For the first time in possibly four decades, two electrifying space technology phrases have managed to show up in the same sentence in earnest. Quietly nestled in the murky details of a somewhat thrilling AP news story about a potential new Russian spacecraft to be produced in the next few years are the words: “manned mission to Mars,” and, “new nuclear engines.”
This is fantastic, as “nuclear engines” can only mean a resurrection of the triumphant nuclear thermal rocket technology pioneered and successfully tested during the Cold War.
Why is this significant? First, U.S. and Russian testing of nuclear rockets during the Cold War proved not only that the relatively simple technology worked, but that it was amazingly efficient. So efficient, in fact, that the rockets tested under the NERVA Program are still twice as powerful as our best rockets today, (half-a-century later!). Secondly, these rockets are of the weight and power necessary to significantly trim down travel times and make interplanetary manned missions feasible.
So, if the nuclear rocket technology is superior, why don’t we have this technology today? Well, politics and paranoia led to the death of the nuclear rocket back in 1972, when:
- a new project called the Space Shuttle drew funding away from the NERVA Program and set our course in space exploration for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) instead of back to the Moon and Mars, and
- in the Cold War nuclear holocaust climate, the word “nuclear” became (understandably) a source of irrational fear.
Only a few experts remain alive who worked in the thick of original nuclear thermal rocket research and testing, and with NewSpace set to take over LEO cargo and crew transportation services, it is time to set our sights back on the more ambitious goals of lunar settlements and expanded human exploration of the solar system. Nuclear thermal rockets will be the technology to take us there. The Russians apparently realize that, and perhaps an international kick in the pants is what the U.S. research and industrial community needs to realize that it’s time to pick this research back up.
A nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia nearly ended the world. It seems a fitting contrast that in the 21st Century, a nuclear space race between the U.S. and Russia could help humanity settle new ones.