Will NASA Use Nuclear Propulsion For Faster Crewed Mission Transport?

rocket illustration
Credit: NASA

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Should NASA use nuclear propulsion for faster crewed mission transport?

Jen DiMascio, Aviation Week’s Executive Editor, Defense & Space, responds: 

During an Oct. 9 Aviation Week webinar moderated by Space Editor Irene Klotz, three former NASA administrators agreed that the U.S. needs to harness nuclear technology to propel humans beyond low Earth orbit.

With the rapid development of the Chinese space program, the U.S. does not have the luxury of waiting to develop new technology, said Dan Goldin, who led NASA during three presidential administrations from 1992 to 2001. “We’ve been using the same damn rocket technology since Apollo. It’s time to grow up and say the magic term ‘nuclear.’ There I said it, ‘nuclear,’” Goldin said. “We’re going to need nuclear power on planetary bodies. We’re going to need nuclear power for propulsion. And if America intends to be a world leader, we’re going to have to grow up and learn to live with nuclear.”

The U.S. has been exploring the technology for a long time, points out Sean O’Keefe, NASA administrator during George W. Bush’s presidency in 2001-05. But he says the nation needs to pick up the pace. Project Prometheus, an in-space propulsion effort started in 2003 to develop radioisotope power systems and nuclear power and propulsion systems. The program was designed to support a space science mission to study the icy moons of Jupiter, but it was scrapped in favor of higher priorities.

The technology in Prometheus “has been developed now to a much higher extent, but nowhere near as quickly as we needed to see significant changes over the last 15 years,” O’Keefe said. “We’re in a better place now in terms of developing that technology that has been used on a limited basis in the past—to seriously examining that as an in-space propulsion capacity. We just need to do it a hell of a lot faster.”

President Barack Obama’s only NASA administrator, veteran astronaut Charles Bolden, also agreed that nuclear propulsion is the best way to explore beyond Earth orbit, given that the public is not likely to support efforts to make a nuclear-powered rocket that lifts off from Earth.

“Once you get off the planet, we need to go places fast and the only way to do that is nuclear propulsion,” he said, adding that his former crewmate Franklin Chang-Diaz is working on that solution. Diaz’s company Ad Astra Rocket, is building the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket or Vasimr engine.

Interest is not limited to NASA. DARPA recently awarded a $14 million task order to Gryphon Technologies to support development of a High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium-based fission reactor propulsion system. And NASA has commissioned the National Academies to study nuclear-electric propulsion and nuclear-thermal propulsion for future space exploration missions. The panel is tasked with developing a road map for each technology, which has the potential to deliver spacecraft to Mars in less than nine months, and support roundtrip travel to the planet’s surface in less than three years.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen previously managed Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.


1 Comment
The nation's problem, and it could be a fatal one if we wait long enough (less than 100 years), is that most citizens, the guys who pay the bills, do not see a space frontier as a high priority. In reality, they should recognize it as the highest priority because virtually all of the issues they do care about (climate change, pandemics, tensions over resource distribution, population senescence in the West, economic collapse, mass migrations, to name a few) are easily shown to be related to our collective failure to replace the lost frontier. What can we do to stimulate a consensus for frontier formation?