The Atomic Space Age has been and continues to be an engine for future wealth creation. Humanity stands on the verge of becoming an interplanetary species. We know we are made of star-stuff precisely because many of the isotopes in our bodies originated in the death throes of dying suns. With the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938, mankind was for the first time able to glimpse both our distant past and our possible future.
Willis L. Shirk, Jr. is a historian interested in promoting a better understanding of the history and philosophy of science, engineering and mathematics. He has worked in private industry, taught history at the university level, and served as a museum educator and archivist. In his role as an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives, he authored several dozen articles appearing in a variety of academic journals and popular magazines.
The Atomic Space Age was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the1940s as a team of scientists and engineers raced to build the world’s first atomic bomb. America was at war, and few Americans were thinking about the mechanics of exploring our solar system. Nonetheless, when Los Alamos scientists were able, for the first time, to harness nuclear energy for a specific purpose, individuals such as Stanislaw Ulam, Ted Taylor, and Frederic de Hoffmann quickly recognized the tremendous potential of this work for future space propulsion. In fact, the success at Los Alamos ignited a chain reaction of excitement after the war with Robert Bussard, R. D. DeLauer, Freeman Dyson, John Wistar Simpson, Ernst Stuhlinger and Wernher von Braun all racing to the drawing board to map out the future of atomic space propulsion.
This excitement was not limited to nuclear scientists and aerospace engineers. Contemporary science-fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke were quick to adopt the science of the day, imagining sleek nuclear-powered rocket ships hurling through the solar system effortlessly. This was a far cry from the whimsical rocket ships of science fiction’s first golden age when Hugo Gernsback and Edward Elmer Smith relied largely on vague and mysterious forces to power their atomic spacecraft.