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January 27, 2003

NASA Going Nuclear

Great Stuff!

In terms of the power you get from the weight it takes, going into space using chemical rockets is a bit like trying to make trans-Atlantic travel viable with wood-burning 747s. For some time now, several friends of mine inside NASA have been mentioning that the word "nuclear" is becoming respectable again. And, indeed, this seems to be the case. Ken McCroan pointed me to an item by Dr. David Whitehouse, Online Science Editor at BBC News World Edition, reporting that the current administration is due to endorse the space agency's nuclear propulsion initiative "Project Prometheus," with the aim of opening up Mars and the outer Solar System.

It would be great if this turned out to be the first step in returning to a sane energy policy acknowledging that you can't run a modern industrialized state on windmills and solar toys either. Click for the first link to previous postings on why, in the long run, nuclear is the only way to go, and the so-called alternatives aren't.

Note added February 20, 2003
Bob Wallace cites an article by Michael Flora entitled "Project Orion: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth," that might be of interest to those curious about earlier (1950s) American projects and proposals for nuclear spacegoing. None of this squeezing a couple of people into a capsule based on glorified airplane technology. We're talking about lofting vessels weighing 10,000 tons and carrying 10,000 tons of payload -- or 150 people with plenty of space to function freely. Only thing was, they were talking about launching it with an atomic bomb, from a pad consisting of 8 towers 250 feet high, and then heaving more bombs out the back through the boost phase -- hundreds of them -- to crank up the velocity. The motto was "Mars by 1965, Saturn by 1970," Freeman Dyson, who was very much involved, is quoted as saying in John McPhee's 1974 book The Curve of Binding Energy, which tells the whole story.

That's what I call real "can-do" engineering. I'm not sure it would be so easy to sell politically these days, though. Maybe there's some significance in that the proposed launch site was to be a place called Jackass Flats, in Nevada. But the more recent concepts of using a reactor to produce exhaust velocities thousands of times higher than anything chemical could have a lot going for it. One attraction is that just about anything -- water, carbon dioxide, methane -- can be used as a reaction mass, making anywhere in the Solar System a potential refueling station.

Note added March 24, 2003
Several people have suggested that I should also mention George Dyson's (son of Freeman) book Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship.

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