the size of a Volkswagen to the size of a large grapefruit. Officially the smallest was 16 inches in diameter.  There are rumors of fission bombs 13mm by 50mm. If  that was ever attempted or accomplished I think I am glad few people know of it. For ORION he seems to have made fission bombs with a very small amount of fissionable material. A real danger in a world where you don’t want small countries to have nuclear weapons.  It was hoped that they would be clean. Taylor says they weren’t.

Freeman Dyson is the man who made Dick Feynman understandable. The scandal is that he didn’t win the Nobel prize. He understood that the efficiency of the pulsed atomic drive depended on how much of the blast hit the pusher plate. So he devised a way to make the explosion go in a narrow cone. A  nuclear shaped charge , if you will. This is all very hush-hush. The innocent, bright British physicist in America transformed a nuclear blast from a ball of plasma to a lancing jet aimed at the target of the pusher plate. Much more efficient and safer for those on the rocket. He had changed a stick of dynamite into a rifle. Imagine a  nuclear explosion 10 miles wide by 100 long. A nuclear landmine along a border perhaps. Or a satellite in orbit which could put a nuclear lance down anywhere in the world.

At this point I find myself thinking that George Dyson is mad.  He even gives a code name for this idea: CASABA HOWITZER. This is fraught.
So do I  believe in classified procedures or not?  Do I believe they work?  Do I believe they cause unwarranted confusion?  Are they even productive in a country of the people and by the people? When the basic nature of a country is secret does that undermine a democracy? I don’t know. I stand in uffish thought.

So is private work any better? Ask your father. I am certain he has signed more non-disclosure agreements than he can remember. These threaten one with frightful consequences if breached. Fear, Uncertainty, and Dread. Oddly I know of no successful prosecutions of NDA’s.

Fun addendum: Robert Bussard is the man who cancelled ORION. Other than a personal conversation with him I have seen no evidence of this anywhere. There you have a small secret of the Nuclear Age. Why he cancelled it is another story.  He was passionate about the scientific problems three decades later.

These are things to think of.  You are both bright and will be put in such positions. It is smart to be prepared.

Just a thought for the day,

Your uncle,