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NASA To Boost Nuclear Space Science With Project Prometheus
rocket science for the 21st century
by Wayne Smith for NuclearSpace.com
Los Angeles - Jan 20, 2003
NASA is finally expected to announce a new nuclear rocket development program as it's top priority soon. They will, during the next couple of weeks, be requesting resources and funding from congress to design this system. Estimated to have a thrust to weight ratio outperforming current technology by at least 300%, the new rocket could revolutionize space travel.
However, NASA has been quiet up to now on this issue. We have seen incredible reports coming out sporadically but with little meat in them. NASA, it seemed, was getting ready for a big announcement. Well, this is it. This project, named Prometheus, could herald the human exploration of Mars next decade.
Project Prometheus is a nuclear-powered propulsion system tripling the speed of current space travel. This theoretically makes it possible for humans to reach Mars in as little as two months as opposed to at least six months for traditional chemical boosters.
The Bush administration has approved the new Nuclear rocket project. Some speculate, the President may even officially launch this historic initiative as part of his State of the Union address on January 28.
The newly appointed NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, believed to be the main force behind this push for a more robust and useful rocket program, is a staunch supporter of Nuclear initiatives for Nasa's ailing space programs.
He has been quoted as saying today's chemical rockets are like "exploring the old west in covered wagons". Replacing the "smaller and better" dogma of the Goldin era with "faster and longer" missions as NASA's goal.
NASA has been building up to this announcement for quite some time. After requesting a billion dollars over five years in the last budget for nuclear R&D funding, rumours of an air-breathing nuclear launch vehicle, the creation of a new public relations team, research into space radiation necessary for manned missions, very ambitiously expensive plans including new Stations in interplanetary space, and only ever very discrete mention of nuclear rocket involvement, it seems like the icing on the cake has actually arrived.
This is little surprise for (and great enthusiasm among) nuclear space fanatics to learn we can expect to see a sizable request for resources and money from congress.
The general public who have missed these signals, however, are another matter entirely. The first nuclear initiative request was slashed twice in 2002 as it passed through both the House of Representatives and Senate. Now it stands at only 107 million dollars, a pitiful amount for a completely new program, and far short of what would be necessary to meet NASA's heightened goals.
Secrecy and quietness has been the strategy thus far for NASA and the Bush administration. Little in the way of informed data such as direction and intention for the space program has escaped the top. The two men leading this push, President Bush and NASA Administrator O'Keefe held discussions relating to past nuclear initiatives and decided a low-profile approach would work best.
Memories of huge public condemnation during the 60's for anything nuclear, the response to Reagan's Star Wars (Project Timberwind), the Cassini protests and the former President Bush's failed attempt to initiate a nuclear rocket mission to Mars back in 1989 easily explain the rationale behind this approach -- and perhaps it was indeed the best one.
Today's anti-nuclear environmentalists have not given much notice to this latest nuclear space initiative.
They have been distracted by other political issues, namely the prospect of war with Iraq and the antics of North Korea. They have also lost much of the public influence they once claimed to have. Their predictions of countless nuclear disasters in the wake of Chernobyl have fallen flat, and so has their support base.
Things seem to be speeding up. Sean O'Keefe has indicated the new initiative, if supported, will be implemented immediately with a view to rapid progress.
The objective and expectation is to be able to conduct important deep space missions within this decade.
If approved, and with the cat well and truly out of the bag, we can expect to hear more detailed plans revealed very soon. With this will come critical responses from opposition groups and serious debate on the issue. Is the public ready for a new space age and more accepting of nuclear power now than in previous decades?
It's quite possible this new space age will be seen as positive rather than negative in the current poltical climate of change we are experiencing. Many might welcome word of nuclear power being used for enhancing manned spaceflight. Sounds a lot better than using it solely for political leverage like North Korea is doing. Only time will tell.
Earth's Ecology and Space Nuclear Energy Can Coexist
by Paul March
Friendswood - Jan 30, 2003
On the issue of space exploration, nuclear power and their interaction is not simple to define, analyze or resolve. As with all single-issue political discussions, the facts are hard to agree on, misstatements of facts are common and there are many opinions masquerading as facts that need to be identified.
During the last thirty years it was claimed by NASA that without significant reductions in the cost of launch operations to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and faster transit times to Mars and the other outer planets, manned spaceflight was stuck in LEO for the foreseeable future.
This position ignored the fact that we had already developed and paid for the Nuclear Engines for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) program that produced 250klb thrust Nuclear Thermal Rockets that could have gotten a crew to Mars in half the time that chemical rockets could.
Alas, in 1972 the Nixon Administration shut down the NERVA program due to budgetary constraints brought on by the Vietnam War, lack of interest in manned Mars missions and concern over how to continue testing them on the ground.
So, what can we do now if we want to explore the solar system first hand? Without nuclear powered spacecraft, manned missions are marooned in low Earth orbit.
It has become apparent with the Russian Mir Space Station program that living periods in space that are longer than four-to-six months are detrimental to the stationed personnel due to zero-g de-conditioning compounded by the physical isolation from family and friends.
The data from the human factors studies obtained from the newer International Space Station (ISS) have verified these early human factor results from the Russian MIR. Add to that the knowledge from recent robotic Mars missions that the space radiation exposures that an astronaut crew would suffer on a chemically powered, six-month long trip to Mars, using standard shielding practices for manned flight vehicles, would be very detrimental to the crew's health and that's during quiet solar-flare times.
If a solar flare comes along, the astronauts would be cooked in very short order unless they are supplied with a very massive radiation "Storm Cellar" or an Earth like magnetic shield to hide in during the solar flare induced radiation storms. Both of these solutions will increase the mass and/or the power requirements for the mission, which in turn increases the mission's total energy requirement.
Where is this extra energy for faster transits times, as well as the extra shielding mass or extra shielding power going to come from? Chemical reaction based propulsion and power sources are already taxed to their limits with the current barebones, low mass, six-month Mars missions. The only other solution currently available to this problem is to use higher energy density propulsion and power generation fuels.
Nuclear fuels can supply over ten million times more energy per unit mass than chemical reactants can. NASA's Sean O'Keefe has the right of it then. Until we can get past the "Age of Sail" in the space exploration program as exemplified by our current fleet of chemical rockets, and migrate to the "Age of Steam", i.e., rocket energy and perhaps propellant supplied by nuclear fission or fusion power, humanity will not leave Earth in any great numbers.
In addition, for those who sing the solar power mantra, the numbers are not good. If you are going out to Mars and points outward bound where it is VERY COLD, some form of nuclear power is the only feasible solution.
If nuclear power is the danger that the anti-nuclear people say it is, why have there been a disproportionate number of deaths and injuries due to non-nuclear effects since the end of World War II?
For comparison's sake, the worst single chemical spill accident in the world occurred at the Union Carbide/India's insecticide plant in Bhopal, India where over 6,400 people were killed and ~35,000 people were injured from a methyl isocynate gas release in December 1984.
Has Mr. Gagnon and/or Dr. Kaku been trying to shut down those chemical industries that supply our farm and automobile industries?
I do not remember them complaining about the oil, gas and plastics needed to grow their food or build their automobiles. We also have the little issue of the yearly volcanic eruptions that spew out more toxic chemicals into the atmosphere than humanity's entire industries put together.
For context, consider the 1991 article by Dr. Michio Kaku, entitled "NASA shuffles shuttle's death card", where he explained NASA's insensitivity to the environment by noting that "the US space effort is a deformed scientific program that was born out of the Cold War and twisted by the demands of anti-Communism", with the Pentagon still secretly "in the driver's seat".
In the Guardian article one of his major claims was that "Solid-fueled rockets emit large quantities of harmful hydrochloric acid, which can rapidly deplete the fragile ozone layer." Yet over a decade later, there has been no convincing study that the Space Shuttles has ever contributed more than a fraction of one percent of the annual hydrochloric acid impact on the ozone layer.
Continued statements of this nature are not reflective of a balanced view. There is also displayed a single-minded view of nuclear power at work as well.
The US Navy has an enviable safety record of operating nuclear power plants over several generations. With proper engineering, training and investment, this can be accomplished with the space program as well.
Invocation of Chernobyl as a reason for ceasing the research, engineering and use of nuclear power and citing Plutonium as the most dangerous element to humankind is fear mongering at its most base.
There are other schools of thought even on the question of the hazards of exposure to low-level radiation such as Radiation-Hormesis that deserve consideration.
If we are in a multinational effort to go to Mars with nuclear power, I think it unlikely that the nuclear power in space effort is a cover for maturing the technology for use within the Dept. of Defense.
Surely the other nations on-board such a program will be able to learn the same engineering and technology lessons for their own needs. This "everyone else knows how to do the same thing" approach to nuclear space power is not the sort of competitive advantage our military wants.
I think that ground based nuclear power reactors can be built and operated safely with the appropriate safety design, proliferation safeguards and a middle of the road concern for the environment.
This goes as well for flying uranium-235 enriched nuclear reactors for use in space with little risk to the public. I believe that NASA understands that the risks of flying open-cycle NERVA like nuclear thermal rockets in the Earth's atmosphere while low, are still non-zero and that it wouldn't be prudent to fly such a rocket from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
Flying NERVA type rockets or hybrid nuclear RAM-jets from the middle of the Pacific Ocean, off a Lockheed/Russian Zenit like mobile oil barge on the other hand, might make sense and would definitely lower the cost to get into orbit.
What NASA is now proposing though with their Prometheus Project is to fly CLOSED-Cycle enriched U-235 fueled nuclear-electric reactor/rockets, cold, i.e., it has never been activated and thus virtually non-radioactive, from KSC.
If the rocket carrying such a closed-cycle reactor system should crash, the cleanup would be no worse than any other industrial chemical spill and a small one at that.
Until we have one or more reliable aneutronic fusion sources that use hydrogen/deuterium with He-3, Boron-7 or some other aneutronic fuel combination, or an even more exotic vacuum based energy source, nuclear fission is the only way to produce the energies needed to pursue manned spaceflight and solar system exploration in any serious manner.
Just look at the leap in capability that submarines had when they went from chemical fuels to using nuclear energy for their propulsion. It was a quantum leap in naval capability and even the two US nuclear boats and all the Russian nuclear boats as well that were lost to accidents at sea over the last 40 years did not ruin the environment.
And a question for Mr. Gagnon in your statement, "During the Cassini RTG fabrication process at Los Alamos, 244 cases of worker contamination were reported to the DoE. " What is the reference for this and how badly contaminated were these workers?
NASA has to adopt an environmentally sound but non-timid approach to nuclear powered space flight or we are stuck on earth for the foreseeable future. Perhaps that is what Mr. Gagnon's & Dr. Kaku's group is really after, that is having what's left of the human race, after we've reduce our numbers to "sustainable levels", go back to being "Noble Savages", waiting for extinction from a Yellow Stone like super volcano eruption or the impact of another dinosaur killer asteroid or comet.
I for one do not plan to wait around for that outcome.
Paul March is a space industry professional working for a major aerospace contractor. His views expressed here are is own and do not represent those his employer.
Will There Be A Nuclear Space Race Between America And China
China knows the future is space and will do whatever is required to enable it to challenge US dominance of the high frontier. China can allocate 30,000 engineers to its space program and all it really needs to do is feed and house them and supply them the energy and raw materials to design and build. This is where a command economy with 1.5 billion people has the potential to blitz the West within a century.
by Wayne Smith
Los Angeles - Jan 28, 2003
In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. Arthur C. Clarke's early novel "Prelude to Space" featured a nuclear powered ram jet for the first stage of a moon mission; it was called Prometheus as well. Last week NASA Administrator, Sean O'Keefe, announced a new Prometheus -- a bold new nuclear space propulsion initiative that will do for spaceflight what fire did for humans of old.
Nuclear rocketry is not a new concept, having a long and controversial history stretching all the way back to the early 40's. Top scientists have pondered using them for space travel since nuclear and rocket technologies were first realised, and engineers were putting successful prototypes together as early as the 50's. Each successive test in the ROVER program (the 50's nuclear rocket program) was an improvement upon its predecessor.
The last model test fired before the program was abruptly cancelled in the early 70's was NERVA, Nuclear Engines for Rocket Vehicle Applications. The tests showed NERVA outperformed chemical boosters then (and even now) by a factor of two. Today, NASA officials believe newer state of the art nuclear rockets could demonstrate triple the performance of today's chemical rockets; this estimate may even prove to be conservative.
If Congressional funding requests from NASA are met, then Prometheus will be a dream come true for those awaiting bold new changes at the agency. The enabling technologies to be investigated will have huge potential previously unrecognised. Fear of radioactive releases has stymied all progress in the area until now. As a result, nuclear power has remained in its infancy and is only beginning to emerge from the "trial by fire" all technologies must pass to earn public acceptance.
Recent surveys indicate that opposition to commercial use of nuclear power is diminishing, standing at roughly 50:50 in the US. Canadian support actually outweighs opposition for new plants, and support is growing in other countries as well. This is due partly to new global agreements for the reduction of greenhouse gases and partly to the lack of a major accident in the past two decades. This increasing support for nuclear derived electricity is a promising sign for other peaceful applications of nuclear power such as space exploration.
Nuclear reactions are one million times more powerful than the breaking of chemical bonds which fuel current missions. The advantages for spaceflight applications with such a compact source of energy are impossible to predict in the long run. Faster, longer burns during deep space journeys will vastly increase mission parameters. Assistance during launch phases could eventuate in single stage rockets pushing spacecraft into orbit, meaning far cheaper payloads.
The media has gone into a frenzy, speculating about future possibilities including a "Mission to Mars" and "Airline like access to Space". Even the British BBC has jumped onto the excitement bandwagon by speculating, "Nuclear power could also revolutionise the unmanned exploration of the outer Solar System".
A couple of websites such as SPACE.com and SpaceDaily.com have expressed doubts about the veracity of claims of a Mars Mission, but nothing has dampened the growing public interest. Both of these internet media sites have anti-nuclear leanings.
Simon Mansfield, who publishes Spacedaily, remains on a personal basis opposed to the use of commercial nuclear power "for heating hot tubs" on Earth but remains open minded on it's practicality for spaceflight. Whereas, Space.com articles on nuclear powered spaceflight are infamous for giving publicity to an anti-nuclear space opposition movement.
How will other nations react to this startlingly bold new objective? The nuclear initiative was first announced over a year ago with NASA requesting a billion dollar funding over five years for nuclear space research and development.
Little response was generated overseas as nuclear power in the form of RTG's (Radioisotope Thermionic Generators) for space probes and satellites is nothing new. However, the latest announcement places nuclear power at the forefront of future space development.
Spacefaring nations such as the European Union and Russia cannot ignore this challenge. In particular the newest emerging superpower, China, will closely watch how events unfurl. In just over three years, China has gone from Satellite launches to planning a human spaceflight in October of this year.
This remarkably rapid advancement was spurred by the realization of the strategic importance of space. Space will be central to tomorrow's world order and national security dictates that a space presence is a sign of strength. Huang Chunping, commander-in-chief of the chinese Shenxhou space launch program has said, "Just imagine, there are outer space facilities of another country at the place very, very high above your head, and so others clearly see what you are doing, and what you are feeling. That's why we also need to develop space technology."
Clearly the Chinese have more on their minds than national prestige in attempting to become the third nation to ever have launched a man into space. Manned aerospace is the epitome of space technology. National prestige is clearly an important consideration, and one which westerners can easily relate to as they fondly reminisce about the moon landings.
However, the military implications are just as important, if not greater, a consideration. China has already invested too much money into developing a space launch capability to consider pulling back now. In past interviews, they have announced the intention to build space stations, reach the moon and build bases there, and even boasted they will beat the United States with a manned mission to Mars.
Their Shenxhou launch system has been played down by critics as primitive but is probably level with 1990's US technology. The fact is we are still using 1990's US technology. The big Saturn V boosters America once used for moonshots are now all gone and funding for NASA's ailing programs such as the ISS have been diminishing annually.
With Russia suffering economic problems and the ESA unsure of its future, China seems to be on an inside straight to success. However, Prometheus changes everything. NASA is "moving from windpower to steam" as Sean O'Keefe puts it and that may leave China suddenly out in the cold.
Unless of course, they respond with their own nuclear space program. China and Russia have been increasing ties for a number of years now. Space and Arms technology trade in particular have increased due to new treaties.
The Russians, who launched more nuclear reactors than the US, are no strangers to nuclear space technology having had their own shadowy nuclear propulsion program -- which no doubt compared very favourably to past US efforts.
If pushed to develop their own nuclear space initiative, the Chinese will likely enquire of Russia for help. The Russians, in turn, will demand a high cost for such secret technology, just as they have done for all previously purchased space systems technologies. China will either pay or attempt to develop their own.
China, also no stranger to nuclear power, has stated owned national nuclear facilities and a state owned space programme. Efforts at combining nuclear and space branches of Government will face very little red tape within a communist regime. A chinese INSPI or Los Alamos seems very possible.
The China Daily reports that China has spent 2.3 billion US dollars toward putting a man into space in October of this year -- and that is only the beginning of their ambitions.
The Chinese space program first began in 1956 with 30 young scientists and roughly 100 college graduates, some of whom didn't even know "exactly what missiles were," according to a Chinese government publication.
On Monday, November 21, 1999, they launched their first unmanned Shenzhou space vehicle with a view to eventually launching men into space. China invented the first rocket almost 900 years ago and now they want to be at the forefront of modern development. A nuclear space race would see a return to the frenzied and visionary, if politically induced, days of Apollo.
Let's hope that Nasa's nuclear space challenge does indeed awaken the Dragon.