A nasty blast from the past: Francis Xavier Theban Tinsley and the atomic / nuclear pulse rocket

The atomic / nuclear pulse rocket imagined by well-known American illustrator Francis Xavier Theban Tinsley. Anon., “Advertisement – American Bosch Arma Corporation.” Aviation Week, 4 July 1960, 13.

Good morning, afternoon or evening, my reading friend. And welcome to the ever so surprising world of science, technology and innovation. As you probably know, not all surprises are good – and change is never good. (Hello EP!) Our topic of the week touches upon a rather frightening period of the 20th century known as the Cold War.

The launch of Sputnik I by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in October 1957 was one of the bad surprises yours truly was just talking (typing?) about. And yes, the first artificial satellite was mentioned in several / many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018.

Said launch resulted in a flurry of activity on the part of the American government, especially after the explosion, in December 1957, on its launch pad, of the rocket which was to carry the first American artificial satellite, Vanguard. This televised national embarrassment was amusingly / insultingly mocked (stayputnik, stallnik, sputternik, splatnik, puffnik, pfftnik, oopsnik, kaputnik, goofnik, flopnik, failnik, dudnik, etc.) by a great many of American and foreign newspapers.

In any event, the American space program went into high gear in the late 1950s. Numerous American firms published countless ads in glossy magazines which contained often imaginative and / or magnificent visions of what space exploration / conquest would be like. American Bosch Arma Corporation was one of these firms. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, this subsidiary of the well-established West German engineering and technology firm Robert Bosch Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung offered to the world a series (of 12?) advertisements entitled Steps in the Race to Outer Space which contained imaginative and magnificent visions of what space exploration / conquest would be like. And yes, these visions sprang, fully formed, from the brilliant mind of Francis Xavier Theban “Frank” Tinsley.

Yours truly would now like to offer you, my dear reading friend, the text which accompanied the drawing which showed the spaceship imagined by Tinsley, you know, the one at the beginning of this article. Sigh. Go back and have a look.

This is the Atomic Pulse Rocket, a pot-bellied spaceship nearly the size of the Empire State Building, propelled by a series of atomic blasts. The enormous rocket (weighing [68 000 metric tonnes / 67 000 Imperial tons] 75 000 tons fully loaded) is designed to leave Earth with a thrust of [91 000 metric tonnes / 89 000 Imperial tons] 100 000 tons. Altogether a thousand atomic blasts – each equivalent to [910 metric tonnes / 890 Imperial tons] 1 000 tons of TNT – are fired from a low velocity gun into a heavy steel rocket engine at a rate of one per second until the vehicle leaves the Earth’s atmosphere. The steam and vaporized steel from the combustion chamber maintain the thrust. Inside the rocket, living quarters are situated in the rim of a pressurized wheel-like cabin which revolves to provide artificial gravity. Tubular hydroponic “gardens” along the rim produce oxygen and high-protein food.

I hear (read?) that the advertisement displeased some high ranking United States Air Force (USAF) officers who may have thought that the illustration and caption were a bit too close to the truth for comfort.

Have you heard of a classified / secret project named Project Orion, my reading friend? No? Now, that’s a tale worth telling.

In 1958, the General Atomics Division of General Dynamics Corporation, a well-known American defence giant mentioned many times in our you know what since March 2018, began to work on one of the first, if not the first serious attempt to develop an atomic / nuclear bomb powered rocket. And yes, that was Project Orion, which received its name and initial funding in April 1958, courtesy of Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), an organisation known in 2020 as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Would you believe that the idea of using atomic / nuclear bombs to power a rocket was put forward no later than 1946, by Stanisław Marcin Ulam, a Polish American physicist and mathematician involved in, you guessed it, the Manhattan Project, the research and development program which led to the production of the first nuclear weapons, 2 of which ended up being used against Japan in August 1945?

At least 2 science fiction authors independently came up with a similar idea during the 1950s: the American John Dann MacDonald in 1951 in Wine of the Dreamers and the Canadian American Alfred Elton “Van” van Vogt, born Alfred Vogt, in 1956 in Empire of the Atom. And yes, van Vogt, one of the great science fiction authors of the 20th century was born in Manitoba, in Edenburg to be more precise, a Mennonite community, but back to our peroration.

In 1959-60, the Project Orion engineering team tested a series of small models, known as Putt-Putts, a singularly endearing nickname for such a dangerous endeavour. The trials proved that, at least at that scale, the basic idea behind the atomic pulsed rocket actually worked.

Mind you, calculations apparently made around that time showed that the radioactive particles scattered into the atmosphere as an Orion rocket blasted its way into space could result in the death of 7 to 10 people per launch. The fact that such a discovery did not lead to the cancellation of the project simply boggles the mind.

Given that neither the USAF nor the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), later the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a world famous yadda yadda mentioned in yadda yadda, regarded it as an asset worth fighting for, Project Orion remained under the purview of ARPA until 1960.

In 1960, the USAF somewhat reluctantly agreed to take on Project Orion if a military version of the atomic pulse rocket could be developed. The engineering team proposed one or more versions of an orbital platform armed with several / many (thermo)nuclear warheads that could be dropped on the USSR. The catch with that idea was that the USAF was about to put into service intercontinental ballistic missiles fitted with a thermonuclear warhead. If I may be so bold, it needed a space platform as much as it needed world peace and planetary disarmament. Sorry, that was mean.

How was an atomic pulse rocket supposed to work, you ask, my slightly nervous reading friend trying to see if there is something in the sky above? Well, (a significant?) part of the energy released by the hundreds of explosions would have hit a large and very robust push plate at the base of the rocket. Said plate was linked to the rocket through ginormous shock absorbers.

As you may well imagine, designing a pusher plate capable of taking that kind of pounding proved a wee bit difficult. Mind you, designing a crew compartment capable of protecting its precious human cargo also proved a wee bit difficult.

Why go through all that trouble, you ask? Well, you see, calculations made around 1958-59 showed that an advanced Orion rocket would be able to make a round trip to Mars in… 4 weeks – which was / is a bit shorter than the 9 months a piloted 2020 mission would need to get to Mars. And yes, the happy crew, the band of sisters and brothers, would need another 9 months to make the journey back to Earth. In between, it would have to spend another 3 months on the red planet to wait until Mars and Earth were in the best positions possible. So, 4 weeks or 21 months. Which would you pick?

The engineering team’s slogan as the 1960s dawned was an ambitious one: Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970. But back to our story.

In 1963, given the underwhelming interest shown by the USAF, Project Orion was pretty well dropped in NASA’s lap. It soon caught the eye of one of the key figures of the American space program and, yes, an individual whose National Socialist past was carefully buried for many years, namely Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun, an individual mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since January 2019. Put into orbit in pieces by a few Saturn V rockets, the very rocket scheduled to take astronauts of the Apollo program to the Moon, an Orion rocket would be able to fulfil one of von Braun’s dreams: a piloted journey to Mars. Sadly enough, not too many NASA bigwigs had happy thoughts when Project Orion was mentioned.

And Project Orion was not mentioned a lot, because it was still a classified / secret project, which was causing problems within NASA, if only because some / much of its staff did not have the clearances necessary to know what it was all about. A partial declassification took place in the fall of 1964, incidentally.

The signing, in August 1963, by the United States, the United Kingdom and the USSR, of the Treaty banning nuclear weapon tests in the upper atmosphere, in outer space and under water, did not help Project Orion’s prospects one tiny bit.

The upper management of NASA also knew they would have a public relation problem of ginormous proportions if an Orion rocket, or elements thereof, ever experienced a major failure during its journey through the atmosphere. Dozens, if not hundreds of small atomic / nuclear bombs could rain out of the sky. Although any explosion was unlikely, radioactive material could still end up contaminating areas of unknown size on the Earth.

Topping that off, the cost of the Apollo program was increasing rapidly, dare one say exponentially, and there was no way on the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s green Earth that NASA could find moolah to pay for that program and Project Orion. In December 1964, the agency / administration announced it would not put another penny in Project Orion’s piggybank. Seeing that, the USAF announced it too would not put another penny in said piggybank. Project Orion officially came to an end in 1965, I think. The engineering team was most unhappy as it believed that the concepts it had developed were workable.

If truth be told, the atomic pulse rocket is one of the most few technologies available in 2020 which might, in theory, allow an unpiloted spaceship to reach a nearby star system, presumably the closest one, a triple star system known as Alpha Centauri, approximately 4.37 light years away. This star trek would take about 45 years.

Would you like to read a few lines on the fascinating life of the American artist who imagined the version of an atomic pulse rocket shown in this article? And yes, my jaded reading friend, that was a rhetorical question.

The aforementioned Tinsley was born in November 1899. After obtaining his high school diploma, he worked as the apprentice of an artist in the research department of the world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, New York.

Drafted in 1918, in September to be more precise, like approximately 2.8 million young American men, Tinsley soon found himself in a design section of United States War Department – a square peg in a square hole. Astonishing. Sorry. The signing of the Armistice, in November, soon ended Tinsley’s military career.

As the 1920s began, Tinsley worked as a pen and ink artist for publications that people smarter than yours truly have not been able to identify. Mind you, he also found employment as an advisor / scenic artist / director (?) at Cosmopolitan Productions Incorporated.

Incidentally, this small film company was owned by William Randolph Hearst, a very powerful individual full of contradictions mentioned in an April 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. In later years, Tinsley and Hearst became good friends, but I digress.

By 1928 at the latest, Tinsley was delivering pen and ink interior illustrations and full colour cover paintings for pulp magazines. He worked for several of publishers over the years, in adventure / western adventure monthlies like Action Stories, Lariat Story Magazine, North West Stories and Western Story Magazine on the one hand and in aviation adventure / air war monthlies like Air Stories, Bill Barnes, Air Adventurer and its successors, George Bruce’s Contact, George Bruce’s Squadron, Sky Birds and War Birds on the other.

Examples of the covers Tinsley painted include

- George Bruce’s Contact of March 1934, with 2 fighter airplanes, a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and a Fokker D.VII of the German Empire’s Luftstreitkräfte;

- George Bruce’s Contact of June 1934, with a Bristol F.2 Fighter fighter airplane of the RAF;

- Bill Barnes Air Trails of April 1936, with a Consolidated PBY Catalina maritime patrol flying boat of the United States Navy; and

- Air Trails of May 1939, with a Supermarine Spitfire fighter airplane of the RAF.

And yes, all of these world famous aircraft can be found in the equally famous collection of the world famous Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario.

By the way, did you know that a Canadian aeronautical engineer, Beverley Strahan Shenstone, played a very important role in the development of the very efficient elliptical wing of the Spitfire? (Hello, EP!)

What’s this, my reading friend? You do not know what a pulp magazine is – or was? Poor, poor little you. Sorry. Pulps, as they were also called, were monthly publications, primarily American, printed on poor quality paper. They began their climb to greatness in the 1890s and remained popular until the 1950s. The breadth of topics covered by these unbelievably numerous publications was nothing short of breathtaking, from the profoundly pure and romantic to the very violent and warped.

Apparently unable to draw a truly elegant Homo sapiens had his life depended on it, a characteristic of many (retired?) aviation artists, Tinsley could draw or paint amazingly accurate portraits of aircraft, regardless of whether said aircraft were real or fictitious. He was / is a giant among pulps artist. Indeed, Tinsley was arguably the best air war artist of his time.

In 1940, Tinsley created Yankee Doodle, an original (daily?) comic strip published in a number if newspapers. Renamed Captain Yank in 1942, this strip went out quietly in 1945. Interestingly enough, at least for moi / me, Yankee Doodle / Captain Yank made brief (? 1941-? 1941 and July 1945-January 1946) appearances in Le Soleil, the most important French language daily newspaper in Québec, Québec, and in Le Samedi, an illustrated weekly magazine published in Montréal, Québec. What was this comic strip called in French, you ask? I almost forgot. It was called Le Capitaine Martial. Sorry about that.

In the 1950s, Tinsley provided illustrated for many articles published in Mechanix Illustrated. He also wrote some articles for that monthly magazine. And yes, Tinsley provided his own illustrations. Mind you, he also provided illustration for Amazing Stories, one of the most famous science fiction magazines of the 20th century.

By the mid-1950s, Tinsley was heavily involved in the affairs of the small town he was living in, serving as chairperson / director / head of the flood control board, chamber of commerce and town planning commission. Better yet, he was the founding president of the Old Saybrook Historical Society, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.

Tinsley left this Earth in June 1965. He was only 65 years old.

More than half a century later, Tinsley’s artwork remains a colourful exemplar of the cultural exuberance of the interwar and post Second World War years.

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Rénald Fortier