Russia announces new Nuclear Rockets for manned Mars trip

16 04 2011

1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in flight configuration.

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

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Tales from a nuclear rocket station

21 02 2011

One of the great pleasures of my research into the ’60s development of nuclear rockets for space exploration are moments like the following, which I pieced together from archival records and oral history…  (If I find enough of these to write, I might collect them into a book sometime.  Feedback welcome.)

Moonrise over the Nevada desert.

Richard Nutley, a supply manager for the joint NASA-Atomic Energy Commission Nuclear Rocket Development Station (NRDS), stood with an infuriated NASA accountant next to the partially-constructed Engine Test Stand One.  The year is 1961.

The test stand was a maze of pipes connecting two giant, white, spherical hydrogen reservoirs to a towering concrete-and-steel gantry.  It appeared much like a lone launch pad in the middle of the sage-covered desert valley where the nation’s most advanced propulsion system was being developed and tested.  A network of rail lines crisscrossed the flats, connecting the test stand to several other structures where nuclear rocket reactors were assembled and prepared.

Together, the NRDS represented the nation’s attempts to build a rocket powerful enough to take bases to the Moon and astronauts to Mars, and they were meeting with great success.

Richard grinned, trying not to laugh as the accountant, who’d arrived from NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. that morning, dusted off his suit and attempted to empty gravel from his Italian leather shoes.  A mighty dust devil had swept across the construction site without warning, catching the accountant completely unprepared.  Already in a sour mood from the unexpected hour-and-a-half drive from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test Site earlier that morning, the whirlwind was the last straw.

Richard shook his head.  Anyone who’d bothered to look into the NRDS knew better than to wear nice clothes to the site.

Walking back toward the car parked at the fence-line to the test stand and stifling back laughter, Richard looked up to see that the moon had risen over Vegas, and it loomed on the horizon.  “That’s where we’re going with this thing,” he said.

“Where?” the accountant replied, annoyed.  “What are you talking about?”

“The moon,” Richard said flatly.

The NASA accountant looked at Richard and said, “You would never see the moon in the daylight back East.”

Richard drove the NASA accountant back to Vegas and never saw him again.





Timestream Post: A Note from 10.7.2010

12 12 2010

10/07/2010; 09:04am

It’s October 7th, and in a few moments I’m heading out to the National Archives in Chicago in search of NERVA (the joint NASA-Atomic Energy Commission program to develop nuclear thermal rockets) material and program files.

As this is another of my digital time-travel experiment messages, I’m sending this far enough out to encompass a time-span necessary to answer my questions…  (As I see it, anyway.  My Nuclear Rocket Program term paper is due in early December.)

What will I find?  Archivists tell me I’m the first to have seriously requested access to these records in nearly three decades.

I’m terribly excited! – the anticipation!

Will I find the photos of phoebus reactors I’m looking for?  Do I unearth management information for my space studies class term paper?  Any surprises in store?

I can’t wait!  =)





Foraging for Nuclear Rocket Secrets

12 10 2010

A NERVA program file at the National Archives in Chicago.

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.

National Archives analysis room. Credit: Ben McGee

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.

Box SNPO60 at the National Archives.

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.

 





Getting up to speed, part 2. (Space update)

25 02 2010

Legacy NTS atomic test

Halfway into the 21-st Century aughts, I landed a job as a scientist in the Environmental Restoration program at the Nevada Test Site.  This amounted to the study, clean-up, and documentation of contamination left over from the glory days of above-ground nuclear weapon tests.  I wanted fieldwork that other astronaut-hopefuls wouldn’t be getting, and boy did I get it, (in addition to a few fortuitous space-exploration-related surprises.)

First and foremost, learning to deal with, comfortably work around, and analyze radioactivity was a boon.  High-energy radiation from the Sun is one of an astronaut’s primary threats.  Shielding techniques and real-time measurements of dose rates and activity in a remote field environment – You don’t get experience like that in a university.

Apollo astronauts at NTS

Secondly, for obvious reasons, getting used to performing scientific and technical work in and around the unique, high-density network of craters left over from testing was also highly advantageous from a planetary science fieldwork perspective.  I’m not the only one to make that connection, either.

As fate would have it, the astronauts who would walk on the Moon on Apollo 14, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 trained in the same area for the same reasons nearly four decades earlier.

 

Sensor truck about to be engulfed by a dust devil.

By happy coincidence, I simultaneously had the opportunity to jump into “field” Mars research on the side by being invited to assist the scientist who first discovered dust devils on Mars with fieldwork just outside of Las Vegas.  You see, dust devils seem like no big deal on Earth, but on Mars your average dust devil is a mile wide and eight miles tall.  You can see them from space.  Seriously.  So, using chase trucks and custom-built instrumentation, we chased whirlwinds across dry desert lakebeds to get precious readings from within a dust devil’s core – an area that is not typically easy to access – in order to better understand how dust devils are currently shaping the surface of Mars.

Think the space-geek version of storm chasers.  It was awesome.

Then, in early 2006, I discovered through the course of my work at the Nevada Test Site that NASA and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission had partnered in a little-known 1960s test program conducted at the site called NERVA.  What they achieved in only a few years is staggering: A series of successful, fully-functional nuclear rocket engines that used liquid hydrogen for fuel, emitted simple hydrogen and water vapor as exhaust, and were nearly twice as powerful as our best chemical rockets today(!).

 

1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in full flight configuration.

This will be the subject of a much longer post or posts in the future, but let me just say that the program was not shut down due to safety concerns or failures to successfully produce – NERVA was canceled simply for lack of funds and interest (we stopped going to the Moon and canceled plans for following up to Mars).  My involvement was both exhilarating and heart-breaking, because the reason I became versed in the history and details of the program was to help tear down its last remnants.  Saving knowledge from this program became a sort of personal quest – I find the idea of lost advanced (and superior!) rocket technology sickening – and thus began my side foray into space-era industrial archaeology… but that’s another story.

 

View from 8-Mile Creek in Spring Valley, NV.

Work in the environmental program at the test site began to wind down in 2007, and I soon found myself in a new position as a senior hydrogeologist with the Southern Nevada Water Authority – a position I still hold today.  A perfect blend of extremely remote fieldwork combined with intensely analytical science, the job entails measuring every spring and stream and obtaining rainfall measurements across a nearly 1,400-square mile project area and making sense of it meteorologically and geologically.  Why?  We need to determine how much water is in the region in order to lay the foundation for a future 300-mile long freshwater pipeline to supply Las Vegas with much-needed water.  With the program, I’ve covered nearly 100,000 miles of territory (1/3 of the way to the Moon) in the last two years, all of it with a population density of less than 1 person per square mile.  (Might as well have been the Moon in many cases.)  Considering the safety mentality you’re required to develop when you’re really on your own, the logistics of being away from sources of, well, anything, and lots of travel time in cramped quarters with field partners (I calculated it – I saw my field partner more than my wife in 2008) – I look at my time with SNWA as planetary scientist boot camp.

Me receiving NV-1 DMAT helicopter loading and evacuation training.

During this time, I also became a part-time Logistics Officer with Nevada’s federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), figuring that emergency response and logistics would also be valuable and unique experience from a future astronaut candidate perspective.  While I haven’t had a deployment since I’ve been on the team roster, I have had plenty of useful training opportunities.  We’ll see.

That essentially brings us up to speed.  With some significant “boots on the ground” experience under my belt, change is in the air.

The game is afoot.








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