America’s Urgent Need to Develop Space Nuclear Propulsion Systems
While NASA finally launches the first Space Launch System (SLS) mission, America is failing to invest in the essential space propulsion technology needed to send astronauts to Mars.
The United States must develop space nuclear propulsion technologies to enable 21st century human missions to Mars. Congress should immediately direct NASA and the Department of Energy to partner with a university-affiliated research facility or a federally-funded research and development facility to create a new National Propulsion Laboratory. space nuclear.
It is naive and contrary to national interests for the United States to rely on expensive, outdated, slow-moving, single-use, chemical-powered rockets like SLS to ferry astronauts to Mars. Instead, America must invest aggressively in the development of space nuclear propulsion systems.
Nuclear technology, including nuclear electric propulsion (or “NEP”) and nuclear thermal propulsion (or “NTP”), will be a game-changer for space travel with profound implications for speed, agility and mission capability in deep space.
The increased propulsive power of nuclear systems will allow humans to head for Mars at a more regular rate than the current “every 26 month” mission launch windows. Nuclear propulsion will also allow astronauts on Mars missions to abort and return to Earth in the event of an emergency.
A recent study by the National Academies of Sciences concluded that the United States should further study both NEP and NTP systems for human missions to Mars, but did not prioritize either. Experts have concluded that if the United States begins serious development of an NTP system today, we could have an operational system by 2039, our deadline for a first American human mission to Mars. An NTP system would provide fast and efficient propulsion for our human missions to Mars.
A NASA colleague once brilliantly explained that NEP and NTP are the difference “between a Prius and a Porsche”. Both cars will get you to your destination, but each at different speeds and with different trade-offs.
Having both systems operational would provide decades of capability and open the doors wide for human exploration of deep space. This new technological development will not be an easy task – NEP and NTP systems now require significant technological research and development to create working systems before other space nations.
As America did with the Apollo program, we will have to start from scratch, inventing new nuclear materials, engines and systems that simply do not exist today. This is why we must act now.
To activate these new nuclear propulsion systems, we must rely on the true brains of our nation – our academic institutions and American industry.
While brilliant little R&D projects have taken place at federal agencies like DARPA (their DRACO mission) and NASA (their Fission Surface Power project), government agencies lack the state-of-the-art facilities and intellectual capabilities to carry out well this essential technological development R&D. around the mid-2030s.
The leadership of a new national laboratory by a university-affiliated partner will result in significant cost savings for the government. Combining the smarts of academia with the business acumen of industry will be far more cost-effective than handing this work over to government agencies that aren’t ready for this technological challenge.
Federal agencies are expected to provide funding and real estate, as well as oversight and safety and security services to the new lab, run by a university-affiliated organization. Universities and industry will always find ways to do R&D faster, better and cheaper than government bureaucrats.
American industry is more than ready to join this important aerospace technology race. America’s best and brightest in multiple industries can bring down the long pole of space nuclear propulsion while advancing the practical commercial uses of this new technological capability right here on Earth. Like any new disruptive technology, economic opportunities and societal benefits will follow once these systems are proven in space demonstration missions.
It’s time to stop waiting for obtuse scribbles of space policy on in-depth studies and analysis to emanate from the Space Council or other administration oracles. Congress is expected to lead the formation of a new National Hybrid Laboratory dedicated to creating and demonstrating advanced space nuclear propulsion systems within a decade. Without immediate leadership from Congress, America will continue to fall behind in a critical technology needed to power our future human exploration of deep space.
David Steitz most recently, he served as NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Technology, Policy and Strategy and as the agency’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer. Steitz retired from NASA in May, concluding a 32-year career at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
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