Is “Ascension” going to be cool or stupid?

July 28, 2014

It has been announced that this fall SyFy channel (God I hate that name) will run a miniseries called “Ascension.” It sounds intriguing, in a weird sort of way. The premise is that in 1963 it was thought that America would soon be involved in a cataclysmic nuclear war – a not unreasonable assumption. Somehow a major leap of technology is made and a generation starship is launched. Not sure how it is determined that there is a habitable planet out there, and how a country that could barely launch a single man into orbit could send 600 people on a centuries-long trip.

Now, I’m a big fan of Project Orion. Except for some pesky Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the fact that JFK was terrified of a spaceship that used nuclear bombs for propulsion, we could have lifted hundreds of tons into orbit by 1970. But that’s another story. And it wouldn’t have been ready for a interstellar trip by 1963.

But I digress. The story is that the folks on the ship are pretty much stuck in the culture of the 1960s, in terms of mores, styles and such. Apparently the big issue is that the generation in power 50 years later is considering turning around and going home. They have received no communications from Earth since they left, so they don’t know if they might find a radioactive cinder or a world out of the Jetsons.

I have to admit, I was intrigued. Then This image showed up on io9 and other web sites:

Ascension ship 2

Yeah, that’s a Saturn V stuck in the middle of that thing. The rest of it looks like it was built out of Legos. I couldn’t image this was the generation ship. It was odd enough that they just stuck the Saturn in there, but how did they get the whole stack into orbit? The F1 engines of the first stage weren’t designed or optimized for a vacuum. Besides, if you have the technology to lift an entire Saturn V into space…well, you generally wouldn’t have to.

I still don’t know what this thing is, but I found this one in a clip on the official Ascension site:

Ascension ship 1

Go watch the clip. This is in a pullback from a view through a porthole, so it looks like it might be the generation ship. Still not enough detail to really see what it’s about, but at least it’s not completely laughable.

So maybe the first ship was something else. I can’t imagine what, but I don’t care how much this is “Mad Men in Space,” if the tech isn’t at least slightly believable, I’m not watching. And I know, there was a bunch of nuttiness in the physics of Battlestar Galactica, and I still watched the hell out of that. So maybe there is a chance this won’t suck…



  1. JFK was right to be “terrified” of a ship that used nuclear bombs for propulsion – anyone with a brain knows how devastating such a drive would be, as well as the long-term radioactive pollution left in its wake.
    Orion has its advantages, but it has no place inside the atmosphere of an inhabited planet.

  2. Rhys Taylor has a fairly in-depth discussion of launching an Orion using solid boosters, similar to those used by the Shuttle but much larger, here. And much of what I know about Orion comes from George Dyson’s book, Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship. I agree that launching one of these beasts each week or so could cause us some serious fallout issues, but most discussions of an Orion-type vehicle call for it to be assembled in orbit, and only use the drive from LEO on out. I think what Kennedy was concerned about more than the effects of fallout were the political effects of detonating a series of bombs in a sequence and then trying to convince the Soviets we weren’t using it as some kind of cover for an attack. (And of course, one of the early uses considered for an Orion ship was as a sort of nuclear battleship in orbit – see Allen Ury’s model of the Fantastic Plastic Orion Nuclear Battleship here. It was mastered by Scott Lowther, probably one of the best authorities on Orion working today.)

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