Obama and the Nuclear Rocket

The Obama administration is seeking to renew the use of nuclear power in space. It is calling for revived production by the U.S. of plutonium-238 for use in space devices—despite solar energy having become a substitute for plutonium power in space.

And the Obama administration appears to also want to revive the decades-old and long-discredited scheme of nuclear-powered rockets—despite strides made in new ways of propelling spacecraft. Last month, Japan launched what it called its “space yacht” which is now heading to Venus propelled by solar sails utilizing ionized particles emitted by the Sun. “Because of the frictionless environment, such a craft should be able to speed up until it is traveling many times faster than a conventional rocket-powered craft,” wrote Agence France-Presse about this spacecraft launched May 21.

But the Obama administration would return to using nuclear power in space—despite its enormous dangers.

A cheerleader for this is the space industry publication Space News. “Going Nuclear” was the headline of itseditorial on March 1praising the administration for its space nuclear thrust. Space New declared that “for the second year in a row, the Obama administration is asking Congress for at least $30 million to begin a multiyear effort to restart domestic production of plutonium-238, the essential ingredient in long-lasting spacecraft batteries.”

The Space News editorial also noted that “President Obama’s NASA budget [for 2011] also includes support for nuclear thermal propulsion and nuclear electric propulsion research under a $650 million Exploration Technology and Demonstration funding line projected to triple by 2013.”

Space News declared: “Nuclear propulsion research experienced a brief revival seven years ago when then-NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe established Project Prometheus to design reactor-powered spacecraft. Mr. O’Keefe’s successor, Mike Griffin, wasted little time pulling the plug on NASA’s nuclear ambitions.”

Being referred to by Space News as “spacecraft batteries” are what are called radioisotope thermoelectric generators or RTGs, power systems using plutonium-238 to provide on board electricity on various space devices including, originally, on satellites.

But this came to an end when in 1964 a U.S. Navy navigational satellite with a SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) RTG on board failed to achieve orbit and fell to the Earth, disintegrating upon hitting the atmosphere.  The 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel dispersed widely. A study by a group of European health and radiation protection agencies subsequently reported that “a worldwide soil sampling program carried out in 1970 showed SNAP-9A debris present at all continents and at all latitudes.” Long linking the SNAP-9A accident to an increase of lung cancer in people on Earth was Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, who was involved in isolating plutonium for the Manhattan Project.

The SNAP-9A accident caused NASA to turn to using solar photovoltaic panels on satellites. All U.S. satellites are now solar-powered.

But NASA persisted in using RTGs on space probes—claiming there was no choice. This was a false claim. Although NASA, for instance, insisted—including in sworn court depositions —that it had no alternative but to use RTGs on its Galileo mission to Jupiter launched in 1989, documents I subsequently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from NASA included a study done by its Jet Propulsion Laboratory stating that solar photovoltaic panels could have substituted for plutonium-fueled RTGs.

And right now, the Juno space probe—which will getting its on board electricity only from solar photovoltaic panels—is being readied by NASA for a launch next year to Jupiter. It’s to make 32 orbits around Jupiter and perform a variety of scientific missions.

Meanwhile, in recent years facilities in the U.S. to produce plutonium-238—hotspots for worker contamination and environmental pollution—have been closed and the U.S. has been obtaining the radionuclide from Russia. Under the Obama 2011 budget, U.S. production would be restarted. Last year, Congress refused to go along with this Obama request.

As for rocket propulsion with atomic energy, building such rockets was a major U.S. undertaking 50 and 60 years ago, under a program called NERVA (for Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) followed by Projects Pluto, Rover and Poodle. Billions of dollars were spent and ground-testing done, but no nuclear rocket ever got off the ground. There were concerns over a nuclear rocket blowing up on launch or crashing back to Earth. The effort ended in 1972 but was revived in the 1980s under President Reagan’s Star Wars program. The “Timberwind” nuclear-powered rocket was developed then to loft heavy Star Wars equipment into space and also for trips to Mars. Most recently, Project Prometheus to build nuclear-powered rockets was begun by NASA in 2003, but ended in 2006, the cancellation referred to in the Space News editorial.

Obama’s choice to head NASA, Charles Bolden, favors nuclear-powered rockets—but he acknowledges public resistance. In a recent presentation before the Council on Foreign Relations, he opened the door to having a nuclear-powered rocket launched conventionally and moving in space with nuclear power.

Bolden, a former astronaut and U.S. Marine Corps major general, spoke in the May 24th address, of work by another ex-astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, on a nuclear-propelled rocket. “Chang-Diaz is developing what’s called a VASIMIR rocket,” said Bolden. “It’s an ion engine, very gentle impulse that just pushes you forever, constantly accelerating. And this, theoretically, is something that would enable us to go from Earth to Mars in a matter of some time significantly less than it takes us now.”

But, he said, “most people…in the United States are never going to agree to allow nuclear rockets to launch things from Earth.”  Yet “once you get into space, you know, if we can convince people that we can contain it and not put masses of people in jeopardy, nuclear propulsion for in-space propulsion” would enable a faster trip to Mars. He said, “You don’t want to have to take eight months to go from Earth orbit to Mars.”

Having nuclear power systems only activated once up in space was a system followed by the Soviet Union—because of it having suffered many launch pad explosions. Still, the scheme wasn’t accident-free. The worst Soviet space nuclear device accident involved its Cosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite. Its on board nuclear reactor was only activated after launch when the reactor was in orbit. But then there was a malfunction causing Cosmos 954 to tumble out of control and hurtle back to Earth, breaking up and spreading hotly radioactive debris over 124,000 square miles of the Northwest Territories of Canada.

President Obama, in a speech on “Space Exploration in the 2lst Century” given April 15 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, didn’t mention nuclear-powered rockets (not even those that would only be activated after launch). He did announce that “we will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced heavy lift rocket—a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it.”

“At the same time, after decades of neglect, we will increase investment—right away—in other groundbreaking technologies that will allow astronauts to reach space sooner and more often, to travel farther and faster,” he said.

“How do we supply spacecraft with energy needed for these far-reaching journeys? These

are questions that we can answer and will answer. And these are the questions whose answers no doubt will reap untold benefits right here on Earth.”

“And by 2025,” Obama said, “we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start—we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars.”

“I want to repeat this,” Obama asserted. “Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies.”

With Obama on the platform was U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida—who he introduced at the start of his speech. Nelson in 1986 was a passenger on the space shuttle (before the 1986 Challenger disaster ended the shuttle passenger program) and he is a member of Senate Science and Transportation Committee. Although Obama was not specific on the kind of spacecraft he envisioned for trips to Mars, later that day on “Hardball With Chris Matthews” on MSNBC, Nelson was—and it was Chang-Diaz’s nuclear rocket. “One of my crewmates,” said Nelson, speaking of former astronaut Chang-Diaz who was with him on the 1986 shuttle flight, “is developing a plasma rocket that would take us to Mars in 39 days.”

The object of Administrator Bolden and Senator Nelson’s technical affections, Chang-Diaz, a Costa Rican-native, the first naturalized U.S. citizen to become a U.S. astronaut, founded the Ad Astra Rocket Company after retiring from NASA in 2005. He is its president and CEO. In an interview with Seed.com last year, he said the engine for his VASIMIR (for Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) could work with solar power. The engine uses plasma gas heated by electric current to extremely high temperatures.

But larger versions are needed for space travel and they require nuclear power, said Chang-Diaz. “What we really need is nuclear power to generate electricity in space. If we don’t develop it, we might as well quit, because we’re not going to go very far. Nuclear power is central to any robust and realistic human exploration of space. People don’t really talk about this at NASA. Everybody is still avoiding facing this because of widespread anti-nuclear sentiment.”

“People have fears of nuclear power in space,” continued Chang-Diaz, “but it’s a fear that isn’t really based on any organized and clear assessment of the true risks and costs.”

Comments Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space: “Despite claims that ‘new’ and innovative technologies are under development at NASA, the story remains much the same—push nuclear power applications for future space missions. Obama is proving to be a major proponent of expansion of nuclear power—both here on Earth and in space. His ‘trip to an asteroid and missions to Mars’ plan appears to be about reviving the role of nuclear power in space. The nuclear industry must be cheering.”

KARL GROSSMAN, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, has focused on investigative reporting on energy and environmental issues for more than 40 years. He is the host of the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up (www.envirovideo.com) and the author of numerous books.

















Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet, and the Beyond Nuclear handbook, The U.S. Space Force and the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war in space. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.