In 1969, with the goal of landing men on the Moon achieved, the architect of the giant Moon rockets had one more giant plan. Wernher von Braun proposed a mission to Mars. It would consist of two nuclear-powered rockets, each carrying six astronauts. Each would have a lander for the crew, plus a small fleet of robotic landers. The expedition could set sail in 1981.
Neither Congress nor the public had much interest in more big space projects, though, so plans for Mars missions were dropped — along with the plans for nuclear-powered rockets.
Yet engineers continue to study nuclear-powered rockets. That’s because nuclear rockets would produce at least twice as much “kick” as conventional rockets. That could cut the travel time for a Mars mission by weeks or months, make it possible to launch a heavier spaceship, or both.
Nuclear engines would fire only in space, not inside Earth’s atmosphere. And by cutting the travel time for a Mars mission, they would reduce the total radiation exposure for the crew.
NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission worked on nuclear rockets from the late 1950s to the early ’70s. They developed prototypes that were tested on the ground, and were about ready to be tested in space. Today, engineers are giving those designs another look. There are plenty of challenges — challenges of safety, cost, and technology. Yet it may be that missions of the future will incorporate this futuristic technology from the past.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012
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