OPINION: It’s time to restart the nuclear thermal rocket program

File footage of the Phoebus 1B reactor in operation during a test in February 1967. Credit: NASA

File footage of the Phoebus 1B reactor in operation during a test in February 1967. Credit: NASA

Though it sounds like some far-fetched contrivance from the mind of a science fiction writer, nuclear thermal rockets (NTRs) are a very real – and incredibly efficient – means of propulsion under consideration for human missions to Mars. Not only are they real, but they have already been designed and tested…albeit more than 40 years ago.

Unfortunately, amidst a downturn in public support for nuclear-related programs of any sort in the early 1970s, the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program was cancelled in 1972 and never resumed.

However, with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) marching towards its uncrewed maiden launch in 2018, and the agency’s goal of sending a crewed mission to Mars some time in the 2030s, there has been a renewed interest in propulsion systems that may help to get craft and crew to the Red Planet more efficiently, and more quickly, than traditional chemical propulsion systems.

NASA’s Tony Kim thinks that nuclear thermal rockets answer the program’s needs, and he’s ready to get started. Kim, the project manager for nuclear propulsion at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, is one of the strongest supporters for nuclear propulsion within the agency and was recently on-hand at an event at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility to discuss the program. Read More →