I spent this past Thursday at the National Archives in Chicago as one of the few humans in the last three decades to track down the project files for the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) Program from the 1960s.
The experience of using the National Archive was exactly like and completely unlike what I’d imagined, and in both cases it was extraordinarily cool. The facility was nestled next to a National Guard depot in the thick of Chicago’s South Side. (Plenty of character there.) -After involuntarily entering a somewhat stylized, ’60s-looking sleek structure onsite that ended up being the wrong place, (the Federal side,) I found myself through the doors of an inconspicuous red brick building not unlike an annex to any standard university library.
Once inside, the seriousness of the place was palpable. Much paperwork and many login signatures were required prior to my being able to access any records. A resource area lined with long tables and power stations stood ready for researchers once inside, and a set of swinging, authorized-personnel-only double doors offered glimpses of an adjacent Radiers-of-the-Lost-Ark-style warehouse filled to the ceiling and as far as the eye could see with shelves of artifacts, documents, photographs – living history.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the joint NASA-Atomic Energy Commission nuclear rocket program has become more than a passing side interest of mine, due in large part to professional decontamination and decommissioning work with which I’ve been a part.
I had only a few hours at the archive, and haven’t yet even had time to go through all of the documents I copied (photographed – no flash.) Specifically, I was after documentation of program challenges. NERVA accomplished so much in so little time, and I’m trying to put together what their magic recipe was. Loose oversight? Temporarily unlimited funding? A transformational leadership style?
How were they able to develop nuclear rockets that outperform our best rockets today, do it in only a single decade, and have done it all half a century ago?
More importantly, what can we learn from NERVA, not only about space propulsion technology, but also about how to successfully develop and manage it? -And can historians and industrial archaeologists serve a role in preserving partially-developed spaceflight technology until the political and social pendulum swings back to enable the work to restart once again?
I’m after the answers, and I’ll report back what I find.