NASA will join a military program to develop nuclear thermal propulsion

Zoom in / Concept art of a spacecraft demonstration of rocket to lunar agile operations (Draco).

Darpa

Almost three years ago, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced its intention to develop a flightable nuclear heat propulsion system. The goal was to develop more responsive control of spacecraft in Earth orbit, lunar orbit, and everywhere in between, giving the Army greater operational freedom in these areas.

The military agency called this program the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO for short. The program consists of developing two things: a nuclear fission reactor and a spacecraft to fly it. In 2021, DARPA awarded $22 million to General Atomics for the reactor and made small grants of $2.9 million to Lockheed Martin and $2.5 million to Blue Origin for the spacecraft system.

At the same time, NASA was aware that if it was really serious about sending humans to Mars one day, it would be nice to have a faster, more fuel-efficient way to get there. An influential report published in 2021 concluded that the only realistic way for the space agency to put humans on Mars in the coming decades was with nuclear propulsion.

Nuclear thermal propulsion involves a rocket engine in which a nuclear reactor replaces a combustion chamber and burns liquid hydrogen as fuel. It takes far less fuel than chemical propulsion, often less than 500 metric tons, to get to Mars. This will be useful for the Mars mission, which will include several advanced missions to pre-position cargo on the Red Planet.

So this week, NASA said it is partnering with the military agency and joining Project Draco.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “NASA will work with our long-term partner DARPA to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as early as 2027. With the help of this new technology, astronauts can travel to and from deep space faster than ever before. Great ability to prepare for manned missions to Mars.

The US Space Agency will not be providing any direct funding at this time. However, the Space Technology Mission Directorate will lead the technical development of the nuclear heat engine, a key component of the spacecraft that will harness power from the nuclear reactor. DARPA will continue to lead overall development of the program, including missile systems integration and procurement.

Nuclear heat propulsion has long been a target of spaceflight advocates, dating back to the days of German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and NASA’s Project Nerva. These plans were never realized, and the idea lay on the back burner for decades. Now, this joint venture is the most serious American technology development effort since then. And it has the added benefit of interest from the US Congress, which has been pushing the space agency to get involved.

None of this will happen quickly. The technology is difficult and unproven, and of course there are regulatory issues involved in launching a nuclear reactor into space. The year 2027 seems optimistic for a demonstration, and it is unlikely that the technology will be used to send humans to Mars before at least the late 2030s.

But something finally happens. For now, that’s enough.

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