The Nuclear Space Race Has Begun: NASA Receives Budget to Research Nuclear Rockets

The last time USA led in the nuclear space race. 1 December 1967: The first ground experimental nuclear rocket engine (XE) assembly is shown here in “cold flow” configuration, as it makes a late evening arrival at Engine Test Stand No. 1 at the Nuclear Rocket Development Station in Jackass Flats, Nevada. The US nuclear programme was shelved in the 1970s.

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Following Russia’s announcement of their successful ten year programme to build a civilian nuclear powered launch vehicle, President Trump’s administration has directed NASA to restart US research into nuclear powered launch technology.

Momentum Grows for Nuclear Thermal Space Propulsion

By Jeff Foust a day ago

PASADENA, Calif. — With congressional funding and industry support, nuclear thermal propulsion technology is making progress for potential use on future NASA deep space missions, although how it fits into the agency’s exploration architectures remains uncertain.

The House Appropriations Committee approved May 22 a commerce, justice and science (CJS) appropriations bill that offers $22.3 billion for NASA. That funding includes $125 million for nuclear thermal propulsion development within the agency’s space technology program, compared to an administration request for no funding.

“The bill’s investment in nuclear thermal propulsion is critical as NASA works towards the design of a flight demonstration by 2024,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), ranking member of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, during that subcommittee’s markup of the bill May 17. He offered similar comments in support of that project at the full committee markup.

Read more: https://www.space.com/nuclear-thermal-space-propulsion-momentum-grows.html

The USA was once the unquestioned leader of nuclear space technology.

In addition to a successful nuclear thermal rocket programme (see the picture at the top of the page), the USA spent the best part of a decade exploring Project Orion, a 1950s technology space drive which was so powerful it could have affordably lifted entire cities to other worlds, or could even have been used to launch a manned mission to Alpha Centauri.

But all these US technology programmes were shelved and left to wither in the 1970s, thanks to political fear created by green anti-nuclear campaigns.

Now Russia has stepped in and taken the lead.

If the USA fails to catch up, if commercial and military Russian and Chinese space technology dominates the future, US green groups will have a lot to answer for.

61 thoughts on “The Nuclear Space Race Has Begun: NASA Receives Budget to Research Nuclear Rockets

  1. The greens will never answer for their failings, as they are resolute Luddites, and sustain themselves spreading misinformation about any technology Women”s Studies majors do not understand.

    • They are worse than luddities. The luddities just resisted technology they were afraid of in an attempt to protect their jobs. The greens want to destroy civilization so they they (and not us) can life in some imaginary hobbit land.

    • On the positive side, this will give them something to wring their little handsies over. The might even forget about the climate.

      Silver lining and all that. 🙂

  2. “President Trump’s administration has directed NASA to restart US research into nuclear powered launch technology”
    The report actually says:
    “The House Appropriations Committee approved May 22 a commerce, justice and science (CJS) appropriations bill that offers $22.3 billion for NASA. That funding includes $125 million for nuclear thermal propulsion development within the agency’s space technology program, compared to an administration request for no funding.”

    Doesn’t sound like the Trump administration directing.

    • Read the full article Nick. I probably should have included the following quote from the article I linked;

      … The concept has support in Congress as well as the White House. “As we continue to push farther into our solar system, we’ll need innovative new propulsion systems to get us there, including nuclear power,” Vice President Mike Pence said in a March 26 speech at a National Space Council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama. …

      • Eric,
        Some in the administration may support it. But the report is of a House Committee decision, apparently without a prior Admin recommendation.

        • I think that’s pretty thin Nick, Trump has been pushing for more ambition in space missions for some time. I doubt this happened in a vacuum.

          • Well, Eric, you’re trying to spin it as a Trump initiative, which, if unsuccessful, greens will have a lot to answer for. But in fact, it is an initiative of House Democrats, when Trump had made no proposal.

          • Regardless, any space mission actually will happen in a vacuum.

            Jus’ sayin…

        • . . . apparently without a prior Admin recommendation.

          It appears the funding was in the President’s 2019 budget proposal for NASA:

          “Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP): Investments will enable more efficient spaceflight by developing improved fuel element sources to support potential future nuclear thermal propulsion efforts. In FY 2018, the nuclear thermal propulsion project will continue to refine the NTP technology maturation and ground demonstration plan; complete assessment of a NTP Mars transportation architecture; continue feasibility analysis based on cermet fuel element/reactor conceptual design; update and deliver a final Low-Enriched-Uranium (LEU)-based nuclear thermal propulsion system cost analysis; and refine the fuel element reactor conceptual design. Industry and government involvement include Aerojet Rocketdyne, AMA, Aerospace, BWXT, and Department of Energy. Risk mitigation activities will complete in FY 2019, culminating in a concept review and determination of whether to proceed with a ground demonstration phase.”

          https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/fy2019_presidents_budget_nasa.pdf

          See p. 119

          • So what funding did he propose? There is a very long wish list in that technology maturation section, but according to the report Eric quoted, no funding requested.

          • . . . according to the report Eric quoted, no funding requested.

            The report Eric quoted appears to be in error given the linked budget request seems to contradict it.

            Page 2 indicates that of the total +/- $19B budgeted for NASA, +/- $1.9B went to “Space Transportation,” which would seem to fit the NTP program.

          • “the linked budget request seems to contradict it”
            If you are insisting that there was a budget request for this item, you won’t get far without being able to say what it is. The “Space transportation” item is just their general budget item every year, most to cover crews; it was actually as I read $2.108B, down from 2.589B in the 2017 operating plan.

            In fact, the para you quoted for NTP refers mainly to FY 2018, not 2019.

          • Nick, if you search the budget proposal for “nuclear” it show up 25 times, 10 time in association with “thermal propulsion”. The document is a budget summary, not a detailed budget. I call BS on “…apparently without a prior Admin recommendation.”

  3. I worked as a nuclear engineer in the late 1960’s on the NERVA nuclear rocket project at Westinghouse’s Astronuclear Laboratories in Large Penn.

    Great project and fun to work on these demonstration reactors that were engineered, designed, built and shipped by rail to Nevada for testing. I worked on the NRX-A5 and A6 test rockets and the XE-1 and 2 flying test bed rockets.

    The program was a technical success but funding ended in the early 1970’s due to the Vietnam War and loss of interest by the public in space programs.

    These rockets had twice the specific impulse of the best chemical rockets which meant that for the same payload for a Mars mission it took just half the fuel.

    The reactors achieved their technical goals but everything was just stopped. Too bad.

    • NASA should give you a call Larry.

      From memory George Dyson said on a TED talk that NASA chased him to help them fill in some missing pieces of their Project Orion records. If NASA were just as careless about NERVA records, a bit of hands-on from someone who was there in the 70s might save them from having to redo some of their old research.

      • To many cobwebs now.

        Visited the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Ala. two years ago and saw the housing for the XE-2 NERVA rocket on display there in front of the main administration office. Brought back memories.

        I was really impressed with Huntsville. Visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center there and toured much of the Redstone Arsenal grounds where vonBraun developed the rockets for the manned space program.

        Great history there. Toured the ISS Payload Operations Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center and saw the operations center where they coordinate live with the ISS Astronauts the experiments on board.

        Very impressive stuff.

      • And why not restore the old Orion bang-bang launcher? There’s gotta be a load of old nukes lying around that nobody REALLY wants to use (outside of Iran, that is). I’m sure some Pacific island that thinks it’s about to sink will volunteer for a launch site!
        (For those who don’t know about the Orion project, read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion) )

        Do I have to add /sarc?

    • Mr Hamlin,
      As a amateur astronomer and Space exploration enthusiast, I and many others would love to see an article or two from you. What would be the specific impulse using materials not existed back then?
      And the Left/Green coalition in the West will resist this, but not for in Russia and China.
      Do you see as an expert, those countries can pull it off without having internal resistance?
      Thank you,
      Mick

      • Wish I could. Most of the technology back then was under restricted security clearance so I have basically nothing from my files that were kept under lock and key.

        Additionally a lot of time has passed since that fun endeavor.

        The project was under joint NASA/ DOD control because of the nuclear fuel design, manufacture and operations. There were many material issues that were really challenging.

        The reactors used liquid hydrogen as the propulsion fluid and had to be capable of withstanding the thermal loads of inlet temperatures at that low temperature with reactor exit gas temperatures around 3,600 degrees R just 5 feet away from the inlet.

        I worked with some great people there.

        Thanks for asking.

    • Yeah…..the thermonuclear rocket introduces incredible heat to water molecules which are heated and blasted out of the rear of the rocket.

      Then in flight it scavenges water molecules and continues blasting them out of its rear.

      This is a great day for science…

    • These rockets had twice the specific impulse of the best chemical rockets which meant that for the same payload for a Mars mission it took just half the fuel.

      No. The effect of specific impulse is exponential.

  4. If the USA fails to catch up, if commercial and military Russian and Chinese space technology dominates the future, US green groups will have a lot to answer for.

    Everyone gives lip service to lofty goals. That has led us to a very bad place. Jordan Peterson points out that those lofty goals are spouted by Marxists disguising themselves as postmodern university professors, women’s studies departments, social justice warriors (SJWs), environmentalists, etc. etc. They all hate him with a passion because he points out their dishonest game and he shows why it is a fraud. example

  5. I’m all for restarting a Nerva project.

    Orion – ohmigod, NO! (Unless, not being dialed in to a classification about ten levels higher than I ever held, we actually do have laser-initiated fusion bombs for the “fuel.”)

    • “Orion – ohmigod, NO! ”

      There’s nothing really wrong with Orion so long as it starts in high orbit. There was a Saturn V-compatible Orion design which would have been launched on the Saturn and only started the nuclear engine at a safe distance from Earth.

      That said, fusion would certainly be better.

      NERVA, of course, had similar problems. If you were going to start the engine before reaching orbit, and take advantage of its high specific impulse to get it there, you had to pick a trajectory where it would be dumped somewhere safe if the engine failed before reaching orbit.

      That typically resulted in such an inefficient trajectory that you lost most of the benefit of using the NERVA during the launch, and might as well wait until it reached orbit instead. In the NASA documents I’ve read, they planned a trajectory that passed over Antarctica, so a failed launch would dump the radioactive material in the deep ocean or on the ice a long way from the nearest humans.

      If SpaceX get their Starship working, a lot could change, since it would be quite cheap to launch a fully-fueled and unused NERVA into orbit.

      • My initial career was at TRW Ballistic Missiles Division. We were the System Engineering and Technical Assistance (SE/TA) contractor to the Air Force Ballistic Missiles Office (AF/BMO) at Norton Air Force Base, California. In the late 1980s, we began working on the Small ICBM (SICBM).

        While we dicked around with the latest solid propellant technologies for SICBM, mostly associated with carbon-fiber filament wound cases. Propellants were passe by that time, though SICBM had to use all Class l.1 propellants to achieve its performance goals.

        But I will never forget a briefing we received from a nuclear engineer from Brookhaven National Laboratories. He came in and showed us the latest work on pebble bed fission reactors. Fissile material was encased in spherical, multilayer refractory pellets where the refractories had not only heat resistant properties, but neutron moderation capability in tailored amounts. The pebbles, which had precisely tailored neutronics, could be arranged into a packed bed having a perfectly programmed criticality an burn profile. Assembled into a rocket engine, it could provide the energy to send an ICBM to the Soviet Union, and at the end of action time, have no fissile material left over. The fission products would be contained in the refractory ceramic shells, even if the spent engine fell into the ocean (thermal shock wasn’t even an issue).

        The conceptual missile Brookhaven presented weighed 30,000 pounds, and delivered a Mark 21 RV to 6,000 nautical mile range – the two top requirements for SICBM. However, it had only one stage, with the pebble bed nuclear fission thermal rocket engine providing all of the propulsion. Liquid anhydrous ammonia was both the reactor moderator and the rocket propellant (anhydrous hydrazine would have been a better choice IMHO, jus’ sayin’).

        During the Q&A, one TRW engineer asked: “Don’t you think, given the anti-nuclear sentiment in the United States, that this idea will never sell, no matter what its actual value is? I mean, this is going to give off a lot of radiation as it leaves our airspace. Isn’t that a problem?”

        The Brookhaven engineer wasn’t surprised by the question, but was a little surprised that it came from a TRW ICBM engineer. After all, every August 6th, we had to endure the flocks of protesters gathering outside of the South Gate of Norton AFB holding signs reading “No More Hiroshimas.” (Locals responded with signs reading: “No More Hiroshimas? Okay, No More Pearl Harbors!”)

        The Brookhaven looked at the questioner (I can still see this clearly), and said: “So we would not save billions on an obsolete missile technology, all out of fear of some small amount of radioactivity from our missile, while Soviet warheads are putting mega Curies of fallout into our atmosphere during a nuclear war?”

        I’ve never heard an effective answer to that question, because. I suspect. there isn’t one.

        • Around PSNS in Bremerton, WA there were anti-protest signs and tee shirts “More Nukes, Less Kooks”.

    • I doubt the radiation from a handful of Orion launches would be significant. These guys agreed to stand under a small atomic bomb detonated 10,000 ft above their heads.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlE1BdOAfVc

      The radiation and the fallout from that blast was not sufficient to pose a significant health risk to people standing directly under it.

      Orion bombs would be even smaller. One plan considered for reducing the fallout even further was to start the launch with conventional explosive, so the ship was well above ground level before the nuclear engine started.

    • Links provided in the post. Nerva works by letting a reactor heat up, then passing a fluid through it to heat it up and expel it from the rear of the rocket. A lot like a conventional rocket except instead of heat and pressure being produced by a chemical fire, the fluid is heated by a small nuclear reactor.

      Orion takes this a step further, instead of heating a reactor to several thousand degrees like nuclear thermal, the reactor is a small atomic bomb – the “fluid” is heated by detonating a series of atomic bombs behind the ship, the collision between the explosion debris and the ship propels the ship.

      • Sounds like it could produce significant propulsive energy…but…how do you slow down? Turn around and place the nuke explosion in your path of travel? Orion would require significant shielding weight to protect the occupants from the radiation of a nuke in their path

  6. If we’re going to throw money we don’t have at something, this gets my vote over solar and wind technologies.

  7. Giving it to NASA, epic mistake. Especially given NASA’s rocket endeavors are tragically inept.

    Private companies should be given the funding, a group of private companies who will then work with NASA.

    Governmental agencies without fail piss away “someone elses money” and are rarely if ever efficient, then there’s the politics, like those that led to one shuttle disaster already and there is clearly still the rot in NASA going by the advocacy for climate doom

  8. Does NASA still do space stuff? I thought they where too busy doing climate and making low level F18 passes through the Star Wars canyon.

  9. Anyone else worried about Russia building nuclear rockets? Their record on nuclear power plant safety is…um…not outstanding. Chernobyl spread across the sky would not be good.

  10. NASA shouldn’t get any more money until it stops lying about climate.

  11. Fireball XL5 (spacecraft), Stingray (submarine), Thunderbirds 1-5 ( aircraft, submarine, spacecraft) from 1960’s children’s programmes set in the 2060’s, here in the U.K. were all nuclear powered.

  12. My record shows that I support safe nuclear power.
    But transporting fissile materials through the atmosphere does not count as safe in my book.
    When one crashes it will be like a dirty bomb going off.

  13. Considering the large potential for disaster, and the fact that humans make mistakes, caution is recommended. We have watched rockets blow up our entire lives. And plutonium is forever.

    That said, we should at least explore the idea. But the safety parameters must be HUGE.

  14. I think I would prefer to have the Nuclear Materials preserved here for “Reliable, Affordable Clean Energy Production” and find another method for producing larger scale thrust in Space. Perhaps Solid Propellant boosters, boosted into space and connected to their respective vehicles in orbit. That way their thrust can be used to propel the payload rather than to gain orbit.

    • Most Solid Propellant boosters are single use, and can’t be throttled after ignition. That includes can’t be shut down until burnout. That works well for a first stage, because you know how much basic thrust you need and can use the later stages for fine tuning orbital insertion.

      For space, they’d mostly only be good for pre-planed gross orbital changes, like setting up a Hohmann transfer orbit. I’d still want a throttleable engine for orbital adjustments, though. On your way to the Moon or Mars is no place to find out you solid propellant didn’t quite burn symmetrically, leaving you a few dozen meters per second short.

      ~¿~

      (everything I know about orbital mechanics I learned from Kerbal Space Program)

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