Nuclear Powered Spacecraft No Longer Sci-Fi | This Week In Space History
by michael shinabery
Without propulsion to escape Earth’s gravity, space would be the unachievable final frontier. Professor Theodore von Kármán, at the California Institute of Technology, proposed a nuclear engine. On Oct. 18, 1954, according to the website astronautix.com, the Committee of the Scientific Advisory Board “met in the Pentagon to consider the application of nuclear energy to missile propulsion.”
“The rocket propulsion field has become so complex today that no single mind can encompass its innumerable facets,” Edward Francisco, chief of the Propulsion Branch at White Sands Proving Ground, told the Alamogordo chapter of the American Rocket Society. “Modern rocket research requires a team of specialists much as a modern hospital requires a team of doctors who are specialists.” The Sept. 21, 1954 Alamogordo Daily News reported on Francisco’s presentation.
In the first half of the 20th century, an atomic-powered engine was just a “science-fiction cliché,” islandone.org said. Then, in 1944, two Manhattan Project scientists “conducted the first serious investigation of atomic propulsion for space flight.” Subsequently, “the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (replaced by the Department of Energy in 1974) worked with various federal agencies on a series of nuclear engine projects. … The basic idea behind all these engines was to heat a working fluid by pumping it through a nuclear reactor, then allowing it to expand through a nozzle to develop thrust.” The projects had such names as Dumbo, Kiwi, Pluto, and NERVA, the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application.
On June 20, 1959, five years after the Committee of the Scientific Advisory Board’s gathering in the Pentagon, the AEC tested the non-flight nuclear engine Kiwi-A. “The experiment was conducted as part of the AEC’s Project Rover,” the Las Vegas Sun reported the next day, “to determine whether it is feasible to develop an atomic rocket engine for outer space travel.” Time (July 13, 1959), described Kiwi-A as “a high-power density reactor” that heated hydrogen to 2,000-3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Kiwi-B followed, which “increased power by ten-fold,” said lanl.gov.
The New Mexican, on March 25, 1960, reported the AEC intended to have a reactor ready to propel a rocket into space in five years. The Sept. 8 edition noted NASA’s Nuclear Propulsion Office had partnered with the AEC to advance Rover. On Oct. 14, the newspaper announced a Kiwi-A3 test would take place the following day. On Nov. 1, a United Press International news service story that the paper published, reported the federal government had “announced a speedup … in Project Rover to develop a nuclear rocket for manned missions to the moon and planets.”
The next year, on Jul 27, the LASL News noted AEC-NASA had “officially named” Jackass Flats, Nevada, the National Nuclear Rocket Development Center. It was there, on Nov. 7, 1961, that a Kiwi B-1A engine exploded. The December Nuclear News reported that a “portable metal shed temporarily housing the reactor” was “completely wrecked,” and metal smashed down onto the top of a pickup truck.
Phoebus-1 (1965), and the Phoebus 2, the most powerful nuclear reactor yet (1968), were phase two of Rover. Phase three was Pewee, a smaller flight-sized Kiwi. Budget cuts ended Project Rover in 1972, according to the November 1997 LANL publication Reflections.
An even more ambitious circa 1950s project was Orion, designed to propel travel throughout the solar system. Islandone.org likened Orion “to the rocket ships of science fiction. … One hundred and fifty people could have lived aboard in relative comfort; the useful payload would have been measured in thousands of tons.”
Orion was under the auspices of the Advanced Research Projects Agency when, in the late 1950s, the newly created NASA “began to acquire all civil-oriented space projects.” NASA decided their projects “would be non-nuclear for the near future,” because of negative public perception. In addition, their engineers “had spent their careers building ever-larger chemical rockets and either did not understand or were openly opposed to nuclear flight.” Conversely, “the Air Force got all projects with military applications,” but didn’t feel Orion had “value as a weapon.”
In 1959, islandone.org said, ARPA “decided it could no longer support Orion on national-security grounds.” As a result, “the Air Force finally decided to take on Orion, but only on the condition that a military use be found for it.” When Robert McNamara became defense secretary, he “realized that Orion was not a military asset” and “his department consistently rejected any increase in funding for the project.” In spite of the fact that NASA’s Wernher von Braun, the Marshall Space Flight Center director, was “an enthusiastic Orion supporter,” he was unable “to make …headway among higher-level administration officials.” Then, in in 1963, the Nuclear Test Ban between the United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, made Orion “illegal under international law.”
By then, however, NASA and the AEC had “embarked on a second nuclear-rocket program known as NERVA,” lanl.gov said. “From 1964 to 1969, Westinghouse Electric Corporation and Aerojet-General Corporation built various NERVA reactors and rocket engines.” Von Braun, in 1969, proposed a 12-man Mars mission powered by “NERVA engines” that “would launch in November 1981 and land on Mars in August 1982.” NASA also expected to have “a permanent lunar base by 1981.”
The Congress cancelled NERVA in the 1972-1973 fiscal year, deeming “the manned mission to Mars (as) too expensive and that funding the project would continue to foster a costly ‘space’ race between the United States and the Soviet Union.”
NASA, though, didn’t give up nuclear research. An April 1975 “NASA Fact Sheet,” Space and Nuclear Research and Technology, discussed nuclear-energy projects underway. Then, in 2000, lanl.gov said “NASA created Project Prometheus to develop nuclear-powered systems for long-duration space missions. This project was NASA’s most serious consideration of nuclear power for space missions since the cancellation of Project Rover/NERVA.” The engine would propel spacecraft “to explore Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. … The electricity would then power scientific instruments and an ion-propulsion unit.”
Unfortunately, once again due to budget cuts, NASA canceled the project in 2005.
Michael Shinabery is an education specialist and Humanities Scholar with the New Mexico Museum of Space History. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.