National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reports on space nuclear propulsion

National Academies report urges nuclear-powered rockets for trips to Mars and lays out "synergies" in space nuclear activities between NASA and the U.S. military.

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A  report advocating rocket propulsion by nuclear power for U.S. missions to Mars, written by a committee packed with individuals deeply involved in nuclear power, was issued last week by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The 104-page report also lays out “synergies” in space nuclear activities between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. military, something not advanced explicitly since the founding of NASA as supposedly a civilian agency in 1958. 

The report states: “Space nuclear propulsion and power systems have the potential to provide the United States with military advantages…NASA could benefit programmatically by working with a DoD [Department of Defense] program having national security objectives.”’

The report was produced “by contract” with NASA, it states.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) describe themselves as having been “created to advise the nation” with “independent, objective advice to inform policy.”

The 11 members of the committee that put together the report for the National Academies includes: Jonathan W. Cirtain, president of Advanced Technologies, “a subsidiary of BWX Technologies which is the sole manufacturer of nuclear reactors for the U.S. Navy,” the report states; Roger M. Myers, owner of R. Myers Consulting and who previously at Aerojet Rocketdyne “oversaw programs and strategic planning for next-generation in-space missions [that] included nuclear thermal propulsion and nuclear electric power systems; Shannon M. Bragg-Sitton, the “lead for integrated energy systems in the Nuclear Science and Technology Directorate at the Idaho National Laboratory:” Tabitha Dodson, who at the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency is chief engineer of a program “that is developing a nuclear thermal propulsion system;” Joseph A. Sholtis, Jr., “owner and principal of Sholtis Engineering & Safety Consulting, providing expert nuclear, aerospace, and systems engineering services to government, national laboratories, industry, and academia since 1993.” And so on.

The NAS report is titled: “Space Nuclear Propulsion for Human Mars Exploration.” It is not classified and is available at here.  

Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, from its offices in Maine in the U.S., declared: “The nuclear industry views space as a new—and wide open—market for their toxic product that has run its dirty course on Mother Earth.”

“During our campaigns in 1989, 1990, and 1997 to stop NASA’s Galileo, Ulysses and Cassini plutonium-fueled space probe launches, we learned that the nuclear industry positioned its agents inside NASA committees that made the decisions on what kinds of power sources would be placed on those deep space missions,” said Gagnon. “Now it appears that the nuclear industry has also infiltrated the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that has been studying missions to Mars.  The recommendation, not any surprise, is that nuclear reactors are the best way to power a Mars mission.”

“It’s not the best for us Earthlings because the Department of Energy has a bad track record of human and environmental contamination as they fabricate nuclear devices. An accident at launch could have catastrophic consequences.”

Stated Gagnon: “We fought the DoE and NASA on those previous nuclear launches and are entering the battle again. The nuclear industry has its sights set on nuclear-powered mining colonies on an assortment of planetary bodies—all necessitating legions of nuclear devices being produced at DoE and then launched on rockets that blow up from time to time.”

“We urge the public to help us pressure NASA and DoE to say no to nukes in space. We’ve got to protect life here on this planet. We are in the middle of a pandemic and people have lost jobs, homes, health care and even food on their table.”

“Trips to Mars can wait,” said Gagnon.

There have been accidents in the history of the U.S.—and also the former Soviet Union and now Russia—using nuclear power in space.

And the NAS report, deep into it, does acknowledge how accidents can happen with its new scheme of using nuclear power on rockets for missions to Mars.

It says: “Safety assurance for nuclear systems is essential to protect operating personnel as well as the general public and Earth’s environment.” Thus under the report’s plan, the rockets with the nuclear reactors onboard would be launched “with fresh [uranium] fuel before they have operated at power to ensure that the amount of radioactivity on board remains as low as practicable.” The plans include “restricting reactor startup and operations in space until spacecraft are in nuclear safe orbits or trajectories that ensure safety of Earth’s population and environment” But, “Additional policies and practices need to be established to prevent unintended system reentry during return to Earth after reactors have been operated for extended periods of time.” 

The worst U.S. accident involving the use of nuclear power in space came in 1964 when the U.S. satellite Transit 5BN-3, powered by a SNAP-9A plutonium-fueled radioisotope thermoelectric generator, failed to achieve orbit and fell from the sky, disintegrating as it burned up in the atmosphere, globally spreading plutonium—considering the deadliest of all radioactive substances. That accident was long linked to a spike in global lung cancer rates where the plutonium was spread, by Dr. John Gofman, an M.D. and Ph. D., a professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley. He also had been involved in developing some of the first methods for isolating plutonium for the Manhattan Project. 

NASA, after the SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) accident became a pioneer in developing solar photovoltaic power. All U.S. satellites now are energized by solar power, as is the International Space Station.

The worst accident involving nuclear power in space in the Soviet/Russian space program occurred in 1978 when the Cosmos 954 satellite with a nuclear reactor aboard fell from orbit and spread radioactive debris over a 373-mile swath from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake in Canada. There were 110 pounds of highly-enriched (nearly 90 percent) of uranium fuel on Cosmos 954. 

Highly-enriched uranium—90 percent is atomic bomb-grade—would be used in one  reactor design proposed in the NAS report. And thus there is a passage about it under “Proliferation and security.” It states that “HEU [highly enriched uranium] fuel, by virtue of the ease with which it could be diverted to the production of nuclear weapons, is a higher value target than HALEU [high assay low enriched uranium], especially during launch and reentry accidents away from the launch site. As a result, HEU is viewed by nonproliferation experts as requiring more security considerations. In addition, if the United States uses HEU for space reactors, it could become more difficult to convince other countries to reduce their use of HEU in civilian applications.”

As for rocket propulsion in the vacuum of space, it doesn’t take much conventional chemical propulsion to move a spacecraft—and fast. 

And there was a comprehensive story in New Scientist magazine this past October on “The new age of sail,” as it was headlined. The subhead: “We are on the cusp of a new type of space travel that can take us to places no rocket could ever visit.”

The article began by relating 17th Century astronomer Johanne Kepler observing comets and seeing “that their tails always pointed away from the sun, no matter which direction they were traveling. To Kepler, it meant only one thing: the comet tails were being blown from the sun.”

Indeed, “the sun produces a wind in space” and “it can be harnessed,” said the piece. “First, there are particles of light streaming from the sun constantly, each carrying a tiny bit of momentum. Second, there is a flow of charged particles, mostly protons and electrons, also moving outwards from the sun. We call the charged particles the solar wind, but both streams are blowing a gale”—that’s in the vacuum of space. 

Japan launched its Ikaros spacecraft in 2010—sailing in space using the energy from the sun. The LightSail 2 mission of The Planetary Society was launched in 2019—and it’s still up in space, flying with the sun’s energy.

New systems using solar power are being developed – past the current use of thin film such as Mylar for solar sails.

The New Scientist article spoke of scientists “who want to use these new techniques to set a course for worlds currently far beyond our reach—namely the planets orbiting our nearest star, Alpha Centauri.”

The NAS committee, however, was mainly interested in a choice between a “nuclear thermal propulsion” (NTP) or “nuclear electric propulsion” (NEP) for rocket propulsion.

The NAS report states: “Although NEP and NTP systems both use nuclear power, they convert this power into thrust in different ways based on difficult technologies.” 

As the report explains NEP systems, they “convert heat from the fission reactor to electrical power, much like nuclear power plants on Earth. This electrical power is then used to produce thrust through the acceleration of an ionized propellant.” As for an NTP system, it “is conceptually similar to a chemical propulsion system, where the combustion chamber has been replaced by a nuclear reactor to heat the propellant.” 

“Advanced nuclear propulsion systems (along or in combination with chemical propulsion systems) have the potential to substantially reduce trip time” to Mars “compared to fully non-nuclear approaches,” says the report. 

An issue: radioactivity from either of the systems affecting human beings on the rockets with nuclear reactors propelling them. Back after World War II with the Cold War beginning, the U.S. began working on bombers propelled by onboard nuclear reactors—even built one. The idea was that such bombers could stay aloft for days ready to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union. No crews would need to be scrambled and bombers then sent aloft.  

But, as The Atlantic magazine noted in a 2019 article titled, “Why There Are No Nuclear Airplanes”—”The problem of shielding pilots from the reactor’s radiation proved even more difficult. What good would a plane be that killed its own pilots? To protect the crew from radioactivity, the reactor needed thick and heavy layers of shielding. But to take off, the plane needed to be as light as possible. Adequate shielding seemed incompatible with flight. Still, engineers theorized that the weight saved from needing no fuel might be enough to offset the reactor and its shielding. The United States spent 16 years tinkering with the idea, to no avail….

The Eisenhower administration concluded that the program was unnecessary, dangerous, and too expensive. On March 28, 1961, the newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy canceled the program. Proposals for nuclear-powered airplanes have popped up since then, but the fear of radiation and the lack of funding have kept all such ideas down.” 

 The NAS report says, “Space reactor shielding has been analyzed and designed for a range of power levels…To minimize mass, the shield for an NEP system is designed using a ‘shadow shield’ approach, taking the form of a conical or cylindrical barrier that attenuates radiation in a conical region extending behind the shield, within which the spacecraft and payload are located. For any spacecraft with a source of nuclear radiation, the dose rate is managed by a combination of (1) distance between the reactor (or other source) and the payload and (2) attenuation by the shield.”

The “synergies” in space nuclear activities between NASA and the U.S. military advanced in the NAS report mark a change in public acknowledgement. The agency was supposed to have a distinctly civilian orientation, encouraging peaceful applications in space science. 

However, throughout the decades there have been numerous reports on its close relationship with the U.S. military—notably during the period of NASA Space Shuttle flights. As a 2018 piece in Smithsonian Magazine noted, “During the heyday of the space shuttle, NASA would routinely ferry classified payloads into orbit for the Department of Defense among other projects the agencies have collaborated on.”

With the formation of a U.S. Space Force by the Trump administration in 2019, the NASA-Pentagon link would appear to be coming out of the shadows, as indicated by the NAS report. The Biden administration is not intending to eliminate the Space Force, despite the landmark Outer Space Treaty of 1967 put together by the U.S., the then Soviet Union and the U.K, setting aside space for peaceful purposes. It is giving the new sixth branch of U.S. armed forces “full support,” according to his spokesperson Jen Psaki. 

The NAS report says, “Areas of common interest include (1) fundamental questions about the development and testing of materials (such as reactor fuels and moderators) that can survive NTP conditions and (2) advancing modeling and simulation capabilities that are relevant to NTP.” And, “Additionally, a NASA NTP system could potentially use a scaled-up version of a DoD reactor, depending on the design.” 

It declares: “Threats to U.S. space assets are increasing. They include anti-satellite weapons and counter-space activities. Crossing vast distances of space rapidly with a reasonably sized vehicle in response to these threats requires a propulsion system with high Isp [Specific Impulse] and thrust. This could be especially important in a high-tempo military conflict.”

Moreover, on December 19, just before he was to leave office, Trump signed Space Policy Directive-6, titled “National Strategy for Space Nuclear Propulsion.” Its provisions include: “DoD [Department of Defense] and NASA, in cooperation with DOE [Department of Energy}, and with other agencies and private-sector partners, as appropriate, should evaluate technology options and associated key technical challenges for an NTP [Nuclear Thermal Propulsion] system, including reactor designs, power conversion, and thermal management. DoD and NASA should work with their partners to evaluate and use opportunities for commonality with other SNPP [Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion] needs, terrestrial power needs, and reactor demonstration projects planned by agencies and the private sector.”

It continues: “DoD, in coordination with DOE and other agencies, and with private sector partners, as appropriate, should develop reactor and propulsion system technologies that will resolve the key technical challenges in areas such as reactor design and production, propulsion system and spacecraft design, and SNPP system integration.” 

It’s going to take enormous grassroots action—and efforts by those in public office who understand the error of the space direction being taken—to stop it.

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