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Nukes in Space

November 29, 2012

In the heady days of the early space program, the Moon seemed like only a meager first step in the human exploration of space. Years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the Moon, in fact, NASA was already planning for missions to Mars. And one of the keys to those plans was nuclear-powered rocket engines.

In fact, a test of an early prototype took place 50 years ago tomorrow. The engine almost blew itself apart, but analysis of the problems led to better designs.

The rockets pumped liquid hydrogen through the nuclear reactor. The uranium fuel was heated to thousands of degrees, so as the hydrogen passed through, it quickly heated and expanded, then blasted out of a rocket nozzle. The nuclear rocket could deliver twice as much “kick” as a conventional one.

Also in 1962, NASA commissioned a series of studies to take advantage of those engines to send astronauts to Mars. Two of the studies produced missions in which astronauts would simply fly past Mars, while a third envisioned them entering orbit. Each ship would have been enormous — a million pounds or more at launch — the equivalent of today’s International Space Station.

In the less-heady days after the Apollo missions, though, NASA’s grand plans lost support. The nuclear rocket was ready to fly, but it had no place to go, and the project was canceled.

Yet the idea of a nuclear-powered trip to Mars isn’t completely dead. We’ll have more about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012

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