Image: We’re still trying to turn fusion into a reliable power source here on Earth. Pictured are the pre-amplifiers of the National Ignition Facility at LNLL. Will we ever find a way to use inertial confinement fusion powered by lasers on a spacecraft?
Credit: Damien Jemison/LLNL.

Conceiving the Laser-Fusion Starship


When young Rod Hyde, fresh out of MIT, started working on starship design in mid-1972, there were not many fusion-based precedents for what he was up to. He had taken a summer job that would turn into a career at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but right off the bat he was involved with Lowell Wood and John Nuckolls in a concept that would use a battery of lasers to create fusion reactions whose energy would be channeled out the back of the ship by magnetic nozzles. Wood and Nuckolls had been developing their ideas for years, after Nuckolls first began to ponder how to use laser fusion micro-explosions to drive a spacecraft.

Now the duo had a kid who had spent his previous summers working in a beet cannery, a recruit for Livermore who had run up high grades at MIT and had shown he could work like a demon once he put his mind to it. This would be his first technical job. Hyde went into full gear on containing the plasma from the fusion explosions with a magnetic field. If they could ignite fusion, the three researchers were looking at specific impulses of 300,000 seconds and maybe as high as a million.

The figure was staggering. The amount of time it takes one pound of fuel to produce one continual pound of thrust gives you the specific impulse figure. It’s one way to measure rocket performance. Putting the work of Hyde, Wood and Nuckolls in context, consider that the main engines of the Space Shuttle can turn out a specific impulse of about 455 seconds. Hyde couldn’t talk about the specifics of the fusion pellets and laser ignition in this engine when he presented it in late 1972 at a conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in New Orleans, but even the declassified version made quite a splash.

Read more: Conceiving the Laser-Fusion Starship — Centauri Dreams.

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