NASA's 2004 budget request, officially embargoed until U.S. President George W. Bush presents his spending plan to Congress in February, contains significantly increased funding for a revamped nuclear propulsion research effort the U.S. space agency is now calling Project Prometheus.
A source familiar with the NASA budget request for 2004 told Space News that the amount of money the White House is requesting strongly suggests an expansion of the program. "There is significant money in the budget for Prometheus," the source said. "More than I expected to see."
NASA spokesmen were busy calling into question details revealed in a January 17 story in the Los Angeles Times. The story stated that the Bush Administration has given an agency go-ahead to build a nuclear-powered rocket. Not only would the project make human travel to Mars feasible, the story suggests, work on the nuclear space rocket would be a boon to California aerospace firms.
Los Angeles Times reporter, Peter Pae -- based on an exclusive interview with NASA chief, Sean O'Keefe -- said the space effort may be announced during President Bush's State of the Union address set for January 28.
NASA spokesman, Don Savage, said that the Los Angeles Times story misstated some elements of what O'Keefe discussed regarding the agency's Nuclear Space Initiative (NSI). NASA formally requested the newspaper for clarification of several points in the story that could be misconstrued, he said.
NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone acknowledged that O'Keefe did talk generally about the upcoming State of the Union but did not make a prediction that Bush would use it to make any NASA-related announcements.
In response, Pae told SPACE.com : "We're sticking with the story. This came from an interview."
NASA would not provide details about Project Prometheus. NASA's Savage said it is "in large part a renaming of part of the [Nuclear Systems Initiative] that was announced last year."
Specifically, Savage said, it refers to the part of the program focused on nuclear fission reactors and in-space propulsion. Savage would not confirm O'Keefe's statement to the Los Angeles Times that Project
Prometheus represents a significant expansion of the Nuclear Systems Initiative.
"At this point I can't say what they plan beyond what we announced in the 2003 budget," Savage said.
"O'Keefe didn't say that there would be announcement in the State of the Union concerning NASA. He doesn't know what's going to be in the State of the Union and certainly wouldn't get out in front of the President," Savage responded to SPACE.com .
Mission to Mars
Announced early last year, NASA has been seeking funds to establish the Nuclear Space Initiative. The program would develop new types of radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), as well as perform research on nuclear propulsion.
That technology would not only support robotic exploration of the Solar System. NSI research could open the door for more rapid human access to targets beyond low Earth orbit, should the nation decide to pursue such a long distance goal.
The NSI is set to develop reactor technologies for advanced robotic exploration, Savage said. "We’re also looking at ion propulsion and things of that nature…but not looking at a specific human mission to Mars," he added.
Savage said that the term "nuclear rocket" is not what NASA is developing. Rather, reactor technology is being pursued.
Nuclear rocket is a term that's very easily misconstrued in the public, Savage said. "In their mind, they see the spewing out of radioactivity from the back end of a rocket. That's not what is being talked about in any of the programs we're looking at," he said.
Where's the money?
NASA is seeking $125.5 million to kick-start the NSI. However, the agency's budget, including work on nuclear space power and propulsion, has yet to be settled.
"It's a Fiscal Year 2003 program that's on the books and we're waiting for the budget. Then, of course, we're coming up close to the Fiscal Year 2004 budget request," Savage said.
Overall, NASA has stated it anticipated spending a total of some $1 billion over the next five years on NSI.
An early target for the money is fabricating a new generation of power generators called multi-mission RTGs.
These devices are not nuclear reactors. Rather, they use heat created by the natural decay of Plutonium-238 to generate electricity.
In the past, these devices have been used in a variety of deep space missions, such as the Galileo mission to Jupiter, as well as onboard the now en route Cassini spacecraft to Saturn. A Kuiper Belt-Pluto spacecraft expected to be launched in the 2006-2007 time frame would also be RTG powered. NASA is reviewing use of the souped-up RTG for use on its Mars Smart Lander slated for launch in 2009.
NASA's embrace of space nuclear power has stirred up controversy in the past, and will do so in the future.
The Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, based in Gainesville, Florida, has been particularly vocal in this regard.
The group has campaigned against the launch of Galileo and Cassini missions in past years. A "No Nukes in Space Protest Vigil" is slated in early February, outside a symposium on nuclear space power to be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In addition, the group is ready to protest at the Kennedy Space Center this May and June the launchings of NASA's two Mars rovers. The wheeled Mars Exploration Rovers both carry eight Radioisotope Heater Units (RHUs), with each RHU containing 2.7 grams of plutonium.
In learning about the prospects for NASA's Project Prometheus, Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the anti-nuclear group, said they oppose this development as a "dangerous step in the expansion of nuclear technology into space."
"First we are concerned about the likely toxic contamination at the Department of Energy labs as they increase plutonium processing for the Nuclear Systems Initiative," Gagnon told SPACE.com .
"Secondly the dramatic escalation of nuclear launches in the coming years only increases the chances of an accident from Florida or other launch sites," he said.
Gagnon said that he and his group fear that the nuclear reactors for Mars missions are "the ice breakers that end up becoming the reactor technologies that get adapted for space based weapons systems, long the dream of the Pentagon Star Warriors."
The march to Mars by humans becomes ever more achievable given the Prometheus effort. And that's welcome news to Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society in Indian Hills, Colorado.
"The decision by NASA to revive its nuclear rocket development program is a tremendously positive step. It will greatly enhance the prospects for human exploration and settlement of the Solar System," he told SPACE.com .
Using nuclear thermal rockets, the payload delivered from low Earth orbit to the Moon or Mars can be doubled, Zubrin said. That cuts in half the launch costs associated with lunar or Mars exploration programs. Nuclear power reactors are essential for Mars base surface power. Duties performed include powering life support hardware, ultra-high data rate communications, and making on-the-spot propellants, he said.
"Administrator O'Keefe's decision to develop space nuclear power is a wise move that will save billions of dollars and greatly expand our space capabilities," Zubrin said.
"The name 'Project Prometheus' is well taken. Prometheus gave fire to man, giving us the power needed to create civilization on Earth. NASA's Project Prometheus will give us the power we need to extend human civilization to the heavens," Zubrin said.