A mushroom cloud rises with ships below during Operation Crossroads nuclear weapons test on Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands in this 1946 handout provided by the U.S. Library of Congress.
Vintage photo of a nuclear explosion.US Library of Congress

A leading physicist has claimed that he attempted to build a spaceship propelled by atomic bombs.

Famed physicist Freeman Dyson was working for California-based General Atomics in the 1950s, at the height of the space race.

The 91 year old and his team came up with the idea of dropping bombs rapidly in a bid for cheap and fast interplanetary travel in a scheme that was dubbed 'Project Orion'.

"We decided that we would go around the solar system with a spaceship driven by nuclear bombs, so we would launch the ship into space. Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb. Going up at about four bombs per second all the way to Mars and then to Jupiter and Saturn – and we intended to go ourselves," said Dyson in a YouTube interview with Quanta Magazine.

He added that they even got as far as making a small prototype powered by chemicals: "We had an actual model spaceships, about a metre in diameter, with chemical explosives that actually went bomb, bomb, bomb and a few hundred feet up."

However, Dyson and his team were not quick enough and were pipped in the race to the moon by NASA's team, led by former Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun.

"[We experimented with this for] a few years but by that time it was clear that the competition was actually going to win – the competition being Wernher von Braun."

Von Braun was a key figure in NASA's successful journey to the moon. After surrendering to American allies in 1945, he moved to the US and embarked on an extremely successful career. Between 1960 and 1970 von Braun was responsible for the Saturn IB and Saturn V space vehicles – with the latter being the propeller for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's successful mission to the moon in 1969.

Watch the full interview with Dyson, which includes stock footage of the experiment, below.