Science Committee hearing: ‘Accelerating Deep Space Travel with Space Nuclear Propulsion’

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

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The co-chairs of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space & Technology Committee were cheerleaders for the use of nuclear power in space at a hearing at which they presided over last week titled “Accelerating Deep Space Travel with Space Nuclear Propulsion.”

The advocacy of Representatives Don Beyer and Eddie Bernice Johnson for nukes in space was strongly criticized in a subsequent interview by Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. 

Representative Beyer opened the October 20th hearing in Washington by declaring: “Space nuclear propulsion can produce thrust far more efficiently than conventional chemical systems, allowing for shorter tip times to Mars. Why does this matter? One reason is that shortening the trip reduces the risk of space radiation exposure to our astronauts.”

Representative Johnson of Texas stated: “For decades, the space community has identified nuclear propulsion as a required and enabling technology for our human exploration goals. Even the best chemical propulsion capabilities of today mean long travel times to and from Mars.”

Witnesses testifying before the subcommittee included those from the aerospace industry including Michael French, vice president for space systems of the Aerospace Industries Association. He said his association “is proud to represent the largest and most diverse coalition of aerospace companies in the United States, an industry that generates $909 billion in economic output and supports 2.1 million employees across the country,” citing annual sales figures in 2019.  https://www.aia-aerospace.org/news/2020-facts-and-figures/

“Congress has been a consistent supporter of nuclear propulsion activities, particularly nuclear thermal propulsion, through both NASA funding and direction,” said French. “Congress’s continued investment coupled with authorizing will serve as key accelerants to developing this capability for Mars and other deep space exploration.” 

There were no witnesses invited to the hearing who are critical of the use of nuclear power in space. Gagnon has been coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space since its formation in 1992. Based in Maine, it is the leading international organization opposing the use of nuclear power in space through protests, an annual “Space for Peace Week” and lawsuits through the years.

Said Gagnon: “The recent testimonies by aerospace industry operatives before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics were quite telling. But even more so were the opening statements by committee co-chairs, both Democrats, who hail from the heavily space-oriented states of Virginia and Texas. Both committee chairs Don Beyer (VA) and Bernice Johnson (TX) enthusiastically endorsed the proposal to continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually toward preparation of nuclear reactor flight tests in space.”

“The logic behind this dangerous ‘field test’ is to prepare to send nuclear-powered rockets to Mars,” said Gagnon. “Ostensibly these plans are to protect the ‘safety of our astronauts’ by reducing their exposure to in-space radiation with ‘shorter trips’ to the red planet because nuclear rockets would cut in half the travel time. This is very telling as concern over the safety of a couple of astronauts ‘trumps’ the safety of the Department of Energy workers who will be fabricating these space nuclear devices.”

“We know that over the years the U.S. Department of Energy has a terrible track record of worker and community contamination during these space nukes fabrication processes. One example is the 244 cases of worker contamination at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico while building the plutonium generators for the 1997 Cassini space probe,” said Gagnon.

“In addition, this concern over astronaut safety also ‘trumps’ the safety of all life on Earth as plans call for the testing of these nuclear rocket engines just over our heads in space,” he said.

“During the testimony of several aerospace industry executives at the hearing they admitted that current regulations that oversee ground testing of these reactors are ‘too restrictive’ because they require the capture and processing of ‘radiologic sources’ in order to ‘reduce contamination.’ Thus, with no regulation of testing in space the powerful alliance of aerospace and nuclear industry is asking Congress to give them a free pass,” Gagnon said.

“We’ve known for years that virtually every space mission that NASA flies is ‘dual use’—meaning that it serves two masters—civilian and military. During the committee hearing it was acknowledged that DARPA [the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] has its own nuclear propulsion project for ‘national security interests’. This indicates that this proposed space nuke testing program will benefit the Pentagon’s goal to create space nuclear reactors for military operations in space.”

“The ultimate lesson here,” said Gagnon, “is that the nuclear industry views space as a new market for nuclear rockets, nuclear-powered rovers on Mars, and nuclear-powered mining colonies on the planetary bodies. Concern from Congress about impacts for life on planet Earth? Not one word in that regard was expressed in the hearing.”

“If NASA wants to travel into space, then use solar power. There are ample examples of current successful solar missions into deep space,” he said.

“Let’s slow this run-away freight train down and let the public know about, and comment on, these dangerous plans to nuclearize space,” said Gagnon. 

Beyer also opened the hearing by saying that “depending on the [nuclear] technology used, space nuclear propulsion may enable more frequent trips to Mars than the typical 26-month intervals that rely on favorable Earth and Mars alignment. Reducing that 26-month interval increases mission flexibility to enable both cargo deliveries and human missions to Mars. However, building an operational space nuclear propulsion system is hard and the technical challenges are many. Choosing a nuclear fuel type and source, developing a space-qualified fission reactor, developing the requisite materials and infrastructure, and carrying out testing, all while managing the required safety protocols for nuclear activities, are just a few examples of these challenges.”

Johnson also said that nuclear-in-space “capability will help our nation lead the inspiring and ambitious efforts of sending humans to Mars. Further, it will keep the United States and our industry partners at the cutting edge of nuclear research, development and applications.” 

Among other aerospace industry representatives testifying was Gregory Meholic, senior project leader for civil technology of the Aerospace Corporation. “We serve as the government’s trusted agent and national repository for space programs,” he said of his company, “providing objective, unbiased, technical expertise to assure mission success.” He said, “Several kilowatt-class nuclear power reactors were launched in the 1960s—the Soviets sent over 30—but space nuclear power never matured beyond those experiments due to the rapid advancement in solar arrays and battery storage systems that were easier to implement aboard space assets.”

Meholic said “fission-based nuclear propulsion and power has remarkably advanced over the past 50 years and may be the next leap forward in space domain technology. Several government stakeholders including NASA, the Department of Energy, DARPA, the U.S. Space Force, U.S. Space Command, the Air Force Research Labs and others have not only developed a close interest in SNPP [Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion] but some have well-established, industry-sourced, cross-agency programs of record to demonstrate specific SNPP applications or rapidly mature critical technologies.”

Franklin Chang-Diaz, CEO of the Ad Astra Rocket Company, testified that “we must secure a safe, robust and fast means of transportation” in space. “Nuclear power provides us with that opportunity—but there is much homework to be done.” He boosted his company’s VASMIR nuclear engine. “Our own VASMIR engine recently achieved a major milestone” with a “high-power continuous endurance test…a project supported by private investors and NASA. Other high-power technologies are also poised for development.”

Roger Myers, owner of R Myers Consulting and chair of the Washington State Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation, noted that he served as co-chair of the recent report of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report titled “Space Nuclear Propulsion for Human Mars Exploration.” He said “first, we found that no currently available nuclear reactors fuels can provide the required temperatures to meet the required performance of engine life” but “our committee found that an aggressive program could develop an NTP [Nuclear Thermal Propulsion\ system capable of executing the baseline mission [to Mars] in 2039.”

Also, Bhava Lal, NASA’s senior advisor for budget and finance, testified: “To date, chemical rockets and solar power have served our nation well” in space “but both have limitations, especially as we go deeper into the solar system…Nuclear fission systems can provide such solutions, delivering the high power levels needed to conduct exciting activities on the surface of the Moon, reduce trip times of crewed missions to Mars, and accommodate larger payloads with expanded maneuverability for robotic missions into deep space.” Also, said the NASA official, “nuclear power and propulsion applications could help to enhance U.S. leadership in space.”

The 2021 National Academies report Roger Myers spoke about also declared: “Space nuclear propulsion and power systems have the potential to provide the United States with military advantages.” It lays out “synergies” in space nuclear activities between NASA and the U.S. military. 

I have investigated the use of nuclear power in space for decades. This has included, in 1986, breaking the story of how the space shuttle Challenger’s next mission involved it carrying up a space probe it was to send off after achieving orbit, its electrical system energized by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) fueled with 24.2 pounds of plutonium.

I wrote an editorial that appeared on The Nation’s front page titled “The Lethal Shuttle” which began: “Far more than seven people could have died if the explosion that destroyed Challenger had occurred during the next launch…” 

And I got deeper and deeper into issue—authoring two books, one The Wrong Stuff and Weapons in Space. The Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative program, dubbed “Star Wars,” was predicated on battle platforms orbiting overhead utilizing hypervelocity guns, particle beams and laser weapons powered by on-board reactors and “super-plutonium” systems. I wrote and presented TV documentaries on the nukes-in-space issue—including “Nukes in Space: The Nuclearizaton and Weaponization of the Heavens”—and have written hundreds of articles.

I was to find out quickly that accidents involving the use of nuclear power in space was not a sky-is-falling threat. There have been three accidents involving U.S. space nuclear missions, the worst in 1964 involving a satellite powered by a plutonium-fueled RTG, the SNAP 9A. The satellite failed to achieve orbit, broke up in the atmosphere as it came crashing back down to Earth, its plutonium dispersing as dust extensively on Earth. Dr. John Gofman, an M.D. and Ph.D., professor at the University of California at Berkeley, formerly associate director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, author of Poisoned Power and involved in early studies of plutonium, linked this accident to an increase in lung cancer on Earth. 

Following the SNAP-9A accident, NASA pushed the development of solar power for satellites and now all U.S. satellites have energized by solar power—as is the International Space Station. 

Still, NASA for years insisted that nuclear power was necessary for power beyond the orbit of Mars—a claim that has been demonstrated to be false. In 2011, for example, NASA launched its Juno space probe to Jupiter—its electrical system energized by solar panels. It’s still up there studying Jupiter, despite sunlight being a hundredth of what it is on Earth.

Still, the drive to utilize nuclear power in space continues being pushed hard. 

“US Eyes Building Nuclear Power Plants for Moon and Mars,” declared the headline of an Associated Press article in 2020 headlined “US Eyes Building Nuclear Power Plants for Moon and Mars.”

In 2020, too, the White House’s National Space Council issued a strategy for space exploration that includes “nuclear propulsion methods.”

“BACK TO THE FUTURE NASA’S NEW NUCLEAR VISION” was the headline emblazoned on the cover of the May 3-16, 2021 edition of the leading U.S. aerospace trade publication, Aviation Week & Space Technology. “More than sixty years after the U.S. began serious studies into nuclear propulsion for space travel, NASA is taking the first steps on a new path to develop nuclear-powered engines for crewed missions to Mars by the end of the next decade,” it began. Also, it reported, “other factors strengthening the case for nuclear power include growing interest from the Defense Department in using the technology to extend operational capability in space.” https://archive.aviationweek.com/issue/20210503

Meanwhile, studies and articles have pointed to solar energy providing all the power needed for would-be settlements on Mars and the Moon. Said the headline of a 2008 piece in Universe Today, “Solar Power is Best for Mars Colonies.” The piece told of how “a NASA-sponsored MIT think-tank has weighed up the future energy needs of a manned settlement on Mars and arrived at an interesting conclusion…solar arrays might function just as well, if not better, than the nuclear options.”

A 2016 Discover magazine piece, “How to Harvest Terawatts of Solar Power on the Moon,” spoke of the Japanese corporation, Shimizu, “gearing up to develop solar power on the moon.” The “photovoltaic cells themselves could be tissue thin, since the moon has no weather or air,” said the article, “and half of the moon is in sunlight at any one time.” A huge amount of solar power energy could be generated on the Moon that could be beamed back to Earth, related the article

As for propulsion in space, regarded as highly promising: solar sails. There was a comprehensive story last year in New Scientist about this, “The new age of sail,” it was headlined. The subhead: “We are on the cusp of a new type of space travel that can take s 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 charges 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. In 2015, the LightSail 2 mission of The Planetary Society was launched—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.”

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