Re: There wouldn't be any fallout
At least I always presumed that the "exploding nukes to generate thrust" part only occurred in space, and that conventional rockets would loft it into space first
The original idea was indeed to go with the nukes all the way. The spaceship would have been huge, on the scale of a battleship, not aeroplane.
what the hell are you going to build the back out of for the nuke to push against that won't be destroyed in the process?
The Orion project scientist had this and a lot of other details worked out. Remember they had access to data and experience about nuclear bombs. The blast is powerful but not infinitely so, and with the data available to them, making a pusher plate that can survive multiple explosions is just a matter of engineering. The bombs would also have been precisely designed for the purpose.
There is a fascinating documentary on Youtube about the project.