I have a confession. I am a science fiction and space travel fanatic. I watched with rapt attention during the “race to the moon” even though I was quite young. I dreamed of being an astronaut, and made several visits to the Kennedy Space Center.
My personal library includes a large collection of books by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. I occasionally replied to an order by my commanding officer with an “Aye Cap’n”, in a rather lousy imitation of Scotty, the Engineering Officer of the Starship Enterprise.
Because of my interest in space, it has been a lot of fun to do the research for this issue of AEI.
Nuclear Space Travel?
The first time I learned of the real life possibility of nuclear powered space travel, I was reading a yellowed Government Printing Office publication dated sometime in 1959, the same year I was born. I first saw the book in early 1991, and I had been a nuke for about 10 years.
The idea intrigued me. I knew that uranium was a compact heat source, and oxygen was not required in the reaction needed to release that heat. Those attributes made it a candidate for rocket propulsion. However, I was so tuned into the limitations of water cooled nuclear reactors that I had difficulty imagining that a fission reactor could be operated at temperatures high enough to be of use in a rocket motor.
The more I learned, the more fascinated I became. Apparently, this was not new stuff, but it was surely news to me! I talked to friends who were also nukes. Most of them had never heard of nuclear rockets either. Those that had heard of the project told me that the designs had been shelved during the early 1970s. Apparently no nuclear rocket had ever flown.
Then I attended a lecture given by an astronaut who had flown on several missions in different kinds of launch vehicles. He told us that nuclear thermal rockets were a key technology for a manned space mission to Mars.
I obtained another Government Printing Office publication, this one dated October 1, 1992. The title was The Development of Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Technology For Use In Space. I also found a book titled Nuclear Power from Underseas to Outer Space that describes real hardware and contains pictures from now defunct test sites.
The important thing that I learned during my research is that nuclear powered space rockets are not in the realm of science fiction anymore. This is real stuff, with real hardware, real science and real test programs.
I continue learn more about the technology, but it is time to share my knowledge. It may be too late. You see, the United States has again decided to shelve the ideas, disperse the people and destroy the machinery involved in the nuclear powered rocket program.
The last time this happened, it took almost three decades to get back to the same level of technology that we had achieved in the 1960s. As a dreamer and a stargazer from way back, I believe that decision is based on a poor understanding of the technology and the potential of nuclear power in space. It also ignores the potential applications of nuclear rocket ideas here on earth.