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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