back to article NASA working on nuclear rocket for manned Mars trips

Since being redirected away from Bush-era plans for a base on the Moon towards a manned Mars mission, NASA has realigned its nuclear-tech-in-space efforts away from a Moonbase powerplant and towards an atomic-powered rocket able to get astronauts to the red planet quickly, without receiving dangerous exposure to cosmic radiation …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Two questions:

    1) Why are they spending money on projects such as this in a time of huge economic crisis?

    2) What happens if a nuclear powered spacecraft breaks up on launch/re-entry. Where does the fallout go?

    1. Ben Holmes

      I love the misconception that, in the grand scheme of things that is the US budget, NASA has any money at all.

      Go and look at the budget breakdown, and then come back in awe about all the amazing things that NASA achieve on their woefully small percentage.

    2. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      Tell us Anonymous Coward; how long is this economic crisis going to last? How long is it since the last one?

      Does than mean all projects longer than this period should NEVER happen, because who knows; there might be an economic crisis along any moment!

      Also, as has already been said; the money spent on this is nothing in comparison to other things. Instead, go and annoy your elected representative about how much money is spent in your name on WAR.

    3. loneranger

      1) You can't completely abandon science projects, even with budget problems. Federal funding for abortion, gay brainwashing propaganda in public schools, and funding useless art projects should be cut all before science.

      2) What happens if you crash your car at high speed? You and probably others will die too. tens of thousands of people die every year on America's highways. Add in the number of people killed worldwide from car accidents, and the total over a twenty-thirty year period is probably equal to World War 2 or more. The number of people who have died from nuclear accidents, in comparison, are exceedingly miniscule. Percentage-wise, it would have to be in the micro or nano of 1 percent range. Considering these facts, your boogaboo about nuclear accidents is misplaced, and frankly loony.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Why are they spending money on projects such as this in a time of huge economic crisis?"

      Because we MUST. It is utterly imperative to humankind, culture and civilisation. If anything needs to be done it is projects like this.

      Financial crises be damned. They're all politically generated and artificial anyhow. None of it is real.

    5. No, I will not fix your computer

      Re: Two Questions

      >>1) Why are they spending money on projects such as this in a time of huge economic crisis?

      On the face of it it's a good question, but if you have a mortgage you still have luxuries, this also one the face of it seems insane, huge debt over here, yet you still buy that pot of hagen daas icecream, it's called balance, people still need jobs, budgets have been cut (nay slashed) but life goes on, by your logic nobody should do anything in this world until every single person has access to clean water, sufficient food, health and education, and if you're not spending ALL your time, money and resources trying to fix this then you're not in a place to argue.

      >>2) What happens if a nuclear powered spacecraft breaks up on launch/re-entry. Where does the fallout go?

      Many spacecraft can and do blow up during launch, I'm assuming this will be taken into account, you would think that people capable of hitting a target several million milles away would think of these things (I believe such people are called rocket scientists).

      Don't get me wrong, I'm generally against a manned mission to Mars (currently), we can send many more robots, cheaper now, just keeping people alive on the ISS is a full time job with earth a stones throw away, we need to walk before we can run here and building a reliable nuclear rocket is practical, more so if we can use it to return sample from the Mars surface, because it has much stronger gravity than the Moon (twice that in fact) getting off the surface will be harder (and through an atmosphere too) - we will need to practice this, just like the Russians did (they got samples from the moon before the USA).

    6. Ammaross Danan


      Apparently someone missed Economics 101. Essentially, these projects create jobs, put money into circulation by buying materials et al. Slash these projects and people go jobless (think of how Lockhead-Martin is squirming with other private rocket startups on the horizon), industries that produce the materials for these projects flounder as no one wants to buy their stuff (who needs blast shielding designed for rocket tests anyway???), etc, etc.

      Where the cuts need to go is in budget mishandlings (you know, the $200 for a pencil stuff) or the obvious war-related things (such as being at war to begin with). However, war historically has been the means of recovering/avoiding an economic crisis. It doesn't seem to help this time due to unprecidented bailouts.

      1. Tom 13

        The AC isn't the only one who failed Econ 101.

        Keynsian pump priming isn't working any better this time than the last time it was tried, and that applies even to programs I would like to see succeed. Even if the program were spectacularly more successful than expected and we launched say 17 missions to Mars, that wouldn't significantly boost economic production in the US let alone the world.

        Programs like this should continue because they are the sort of basic R&D that sometimes lead to unexpected discoveries that boost productivity and bolster the imagination. That imagination in turn may produce other products that people want. That's why you keep going.

        Having said that, imagine what NASA could have done with all the money wasted on Solyndra.

    7. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You are in the dark.

      You haven't lit a torch.

      You haven't moved.

      You haven't lit a torch.

      You are eaten by a grue.

    8. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      > Why are they spending money on projects such as this in a time of huge economic crisis?

      There are several reasons. One is that the amount they are spending is petty cash compared to the amounts involved in the world economy. Giving NASA's budget to the banks would be as much help as trying to calm down a volcano by pissing on it.

      Secondly, economies and civilisations end up in crisis when they stagnate and start looking inwards instead of outwards. It has happened many times over history. The day when we stop spending money on discovery and exploration which *might* be useful, and instead spend it purely on patching up the old systems that we've had for years, is the day that the western economy dies and a new one takes over. I for one am delighted to see that some people have the vision to spend time and money on this, I'm way too old to start learning Mandarin or Korean now.

      > What happens if a nuclear powered spacecraft breaks up on launch/re-entry. Where does the fallout go?

      The obvious answer is that it would be designed so that anything which contained nuclear material would survive the break-up. One proposal is to ship a reactor (which is fragile) up empty, then send the fuel up in small, tough canisters which wouldn't suffer serious problems even in a serious launch accident. The canisters would only be opened to fuel the reactor once all was safely in space.

      There are always solutions, if people have the vision and courage to look for them.

  2. Nigel 11

    Reactor launch not a hazard

    Launching a reactor is far less of a hazard than launching a radioisotope power unit. The latter is highly radioactive at launch. The former would be non-radioactive at launch. Its fuel rods (enriched uranium) would be slightly radioactive, but vastly less so than the isotope power unit. They only become highly radioactive once the reactor is activated and has been in operation for some time, at which point we can be sure it won't be returning to Earth.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's The Queller drive

    It's going to kill us all arrrrgggggg.

  4. Tchou
    Thumb Up

    How to lift heavy materials (radiation shielding)

    The ISS was assembled in space, module by module.

    Why not do the same for heavy deep space manned rockets?

    Of course, we'll have to go first with orbiting an assembly docks station. Could be worth the trouble.

    1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      Because the ISS does not have heavy radiation shielding. It gets a lot of shielding from Earth's magnetosphere, and a little bit from the atmosphere. Also people are not left on the ISS for long (partly because of the radiation).

    2. Tom 13

      You still need to shift the same amount of mass

      to whatever orbit you establish for building the craft.

      Ironically, the only way this stuff starts making sense is if you follow the alleged moron's directive to build a base on the Moon. Then you build a manufacturing facility there and build the space ship components on the Moon and lift them from there. Much smaller gravity well, so you get overall savings on the lift issue. Of course, this also implies a sustained commitment to build a lot of stuff on the Moon, or it doesn't make sense either.

      1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

        At the risk of more downvotes (wtf?). The problem with setting up production on the moon, is that all the equipment to mine, refine and manufacture has a LOT of mass. You would need to be building a hell of a lot up there for it to be less mass sending all that equipment, rather than just launching a few rockets to Mars.

        Of course, if we start building ships on the scale of Star Trek, then the moon makes more sense.

    3. Ru

      "How to lift heavy materials"

      The bulk of the cost is in getting the material into orbit. The ISS had to be assembled in space because its bleedin' enormous; far bigger than could be packed into any lift vehicle.

      Deep space manned vehicles may probably also be assembled in orbit, of only because they too will be quite sizeable. They will not cost any less for all that.

  5. Filippo Silver badge

    I'm always irked by how easily the anti-nuclear camp throws the words "madness" and "insane" around. I disagree with them, but I don't think they're mad (well, most of them). I'd like to receive the same degree of respect. And use of strong language is almost always a cover for a lack of arguments.

    1. Hermes Conran

      you mean strong language like..

      "Anti Nuclear Fruit Cakes"?

  6. Andy E

    Piece by piece

    Good article Lewis. I've often wondered why the US continues with the idea of launching the entire Mars launcher/lander stack from Earth. Surely it would be feasible to assemble ready built components in Earth orbit and launch from there. The astronauts did a lot of work servicing the Hubble telescope and the USA, Europe, Russia and now the Chinese, have developed docking technology. In the case of the Europeans it was automated docking too.

    Launching the ready built components into earth orbit and have the automatically dock would allow for a much bigger craft to be built and reduce the energy required for the eventual launch to Mars.

    Mines the one with the Science Fiction magazine in the pocket...

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Andy E

      "Good article Lewis. I've often wondered why the US continues with the idea of launching the entire Mars launcher/lander stack from Earth. S"

      NASA got into the habit of avoiding this. It's debatable why. When Apollo was being spec'd they realized they'd need to build a big rocket. So instead of building a big one and launching several they thought they'd build a *bigger* one just once.

      It was more to do with the risk of launch accidents standing a chunk of hardware in space that would leak propellant (NASA could not do on orbit cryogenic propellant storage. 4 decades later it *still* cannot do on orbit cryo storage).

      NASA have *slightly* improved things when they issued a competition for a new glove design. This *significantly* lowers the exertion 'nauts need to make, which has serious implications for outside time, how much work the suit has do to etc. It's probably the first NASA advance in this area for 30 years.

      The work done on gender neutral (any to any) docking ports for ISS would also grossly simplify this (pressure, data, fuel, power and mechanical are all included) *if* NASA was prepared to accept that such a solution would not be *mass* efficient, but would be schedule and *cost* efficient. Of course if you go nuclear then (in theory) you can spend less time shaving the last gram off something and just make the Hydrogen tank a bit bigger.

    2. annodomini2

      John Smith 19 covered a lot of it, but the basic issues are cost and risk.

      $/lb to orbit (Including launcher design and development costs) as the US like to call it, is cheaper on a larger launcher that a smaller one.

      Additionally, it's not just launching the pieces, the ISS and Hubble required a lot of human intervention to assemble. So there may be 10 pieces including fuel, but 15-20 launches to get the thing into orbit and ready for it's mission.

      As a single stack the launch risk is reduced as the odds of a failure go up with number and frequency.

      Also there is a strong risk of collision when on orbit, even automated.

      Failure to dock, collision and other factors may result in the elements already launched being useless.

      The reason NASA has not had a death in space so far is due to 2 factors:

      1. Good risk mitigation.

      2. A lot of luck!

      Read up on the first moon landing,

      My favourite of the mistakes is the design of the exit on the lunar lander, they didn't account for the expansion of the spacesuits due to vacuum.

      When they exited onto the surface they caught the switches inside on the control panel, specifically they broke the switch that activated the accent rocket engine to return them to lunar orbit.

      They were fortunate in that they were able to activate the system using a pen, but it all very nearly ended in disaster.

  7. Thomas 4

    A new, revised Space Program policy

    "Fuck the nuclear sceptics, I want to see boots on Mars before I croak."

  8. Fred Mbogo

    Why settle for a glorified Trabant Nerva?

    When we can have Dr. Dyson's Rolls Royce.

    The man is still alive, he is as brilliant as ever and the science behind the Orion drive works.

    The only thing that's needed to make the drive palatable to the public is to diminish the contamination to the minimum. Instead of using nuclear bombs...why not use nuclear shape-charges? That way you'll ensure that the majority of the plasma shock wave hits the pusher plate.

    We only need two or maybe three Earth-based launches. Orion is so powerful that you can build a city-sized space station and lift it all the way to the Lagrange point in one launch. The second launch would send them supplies for 20~30 years while they work out the self-sustainability of the station. Then a station on the moon where they can mine the uranium and other yummy minerals to make more nukes for the Orion drives. Then we can work on a cheap easy way to get people from Earth to space.

    The designs for space stations are already there and there is even a technological road map. You start with Bernal spheres to get the basic habitation going. Once resources improve, you can build Stanford toruses (is that torii) and finally once you are ready to go balls to the wall, you construct O'Neill cylinders which will have soil, plants, animals and anything else you want to put in them.

    Do we want to end up as a one-planet grave? We are all one gamma-ray burst away from going the way of the dodo.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      We only need two or maybe three Earth-based [orion] launches

      well, yeah, but that assumes you know in advance what you need up there in such quantities.

      Now we might build a city-sized space station down here and launch it; but will it work as designed? ( Since we can hardly test it properly in advance).

      So maybe send some raw materials for use by a space factory? OK, but again we have the testing problem, and the technical problem of the capability of making vacuum tolerant space factories capable of making vacuum tolerant artifacts. I don't think we are anywhere near that.

      Essentially, nuking a vast quantity of material into orbit for later use seems merely to be setting up a situation where you discover later on that you've got an oversupply of the wrong thing; because you only find out what the right thing is after multiple launches with incremental technological improvements.

      And by the time you do know what you need, will you still need Orion?

  9. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Revenue stream for governments? Why, sure.

    "A private firm like Ad Astra can probably never muster the permissions and resources needed to make spacegoing reactors for use beyond Earth orbit."

    1. Set up nuclear launch zones in Siberia, the Sahara or wherever.

    2. Tell fearfags and amurricans off.

    3. ????

    4. Finally some progress!

    There is something to say for organizations with a regional violence monopoly that are not beholden to special interests or can quash dissent as needed.

  10. Jared Hunt

    Fruitcakes indeed!

    The same fruitcakes that said when the Galileo probe was deliberately directed to collide with Jupiter the material in its RTG would kick start nuclear fusion in the core of the planet and give us a second sun!

    We are never going to get anywhere in space unless we start collectively telling these numptys to get a clue or STFU!

  11. gautam

    How about Thorium?

    There was an article in LEreg a few weeks ago about its safety as well and abundance.

    The Greens would approve of it and a test case to moon (unmanned) would be utterly feasible as a prototype.

    1. Paul 129

      Not our Greens

      They don't approve of any reactors. Anything that emits EM waves is bad. Nuklear is insane and must be stamped out. Green is a moral code, not a balanced negotiation towards better outcomes for us and the environment.

      Hey while I'm on this train of thought, why don't we build Nuclear power plants near high conservation value areas? Look at the lovely great big National Parks that we have now around Chernobyl and Fukishima.

  12. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. The lone lurker

      Tsien landed on Europa and everybody died....

    2. TeeCee Gold badge

      "It might have ice beneath the regolith..."

      That's handy. They *might* be able to get back then.

    3. Paul RND*1000

      The perils of one (not very reliable) source research.

      "WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE'S NO ICE UNDER THE REGOLITH?!?!? How the hell are we supposed to get home now?"

      "I don't know Sir, but there's no ice. We're screwed."



      "I swear to God, if we ever get home I'll hunt down whoever wrote that lousy article and use THEM as reaction mass!!"

  13. Vulch

    Throwing stuff out the back

    "Since nobody has yet come up with any way to provide a thrust in space without throwing reaction mass out of the back of the ship"

    Damn, that means the Japanese IKAROS using a Solar Sail to get to Venus is a figment? Not to mention the various satellites that use their solar panels as sails for attitude control.

    1. Mike Moyle

      Technically... sails RECEIVE a thrust from the solar wind so, yes, to PROVIDE a thrust you pretty need to throw stuff out the business end of a jet of some sort.

      (Pity there isn't a "Doublr-D'oh" icon -- would that be a "D'oh-D'oh"...?)

  14. Dani Eder

    Solar can still work

    The solar arrays for the Space Station were designed some time ago, and photovoltaics has improved quite a bit since then. We now have triple-junction cells that use more of the solar spectrum, and you can use reflectors to concentrate the sunlight. The reflectors can be extremely lightweight plastic films. Those features combined let you use solar easily around Mars. In fact, the Juno probe recently launched to Jupiter is solar powered, and that is 3 times farther from the Sun as Mars and gets 1/10 the sunlight.

  15. BinaryFu

    I'm no rocket scientist...

    But isn't space a great big huge really large massive cold spot? Would it not be possible to set up a liquid cooling system that routes the coolant through external piping that would cool the liquid while outside the ship and then return sufficiently colder?

    Couldn't such heat by-product be utilized to run another power generator? Perhaps something along the lines utilized in geo-thermal work and then shuttled off for cooling?

    Like I said, no rocket scientist, but it just seems to me that there'd be a way to to make it work with a little thought.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      true, space is cold, ...

      but the only way you get to dump heat is by radiation; which is nowhere near as effective as the conduction &/or convection processes that get rid of heat in an atmosphere.

    2. DavCrav

      I was taught at school that there were three types of heat transfer: conduction, convection, and radiation. In space you only have radiation, which is the slowest.

    3. Ru

      There's cold, and cold.

      Simple example: vacuum flasks. They keep their contents nice and warm (or cold) for a looooong time, due to the difficulty of heat transfer.

      It is also rather impractical to use the heat from your engines to drive further power generation systems, because such systems require a temperature differential in order to work. This is hindered by the fact that the whole system is very effectively insulated by the vacuum it is in.

      Be very, very careful about phrases like 'a little thought'. People have been working on the issues of spaceflight for a long time, and there are plenty of experts out there. It is not unreasonable to assume that if you, a complete layman, could come up with a few ideas, that the people who've been beating their heads against these issues for 60 years might have thought of this before.

  16. Beachrider

    The Mars lander 'curiousity'...

    The launched-soon rover is nuclear powered because of the amount of electricity it needs to generate. It is twice as long and five times as heavy as the previous rovers (ref: ). It has much-higher performance servos and 10 'science experiments' (vs 3 on Opportunity). It's nominal mission is for 600+ Martian 'days', but has been specified to support up-to 10 years of function (depending on successful operation of rover).

    In short, it couldn't support the much-higher number of solar panels, given the Martian wind and increased power-demand.

  17. Stewart Stevens

    Asteroid ship

    Why not identify a small asteroid on a suitable orbit, intercept it, attach rockets and slingshot round the earth? On the way make a hole in the asteroid suitable for receiving a manned craft. The manned craft could then dock with the asteroid prior to the journey to mars. Plenty of mass for shielding and its all in orbit already.

    I'm sure this has been imagined before. I guess its harder than it sounds over lunch.

  18. johnwerneken

    Its simple you stupid environmentalists and scared yuppies

    Space is raining resources. There is no better place to invest. The solution to misery is simple: more energy more resources more room. Everything is dangerous. So what, everybody dies anyway.

  19. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    the Thermal vacuum test is one of the *toughest* for any space vehicle.

    Because while the big bang background is 3K the temperature of anything *directly* exposed to the Sun is set by the objects ability to either avoid *absorbing* the c1300W/m^2 that objects in Earth's orbit are exposed to or dumping it in the objects shadow (along with any heat the object itself is making).

    The problem is with no where to dump the heat to the temperature of the object climbs until it reaches an equilibrium temperature with the rest of the universe. If the object is a 'naut in a suit and the equilibrium temperature turns out to be say 200c then its a case of boil-in-the-bag time.

    Radiator design has been a *big* NASA topic for both nuclear and ISS use for some time. The most exotic uses basically a Sodium vapor spray and collection system but AFAIK has *never* been tested.

    BTW NASA has not planned to launch an *operating* nuclear reactor for *decades*. The expectation has been it will *never* be switched on before launch so the radiation levels are very low. And launch accident and reentry modeling has *always* been a big part of the design process (the Pu capsule on Apollo had it's own reentry heat shield to survive a Saturn V explosion).

  20. Unicornpiss

    Voyager anyone?

    The very successful Voyager 1 and 2 probes (which are amazingly still mostly operational) used radioisotope generators. Unless we master some kind of alternative power technology soon, nuclear power of some kind is going to remain essential for any kind of space flight beyond little runs to orbit and back. Surely there's a means of making nuclear devices reasonably safe for launch, after which there isn't much worry, as they're off the planet. I suppose with careful planning, the reactor could be jettisoned upon nearing Earth on the return trip, on a course that would make it impact on the moon or eventually carry it to crash into the sun or otherwise out of harm's way.

    Why is space flight necessary? Beyond the eventual payoff in technology and resources for humankind, because it inspires the imagination and satisfies the need to explore and create.

  21. Tom 7 Silver badge

    The waste heat problem could only be solved

    with radiating panels.

    The fact they would be bigger, and heavier, than the solar panels required to generate the required electrical power at Mars makes the whole thing moot.

    Worth looking at for the outer planets perhaps.

  22. Ru

    Bring on the launch catapults

    If you can fire your nuclear reactor into the sky with sufficient velocity and a healthy does of shielding, it cannot possibly come back to earth. The catapult only need be big enough to chuck the consumer-unfriendly fuel assemblies into orbit, after all; they can be assembled into a reactor once they're up in orbit away from the fruitcakes mentioned in the article.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fusion-powered Plasma Turbine

    It'll be a dream becoming reality in our lifetime. NASA mining moon's regolith for helium-3 to supply fusion-powered missions to Mars and beyond.

This topic is closed for new posts.

Other stories you might like

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022