WASHINGTON DC – NASA began research on nuclear propulsion in the 1960’s, but abandoned the idea because the Apollo era was in full swing and because of the tremendous cost of reactor testing.
However, the idea has been gaining momentum since Trump announced the ambitious deadline for a return to the moon in 2024 and finally the other long-desired target – Mars.
The History of Nuclear and Cosmic Exploration will open a new chapter just a few steps from the Redstone test bench in one corner of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where in 1958 the Redstone rocket became the first to detonate a weapon. Three years later, it carried the first American into space.
This time NASA’s goal is a little different, as it tasked its engineers, led by physicist Bill Emrich, to build the first nuclear fission-powered rocket engine, and expecting it to be twice as efficient as the chemical alternatives it offers. feed most rockets today.
It may be argued that space travel is perilous in itself, with no need to worry about nuclear repercussions, but for human missions to the Moon and Mars, already planned by the White House, such risks may be unavoidable.
Nuclear engine spaceship
It may be a relief that nuclear reactors do not start directly on the launch pad, but rather in space after a conventional chemical-propelled rocket puts the nuclear-powered spacecraft into orbit.
The amount of energy produced by these reactors is believed to be capable of sustaining human outposts on other worlds, as well as reducing travel time to Mars by nearly half.
Huge amounts of electricity
To achieve this goal, Emrich and his team have been simulating extreme conditions inside a rocket nuclear engine at the Marshall Space Flight Center using huge amounts of electricity, as in a large microwave oven rather than triggering a costly fission reaction, as NASA did in the 1960s.
The goal is to ensure that the designed reactor withstands its own heat and is capable of operating at extreme temperatures of around 2,200 degrees Celsius.
The project, abbreviated as NTREES – Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator – was later integrated into a broader program to study how a nuclear engine could be integrated with NASA’s next-generation rocket launcher Space Launch System.
The financials were also successfully addressed, with heavy sums earmarked for all stages of the nuclear propulsion venture: In 2017 NASA awarded BWX Technologies a $ 19 million three-year contract to develop fuel and reactor components. needed for a nuclear engine, while over the past two years Congress has earmarked a total of $225 million in NASA’s budget for that purpose.
First nuclear engine
For now, NASA is striving to revise its regulations to make nuclear engine launch possible.
In August of this year, a White House memorandum required NASA to develop its security protocols, which could put the first nuclear engine in space by 2024 – the deadline set earlier this year by President Trump for US astronauts to return to the moon, decades after the successful Apollo missions and before the ultimate goal of putting a foot on Mars.