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The best mad scientist memoir of the year

Zuppero's zingy tale of space travel and bonkers weaponry

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Book review The best mad scientist autobiography this year, perhaps the only one, is Tony Zuppero's To Inhabit the Solar System. Better still, it's free and in time for holiday reading. It's a long but definitely not windy 391 pages.

In it, Zuppero confirms everything - bad, weird, insane, amusing or simply astonishing - you might have always suspected about US government crazy weapons and the world of aerospace.

"Tony Zuppero, one of [a few] would-be nuclear rocketeers, tells those stories as he recalls them, with sometimes alarming candor, humor, and disappointment," opined Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists after linking to the memoir on his secrecy blog.

Zuppero's dream begins in 1968 with the scientist inspired by one of Freeman Dyson's well-traveled crackpot ideas - that of powering a spaceship to the nearest star at one per cent of the speed of light, using atomic bombs. (Sci-fi authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle famously employed one in their alien invasion novel, Footfall.)

Working for a government lab, Zuppero asks to view the classified plans, called Orion, for the Dyson space ship.

"I was scrutinizing the drawing [of the space ship]," he writes. "It showed a really dinky and clearly horribly inefficient atomic bomb propulsion device. Nothing like what Freeman Dyson drew... The design seemed to be really dumb, like something one of my fraternity brothers would draw up inbetween periods of getting drunk."

With the bloom only slightly off the rose, Zuppero visits a bunker full of thermonuclear bombs to see the basis for his dream's propulsion. But the bombs are way too big, he observes, and there's no way to get three million of them on a spaceship to the stars. Freeman Dyson should have seen the bomb room, Zuppero writes.

To continue his work on the Orion rocket, Zuppero needs it justified by attachment to weapons analyses. A boss first asks if it's possible to tow an unshielded nuclear reactor behind an airplane so it spews radioactivity over the Soviet Union or Vietnam. The scientist's mind freezes and he's asked to analyze a different project.

Would it be possible to blow up the entire Soviet Union with a launch-to-arrival time of two minutes, so there could be no possibility of retaliation on warning?

This would be 5000 megatons or more, something the weapons shops of the United States could actually build, even though it would be monstrously large.

The technical dilemma was how to get it there fast. Using even more atomic bombs.

The reader immediately sees where this is going. Impractical.

Zuppero is blunt, often humorously so, immediately describing one of his bosses as a Nazi. The scientist is so frank because he is an "Aspie", he explains - "Autistic, Like Mongoloids and Other Weird People" according to one subchapter. Likening himself to Mr Spock, he concedes that he sometimes says things which are inappropriate.

In the context of the book, it is a bit of an understatement.

After this preamble, Zuppero is "fired" into a job on spy satellites, one meaningless to his undying goal, to design a rocket which can get out into the solar system.

To do this, Zuppero needs fuel and gas stations in space, and the answer to that is water. With a nuclear-heated steam rocket, he can travel the solar system, filling up at near Earth comets. He even provides a map of them.

This puts him in contact with more interesting people, in particular the delightfully named Crazy Roger, a colonel in the US Air Force who pays Zuppero for an analysis based on his rocket idea.

Roger was head of Timber Wind, a special Strategic Defense Initiative project to build nuclear-powered rockets. The Federation of American Scientists uncovered Timber Wind in the early Nineties and the outcry over it - including a proposed test launch out of Vandenberg which, if it misfired, could potentially toss a nuclear reactor into New Zealand - eventually killed it.

It is retold in the chapter, "Crazy Roger's Secret Nuclear Rocket". In effect, this was a flying nuclear reactor, one that some assumed would be an orbiting radioactive garbage scow, raining down waste in places with unfortunate luck.

Even though space travel of the kind dreamed about decades ago had died, To Inhabit The Solar System is perfectly suited for movie-making, possibly as art house fare.

Replete with unusual characters and characterizations, good portions of it are laugh out loud funny, sometimes unintentionally so. One learns that being in space is a bummer, spaceships a bit like combined orbiting vomitoriums/outhouses.

"This is not sci-fi," Zuppero tells readers right off.

Zuppero presents the reader with a collection of photos of ice moons he thinks humans could inhabit but believes "we are still the wrong species": it's too expensive and "we're broke". In the end the dream passes him by, but he clearly had a hell of a time chasing it.

You can read To Inhabit The Solar System here (pdf).

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