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Innovation

Why a famous rocket scientist says NASA should go nuclear

Here’s why.

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One of NASA’s most famous engineers thinks the agency should stop making chemical rockets.

Homer Hickam, whose youthful tales in his memoir Rocket Boys was adapted into the 1999 film October Sky, tells Inverse that he would like to see the agency move away from traditional space rockets and leave it to private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Instead, he says, NASA should focus on far-flung ideas like electric, fusion, and nuclear rockets — an idea also supported by Elon Musk.

“I'd like to see NASA get out of the chemical rocket business altogether and just let the commercial companies do that,” Hickam says. “Get off and start building the really big, bad rockets, the nuclear rockets, the electric rockets, the fusion rockets, and all that.”

It’s a fascinating insight from an engineer that inspired children worldwide to pursue a career in space, including Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos. Hickam spent his career at NASA, and he documented some of his most memorable feats in his new memoir Don’t Blow Yourself Up, out this week.

But despite his NASA career, Hickam says that he would choose a private company if he were entering the field today.

“If you really want to get on the cutting edge of technology ... and your ideas could actually be turned into cutting metal the next day versus years away, then you probably want to go with one of these commercial companies,” he says.

That could change if NASA changes by becoming more of a research and development agency, leaving chemical rockets to the private sector, and handing over those exotic rocket technologies similarly to chemical rockets.

In fact, Hickam goes as far as to predict that the Space Launch System, NASA’s over-$9-billion rocket that will send humans back to the Moon in 2024, will be “the last chemical rocket NASA will ever be involved with.”

Want to know more about how Hickam inspired Bezos and Musk, what it was like to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, and how Hickam helped shape U.S. space policy? Read the full interview with Homer Hickam, only in MUSK READS+.

Nuclear rockets: What are they?

Whereas a traditional rocket works on burning fuel to generate thrust, a nuclear rocket works like a miniaturized nuclear plant.

A liquid propellant like hydrogen moves through a reactor core. Inside the core, uranium atoms are split apart through a process known as fission. This releases heat, which heats the liquid propellant and turns it into gas. This gas is pushed out of the engine to generate thrust.

In January 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy released an explainer that outlined how the technology works:

Nuclear rockets: Why do we need them?

Nuclear rockets could offer far more power than existing rockets.

The space industry uses a measurement called specific impulse to describe how much thrust comes from a set unit of fuel. The Saturn V, which took humans to the Moon, had a specific impulse of 421 seconds. The Department of Energy claims that nuclear rockets would initially target 900 seconds. The reason they could offer much more efficiency is because of the lighter gases involved.

But don’t worry about an Earth-based meltdown — concepts usually focus on using chemicals to launch the rocket into space before using the nuclear reactor away from the Earth’s surface.

“They're really safe,” Hickam says. “You can drop them in the ocean; they wouldn't hurt anything.”

Musk, who wants to send humans to Mars and establish a city by 2050, praised the concept in 2019.

The system could make travel to Mars much faster. While conventional rockets expect to take seven to nine months to reach the planet, CNN reported in February that one design could cut the trip to just three months.

NASA's concept art of a nuclear rocket.NASA

Nuclear rockets: Why should NASA research them?

NASA is already researching them, but its efforts waned over the years.

NASA space flight director Wernher von Braun detailed a mission to Mars in 1969 that would use nuclear rockets. Two rockets, each propelled by three engines, would send the first humans to Mars.

The Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application program focused research efforts into studying their applications, and Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers tested a series of designs. Unfortunately, due to a shift in priorities, NASA cut back its work in the field in 1972.

“We already developed nuclear rockets back in the 1960s that worked,” Hickam says. “We were a little bit leery about them, but now we know a lot more.”

In July 2021, NASA and the Department of Energy awarded $5 million each to three companies developing nuclear reactor designs. The 12-months contracts ask the companies to produce a conceptual reactor for future missions:

  1. Virginia-based BXW Technologies
  2. San Diego-based General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems
  3. Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies

It’s these technologies, Hickam says, that could make life on Mars a reality.

“It’s going to take a tremendous amount of new technologies, I think, to make living on Mars a reality,” he says. “Mainly, we need nuclear rockets ... ones that’ll zip us through space in a big hurry.”

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