NASA Gets Support for Nuclear Proplusion Systems in Space

nukes in space

Geek Wire, a Seattle, WA, online technology focused wire service, reports that the latest meeting of the National Space Council provided a forum to build support for NASA’s twin-focus plan to send astronauts to the moon in preparation for trips to Mars.

A key element of the meeting was the idea of using nuclear-powered rockets to get there.

The Council, which is a federal government forum, approved a set of recommendations aimed at fostering cooperation with commercial ventures and international partners on NASA’s moon-to-Mars initiative.

According to Geek Wire, space nuclear power figured prominently in the Council’s discussion: White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier announced that a working group organized by the Office of Science and Technology Policy has completed a set of guidelines for the safe use of nuclear power sources in space ranging from the radioisotope thermoelectric generators that have long been a part of missions beyond Earth orbit to specially built nuclear reactors for propulsion systems in spacecraft.

The White House issued the guidelines in the form of a presidential memorandum to federal agencies. The memo lays out radiation safety standards for space nuclear systems. Federal officials have been given a year to draw up a report identifying additional guidelines for nuclear systems.

The memorandum address the use of radioisotopes to provide electrical power, heat for science packages on uncrewed missions, and fission reactors to be used for power and propulsion.

Researchers at NASA and other federal labs are studying a concept that could lead to nuclear reactors being placed on the moon and Mars as power systems for astronaut lunar and Martian base stations.

Bridenstine said nuclear-powered propulsion systems would be “absolutely a game-changer” for space travel.

NASA Plans Unclear About Developing Nuclear Fission Propulsion Systems

The Houston Chronicle reported that Rex Geveden, CEO of BWX Technologies, said nuclear propulsion could reduce the travel time for a Mars-bound crew from six or seven months to three or four months. That would reduce the radiation risk for astronauts heading to Mars.

The longer astronauts spend in deep space, away from the protective bubble of Earth’s magnetosphere the more likely that the radiation dose accumulated by Mars-bound astronauts could damage their brains, affecting their moods as well as their ability to learn and remember procedures for operating their spacecraft or a Mars base.

While the nine-month trip to Mars could be slashed in half with nuclear propulsion, the newspaper, which closely follows NASA’s work, said the facts of the matter show that NASA is barely looking into the technology.

BWXT CEO Geveden implored NASA to spend more time on it if Mars truly was a goal. His firm has a NASA contract to develop fuel for a nuclear propulsion system.

“If we are to fulfill these objectives to establish a long-term presence on the moon and to send the first crewed mission to Mars, nuclear power is arguably the most important to enable these bold goals,” Geveden said.

The current budget funds feasibility studies and engine-environment performance but little else according to the Chronicle report. In May, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that allocates $22.3 billion to NASA — including $125 million to develop nuclear thermal propulsion technology. The Senate has yet to act on NASA’s budget.

The appropriation language calls on NASA to develop “a multi-year plan that enables a nuclear thermal propulsion demonstration, including the timeline associated with the space demonstration, and a description of future missions and propulsion and power systems enabled by this capability.”

It remains unclear, though, how nuclear thermal propulsion fits into NASA’s long-term exploration plans. NASA’s exploration roadmaps, as well as many developed by companies and organizations in the launch business, have continued to rely on more conventional propulsion technologies, including chemical and solar electric propulsion.

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