Nuclear Propulsion Could Be ‘Game-Changer’ for Space Exploration, NASA Chief Says

By Mike Wall

Humanity’s next giant leap could be enabled by next-gen nuclear tech, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

During the sixth meeting of the National Space Council (NSC) today (Aug. 20), the NASA chief lauded the potential of nuclear thermal propulsion, which would harness the heat thrown off by fission reactions to accelerate propellants such as hydrogen to tremendous speeds. 

Spacecraft powered by such engines could conceivably reach Mars in just three to four months — about half the time of the fastest possible trip in a vehicle with traditional chemical propulsion, said NSC panelist Rex Geveden, the president and CEO of BWX Technologies Inc. 

And that’s a big deal for NASA, which is working to get astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

“That is absolutely a game-changer for what NASA is trying to achieve,” Bridenstine said. “That gives us an opportunity to really protect life, when we talk about the radiation dose when we travel between Earth and Mars.”

That dose increases, of course, the longer astronauts spend in deep space, away from the protective bubble of Earth’s magnetosphere. And recent research suggests that the radiation dose accumulated by Mars-bound astronauts could damage their brains, affecting their moods as well as their ability to learn and remember.

Bridenstine also stressed the utility of nuclear thermal propulsion for applications closer to home. For example, the increased power could potentially allow Earth-orbiting craft to steer out of the line of fire of anti-satellite weapons, he said.

Such weapons are being developed by both China and Russia, Joseph Maguire, the U.S. acting Director of National Intelligence, said during the NSC meeting today. 

“Both countries view the capability to attack space systems and services as part of their broader efforts to deter or defeat an adversary in combat,” Maguire said. “In short, the threat to U.S. and allied space systems continues to grow unabated.”

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