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NASA Sets Its Sights on Nuclear Rocket to Mars

January 17, 2003|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Hoping to pave the way for human exploration of Mars within the next decade, NASA is expected to announce that developing a nuclear-powered rocket is its top research priority.

The space agency is expected to request "significant resources and funding" to design a nuclear-powered propulsion system to triple the speed of space travel, theoretically making it possible for humans to reach Mars in a two-month voyage.

The Bush administration has signed off on the ambitious nuclear-rocket project -- though not specifically for the Mars landing -- and the president may officially launch the initiative during his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in an interview with The Times. The project, dubbed Project Prometheus, would greatly expand the nuclear propulsion plans that NASA quietly announced last year when it said it may spend $1 billion over the next five years to design a nuclear rocket. NASA and the Bush administration are keeping the lid on the details, including how much more the agency expects to request from Congress, but O'Keefe said the funding increase will be "very significant."

"We're talking about doing something on a very aggressive schedule to not only develop the capabilities for nuclear propulsion and power generation but to have a mission using the new technology within this decade," O'Keefe said.

If approved, the nuclear-powered rocket project would provide a significant boost to the Southland's aerospace industry. Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory would take a major role in development of the system, and NASA is expected to ask several local aerospace concerns, including Boeing Co.'s Rocketdyne unit in Canoga Park, to help design and build the rockets.

How Congress and the public will respond to the proposal isn't clear. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush tried to generate backing for a nuclear rocket and Mars landing initiative but was derailed by congressional opposition and a lack of public support.

Some analysts question whether the president would even mention NASA in his State of the Union address, given the nation's budget woes and the potential war in Iraq.

Also, critics have long argued against the dangers of using nuclear technology in space. And NASA's plans for its new rocket system are still vague. One possibility would be to launch a spacecraft using a conventional hydrogen-chemical combustion rocket and then turn on a nuclear propulsion system once the craft is in orbit. Another suggestion is that astronauts would assemble the nuclear system in space before embarking on a long mission.

Developing a new propulsion system has been talked about for decades as perhaps the only means by which humans can truly explore the solar system. NASA spent 13 years and more than $10 billion trying to develop nuclear rocket technology in the 1950s and 1960s, but the idea was abandoned in the face of technological and political barriers.

NASA scientists believe that advances in nuclear reactors and rocket propulsion systems as well as lessons learned from past failures will give the quest for a nuclear rocket new life. Howard McCurdy, a public affairs professor at American who wrote a book about O'Keefe's predecessor, Daniel S. Goldin, said it was not unusual for presidents to launch bold NASA initiatives during a time of crisis. One of the nation's biggest space programs, the space shuttle, was launched by President Nixon during a recession as a way to jump-start California's economy. However, Nixon also rejected NASA's proposal to land men on Mars.

The new rocket proposal also represents a significant change at the agency, which has typically been driven by quests to get somewhere such as the moon, Mars or the outer planets and then developed the technologies to do so.

Instead, O'Keefe has begun shifting the agency's focus to developing so-called enabling technologies to carry out missions, whatever they may be.

"The laws of physics are the only things controlling how fast we go anywhere, what we do and whether we can survive the experience," O'Keefe said. "So until we beat the technical limitations ... you basically end up arguing about fantasy missions."

O'Keefe said NASA's goal will be to build a rocket three times faster than the current generation of spacecraft, which travel 18,000 mph. The new spaceships would have small nuclear reactors, which would give the engines greater thrust and virtually unlimited fuel supply.

If the designs succeed, spacecrafts could reach Mars in two months, compared with six to seven months using current rocket systems.

"We've been restricted to the same speed for 40 years," O'Keefe said. "With the new technology, where we go next will only be limited by our imagination."

Last year, NASA officials did not encounter the kind of political resistance they expected when they announced the initial idea for developing a nuclear rocket, which emboldened them to propose a broader initiative that might muster widespread public support.

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