NASA Nuke Rockets: To Mars In Six Weeks?

As previously reported here on Sci-Fi Today, NASA is planning a major budgetary increase to develop nuclear rockets. Although just a new way to make hot gas just like conventional chemical rocket engines, nuclear rockets do so far more efficiently and so promise to revolutionize our abilities to fly missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Initial efforts were performed under Project NERVA in the 1960s and resulted in actual tests of a nuclear rocket in open air at Jackass Flats, Nevada. This project was killed as part of the overall NASA shutdown at the end of Apollo. Recent efforts to revive this effort in the 1990s surfaced under the guise of NASA’s Nuclear Space Initiative (NSI) aimed primarily at nuclear power sources for space use. Now, only a year later, NSI has recently been upgraded under the Bush administration to include not only power reactors but actual nuclear rockets as part of Project Prometheus named of course for the giver of fire to humanity. NERVA, NSI and Prometheus are all based on nuclear fission (the splitting of heavy atoms like uranium or plutonium) to generate energy and heat. Other preliminary and more speculative NASA nuclear propulsion work (not officially part of Project Prometheus) is based instead on nuclear fusion (the merging of light atoms like hydrogen or helium) to build a rocket that would ultimately be capable of reaching Mars in a mere six weeks. Bill Emrich, an engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, predicts this NASA fusion drive would be able to generate 300 times the thrust of any chemical rocket engine and use only a fraction of its fuel mass. Interplanetary missions would no longer need to wait for a “shortest journey” launch window. “You can launch when you want,” Emrich says. Sounds good.

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