28 January 2003
Los Angeles - Jan 28, 2003 - In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. Arthur C. Clarke's early novel "Prelude to Space" featured a nuclear powered ram jet for the first stage of a moon mission; it was called Prometheus as well. Last week NASA Administrator, Sean O'Keefe, announced a new Prometheus -- a bold new nuclear space propulsion initiative that will do for spaceflight what fire did for humans of old.
Nuclear rocketry is not a new concept, having a long and controversial history stretching all the way back to the early 40's. Top scientists have pondered using them for space travel since nuclear and rocket technologies were first realised, and engineers were putting successful prototypes together as early as the 50's. Each successive test in the ROVER program (the 50's nuclear rocket program) was an improvement upon its predecessor.
The last model test fired before the program was abruptly cancelled in the early 70's was NERVA, Nuclear Engines for Rocket Vehicle Applications. The tests showed NERVA outperformed chemical boosters then (and even now) by a factor of two. Today, NASA officials believe newer state of the art nuclear rockets could demonstrate triple the performance of today's chemical rockets; this estimate may even prove to be conservative.
If Congressional funding requests from NASA are met, then Prometheus will be a dream come true for those awaiting bold new changes at the agency. The enabling technologies to be investigated will have huge potential previously unrecognised. Fear of radioactive releases has stymied all progress in the area until now. As a result, nuclear power has remained in its infancy and is only beginning to emerge from the "trial by fire" all technologies must pass to earn public acceptance.
Recent surveys indicate that opposition to commercial use of nuclear power is diminishing, standing at roughly 50:50 in the US. Canadian support actually outweighs opposition for new plants, and support is growing in other countries as well. This is due partly to new global agreements for the reduction of greenhouse gases and partly to the lack of a major accident in the past two decades. This increasing support for nuclear derived electricity is a promising sign for other peaceful applications of nuclear power such as space exploration.
Nuclear reactions are one million times more powerful than the breaking of chemical bonds which fuel current missions. The advantages for spaceflight applications with such a compact source of energy are impossible to predict in the long run. Faster, longer burns during deep space journeys will vastly increase mission parameters. Assistance during launch phases could eventuate in single stage rockets pushing spacecraft into orbit, meaning far cheaper payloads.
The media has gone into a frenzy, speculating about future possibilities including a "Mission to Mars" and "Airline like access to Space". Even the British BBC has jumped onto the excitement bandwagon by speculating, "Nuclear power could also revolutionise the unmanned exploration of the outer Solar System".
A couple of websites such as SPACE.com and SpaceDaily.com have expressed doubts about the veracity of claims of a Mars Mission, but nothing has dampened the growing public interest. Both of these internet media sites have anti-nuclear leanings.
Simon Mansfield, who publishes Spacedaily, remains on a personal basis opposed to the use of commercial nuclear power "for heating hot tubs" on Earth but remains open minded on it's practicality for spaceflight. Whereas, Space.com articles on nuclear powered spaceflight are infamous for giving publicity to an anti-nuclear space opposition movement.
How will other nations react to this startlingly bold new objective? The nuclear initiative was first announced over a year ago with NASA requesting a billion dollar funding over five years for nuclear space research and development.
Little response was generated overseas as nuclear power in the form of RTG's (Radioisotope Thermionic Generators) for space probes and satellites is nothing new. However, the latest announcement places nuclear power at the forefront of future space development.
Spacefaring nations such as the European Union and Russia cannot ignore this challenge. In particular the newest emerging superpower, China, will closely watch how events unfurl. In just over three years, China has gone from Satellite launches to planning a human spaceflight in October of this year.
This remarkably rapid advancement was spurred by the realization of the strategic importance of space. Space will be central to tomorrow's world order and national security dictates that a space presence is a sign of strength. Huang Chunping, commander-in-chief of the chinese Shenxhou space launch program has said , "Just imagine, there are outer space facilities of another country at the place very, very high above your head, and so others clearly see what you are doing, and what you are feeling. That's why we also need to develop space technology."
Clearly the Chinese have more on their minds than national prestige in attempting to become the third nation to ever have launched a man into space. Manned aerospace is the epitome of space technology. National prestige is clearly an important consideration, and one which westerners can easily relate to as they fondly reminisce about the moon landings.
However, the military implications are just as important, if not greater, a consideration. China has already invested too much money into developing a space launch capability to consider pulling back now. In past interviews, they have announced the intention to build space stations, reach the moon and build bases there, and even boasted they will beat the United States with a manned mission to Mars .
Their Shenxhou launch system has been played down by critics as primitive but is probably level with 1990's US technology. The fact is we are still using 1990's US technology. The big Saturn V boosters America once used for moonshots are now all gone and funding for NASA's ailing programs such as the ISS have been diminishing annually.
With Russia suffering economic problems and the ESA unsure of its future , China seems to be on an inside straight to success. However, Prometheus changes everything. NASA is " moving from windpower to steam " as Sean O'Keefe puts it and that may leave China suddenly out in the cold.
Unless of course, they respond with their own nuclear space program. China and Russia have been increasing ties for a number of years now. Space and Arms technology trade in particular have increased due to new treaties.
The Russians, who launched more nuclear reactors than the US, are no strangers to nuclear space technology having had their own shadowy nuclear propulsion program -- which no doubt compared very favourably to past US efforts.
If pushed to develop their own nuclear space initiative, the Chinese will likely enquire of Russia for help. The Russians, in turn, will demand a high cost for such secret technology, just as they have done for all previously purchased space systems technologies. China will either pay or attempt to develop their own.
China, also no stranger to nuclear power, has stated owned national nuclear facilities and a state owned space programme. Efforts at combining nuclear and space branches of Government will face very little red tape within a communist regime. A chinese INSPI or Los Alamos seems very possible.
The China Daily reports that China has spent 2.3 billion US dollars toward putting a man into space in October of this year -- and that is only the beginning of their ambitions.
The Chinese space program first began in 1956 with 30 young scientists and roughly 100 college graduates, some of whom didn't even know "exactly what missiles were," according to a Chinese government publication.
On Monday, November 21, 1999, they launched their first unmanned Shenzhou space vehicle with a view to eventually launching men into space. China invented the first rocket almost 900 years ago and now they want to be at the forefront of modern development. A nuclear space race would see a return to the frenzied and visionary, if politically induced, days of Apollo.
Let's hope that Nasa's nuclear space challenge does indeed awaken the Dragon.