NASA is looking into it yet again, more than 40 years later

From the 1950s all the way until the early 1970s, NASA was on a mission to send Mankind to Mars and, as such, was considering different forms of propulsion. The most promising was a nuclear-powered rocket. Of course, the plans to go to Mars were shelved around the same time of the last Apollo mission, and Man hasn’t been out past the international space station (to the best of our unclassified knowledge) since. Sure, we’ve sent a number of unmanned probes, but outside of that, we’ve stuck pretty close to home. But, technology has improved drastically over the years, and the phone in your hand is now more powerful than the computers that helped Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon while Michael Collins piloted the command module and observed from lunar orbit on July 20, 1969. Now we’ve got guys like Elon Musk pressing the issue and wanting to colonize Mars in the near future, so it’s only fitting that NASA step its game up and prepare for a journey to the red rock.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that NASA is considering thermal nuclear propulsion once again. While this may sound inherently dangerous, it’s really not that bad. This type of propulsion works by taking a liquid fuel like hydrogen and heating it inside a nuclear reactor. The fuel is then forced out of rocket nozzles at high speed, ultimately creating thrust. It was previously found that this kind of propulsion is nearly twice as efficient as the typical rocket that relies on a chemical reaction for thrust. This would allow the nuclear craft to carry less fuel (which means less weight) and a give a quicker trip to our destination, wherever it may be. Estimates place the travel time from earth to Mars at about four months, which is nearly 70 percent of the time it would take with a conventional rocket. It’s not quite Warp Drive, but it’s a step in the right direction, right Scotty?

With that all in mind, NASA has contracted a company known as BWXT Nuclear Energy to again explore the potential of this type of propulsion. Keep reading to learn a little more about it.

Will Nuclear Energy Contribute to our Transition into a Space Faring Species?

Will Thermal Nuclear Propulsion be the Way to Mars and Beyond?
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An artist’s rendering of a nuclear rocket Credit: NASA

The company in question, BWXT Nuclear Energy, is no stranger to government contracts. It’s actually a supplier of nuclear fuel for the Navy, and we’re talking about the kind that allows submarines and carriers to remain at sea for long periods of time without refueling. So, over the next few years, BWXT will work with NASA to determine just how viable this type of propulsion will be for future missions.

BWXT has even be tasked with developing a rocket concept which could ultimately lead to an unmanned test mission, should everything go according to plan. The rocket will make use of low-enriched uranium which, for the record, is far from weapons grade and can’t even be used to create nuclear bombs without further enrichment. It will also make use of ceramic and metallic fuel element technology.

This project and the subsequent tests will give NASA the ability to determine just how feasible it is and, ultimately, whether the astronauts of the future will leave this gorgeous rock of ours with a nuclear reactor strapped to their ass. If so, then the six-month trip to our red neighbor will take just four months and could make a significant difference between success and failure for our next-generation explorers.

Further Thinking

Eagle Landing in the Sea of Tranquility July 20, 1969

Back in 1969 when Buzz Aldrin successfully landed the Lunar Module, Eagle, he officially ended the great Space Race, a battle between the Soviet Union and the U.S. to prove which could reign supreme in spaceflight capability. The Soviet Union still pushed to complete their manned mission to the moon, but eventually gave up to focus on things a little closer to home like space stations and other orbital missions. And again, as far as the general public knows, we’ve never been back to the moon since ending the Apollo missions, which is quite weird considering everywhere the U.S. lands, we don’t leave – just ask the 70 countries across the world that serve as home to nearly 800 U.S. military bases. Getting back to the topic at hand, could we be on the brink of yet another space race?

Space X Interplanetary Transport System

The world has quite literally gone crazy, and with all of the terrorism, hatred, and violence, some good old-fashioned competition could be just enough to ease tensions enough to bring us back from the brink of a global catastrophe. As of now, world governments haven’t said much about traveling into the stars, so it’s going to take some time for a new competition to heat up, but it’s not out of the question. And, we live in different times, so the next great space race could end up being between private companies and NASA. There are a couple to mention, with SpaceX being the most dominant and well-known. SpaceX has plans to start Mars missions as early as 2018 and has even proposed using its reusable Falcon rockets as a means to get humans into orbit and refuel their ship in a short period of time before they make the greatest journey in the history of the human race.

Mars One Introduction Video

Next up, there’s Mars One, a nonprofit based in the Netherlands that plans to send four astronauts to the red planet as early as 2026, and four more every two years after. And, for the record, should this end up being the first manned mission to Mars, they probably won’t be coming back as there is no word of a return trip. The first trip is expected to cost around $6 Billion, which will likely be raised by a global media campaign and will also fund multiple prerequisite missions prior to the manned mission.

There was another project known as Inspiration Mars that was organized by Dennis Tito, a wealthy American who paid heaps of cheddar to become the first tourist to go to the International Space Station in 2001. This project originally planned to launch a mission to Mars in January of 2018 but has fallen off the radar since mid-2014. So, Inspiration Mars is either too busy to release any information – even on social media, or it’s died off. With that said, NASA’s plans to head to the red rock will come into play closer to 2030 and is expected to include at least some international collaboration.

How the Cold War Led to the Space Race

So, in the end, we could see some interesting competition and collaboration not only from world governments but from private companies as well. What do you think? Are we on the verge of another space race or will threats of nuclear war from North Korea, Civil unrest in the U.S., and Terrorism in the rest of the world ultimately put a stop to any hope of getting there in the near future? If we do end up developing a nuclear rocket, will it be enough to catch the attention of the Vulcans and lead to our first official alien contact? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.


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Robert Moore
Editor-in-Chief and Automotive Expert -
Robert has been an auto enthusiast his entire life. He started working cars at a young age, learning the basics from his father in the home garage on the weekends. As time went on, Robert became more and more interested in cars and convinced his father to teach him how to drive when he was just 13 years old. Robert continued working on cars in his free time and learned as much as he could about engines, transmissions, and car electrical systems, something that only fed his curiosity more and eventually led him to earn a bachelors degree in automotive technology with a primary focus on engine performance and transmission rebuilding.  Read More
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