Nuclear Spacecraft

NASA officials say that the US needs to invest in nuclear-powered spacecraft if it wants to beat its geopolitical rivals to Mars. 

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The officials were testifying at a House Science, Space, and Tech subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, according to United Press InternationalThey urged lawmakers to invest resources into researching and developing nuclear-powered rockets, which could allow humans to reach the Red Planet in just three to four months — half the time it would take for traditional, chemical propelled rockets. 

“Our strategic competitors, including China, are indeed aggressively investing in a wide range of space technologies, including nuclear power and propulsion to fulfill their ambitions for sustained human lunar presence, as well as Martian and deep space science missions,” NASA senior adviser for Budget and Finance Bhavya Lal said at the subcommittee meeting, adding that the “United States needs to move at a fast pace to stay competitive and to remain a leader in the global space community.”

Off Target

This all comes on the heels of China allegedly testing a hypersonic nuclear-capable missile that took US officials by surprise. Though Beijing was quick to deny the claims, some still look at it as a “Sputnik moment“ because US intelligence had seemingly underestimated the country’s progress. 

Congress and NASA have stated that they want to get humans to Mars by 2033. However, Dr. Roger Myer, co-chair of the Committee on Space Nuclear Propulsion Technologies at the Academies of Sciences, threw cold water on that goal, saying that human Mars travel is “likely unobtainable by 2033.”

Meanwhile, Chinese officials have set 2033 as their target date to send taikonauts to Mars, Reuters reportsIf Lal is to be believed, China is well on track to get there in that timeline if they continue to invest in nuclear propulsion.

NASA and U.S. aerospace experts urged Congress on Wednesday to invest more quickly and heavily in development of nuclear-powered spacecraft Wednesday to stay ahead of such competitors as China.

The space agency believes spacecraft powered by a nuclear thermal rocket reach Mars in just three to four months, which is about half the time required by traditional, liquid propellant rockets.

“Strategic competitors including China are aggressively investing in a wide range of space technologies, including nuclear power and propulsion,” Bhavya Lal, NASA’s senior advisor for budget and finance, said during a congressional committee hearing Wednesday morning.

“The United States needs to move at a fast pace to stay competitive and to remain a leader in the global space community,” Lal said.

The hearing occurred before the U.S. House of Representatives Science Space and Technology Committee. Experts delivered testimony even as reports emerged that China had tested an orbital rocket to deliver potential nuclear weapons at supersonic speeds.

China acknowledged it tested a spacecraft in August, but said it did not contain nuclear weapons.

The committee took no action as it gathered information for upcoming federal budget proposals.

“If the United States is serious about leading in a human mission to Mars, we have no time to lose,” said U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who chairs the committee.

“Congress has prioritized development of nuclear space propulsion over the past several years, directing about $100 million annually for NASA to advance nuclear thermal propulsion capabilities with the goal of conducting a future in-space flight test,” Beyer said.

NASA and the Department of Energy awarded $5 million to three companies in July to produce a nuclear-powered spacecraft reactor design. NASA officials said much more funding is needed, although agency officials didn’t discuss dollar amounts Wednesday.

The key to developing such nuclear engines is to identify or develop materials that can withstand the heat and exposure involved, said Roger M. Myers, who chairs a committee on space nuclear engines for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“The risks associated with [nuclear propulsion] are a fundamental materials challenge that we think is quite likely solvable,” Myers testified during the hearing.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., asked if any “fundamental scientific limitations” exist for a crewed Mars trip by 2033, or if it was just a matter of Congress appropriating the needed funds for technology development.

NASA can overcome challenges for a human mission to Mars given the resources, but the propulsion method for such a spacecraft is only one issue NASA much confront, Lal said.

“Deep space transport is just one piece of getting to Mars. … We’ve landed small rovers there but a spacecraft carrying humans would be much bigger,” Lal said. “We also need to make sure that the environmental control and life support systems can keep [astronauts] alive for two to three years.”