Nuclear Rockets in Fiction

Published December 13, 2018

One of the earliest references to a nuclear-propelled rocket in science fiction is a story by Robert Serviss entitled A Columbus of Space that was published in 1911 in which the line “the ship employed the mighty power of the Atom” appears. In 1912 Robert Esnault-Pelterie presented a paper proposing sending a nuclear-powered rocket to the moon that was presented to the Physics Society of France. By 1915 Arthur Train and Johns Hopkins University physicist Robert Wood co-authored a story entitled The Man Who Rocked the Earth and followed it up with The Moon-Maker in 1916 in which the spacecraft is described as being propelled by a beam of alpha particles generated through the disintegration of a bar of uranium. Described as  a “flying ring,” the doughnut-shaped spacecraft was depicted as being propelled forward by a steerable rocket engine attached to the top of the doughnut with the exhaust plume directed downward throughout the hole in the center of the doughnut. It is reminiscent of Hermann Ganswindt’s 1893 proposal for using a chemical-powered rocket to carry a large passenger cabin behind it as well as a similar 1882 proposal authored by Nicholai Kibalchich.

Whimsical as these ideas may sound today they nonetheless expressed the genuine desire to figure out a way to enable humans to travel into outer space given the substantial constraints imposed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation. The publication of Edward E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space serialized in the August, September and October 1929 issues of Amazing Stories kept the narrative of atomic rocket propulsion alive even in the absence of any solid scientific understanding of how it might be achieved. Until the discovery of the processes of nuclear fission and nuclear fusion after 1938 the notion of atomic rockets resided still in the realm of fiction. The birth of the Atomic Space Age in the New Mexico desert in July 1945 changed all that.