Nuclear Power: The Future of Spaceflight?

The notion of nuclear-powered vehicles launching into space is becoming increasingly realistic as NASA officials talk openly about nuclear rockets as the best way to get to the planets. At the 36th annual Joint Propulsion Conference held here this week, two sessions and at least a dozen papers were devoted to space propulsion using nuclear thermal rockets (NTR). This type of propulsion is rooted in the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) program that was terminated in 1973, seemingly with its coffin nailed shut. “Maybe those nails haven’t been completely pulled out,” admitted Michael Stancati of SAIC in Schaumberg, Illinois. SAIC has supported NASA on a number of planetary mission studies. “But the thinking in the engineering community is that despite sporadic low levels of funding, NTR is the only credible option that makes sense for what we want to do.”