Nuclear power in space? Petition asks White House to rekindle project

From NBC News

By Alan Boyle

First there was the Death Star petition, then there was the Starship Enterprise petition, and now there’s a petition calling on the White House to build a nuclear rocket for fast interplanetary travel. Unlike the spaceships cited in those first two petitions, this one isn’t just science fiction.

There was a time when the federal government tested nuclear thermal rocket technology for the flights that would follow the Apollo moonshots. Back in the 1960s, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and its industrial partners set up Project NERVA, which stands for Nuclear Energy for Rocket Vehicle Application. The idea was to use a nuclear reactor to heat up liquid hydrogen propellant and blast a rocket out of Earth orbit. A trip to the moon would take just 24 hours. Going to Mars? You could make the voyage in just four months.

The initial plan called for NERVA technology to power the first manned mission to Mars in 1981. More than 20 rocket tests — conducted under names such as KIWI and Phoenix, Peewee-1 and Nuclear Furnace-1 — were carried out at a Nevada test range. But qualms about nuclear power, and about the multibillion-dollar development cost, led to Project NERVA’s cancellation in 1973. Instead, the Nixon administration went with the space shuttle program.

Nuclear rocket propulsion briefly returned to the spotlight in 2003, when NASA considered developing a reactor-based system for deep-space missions such as the Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter, as part of what became known as Project Prometheus. The initial missions would have used a small reactor to generate electricity for an ion drive, rather than implementing the NERVA concept. But like NERVA, Prometheus came to be perceived as too complex and risky. NASA canceled the program in 2005.

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