NASA Gets High on Its Nuclear Supply

JFK visiting Nuclear Rocket Development Station: public domain; Wernher von Braun’s badge (1957) by Nasa-verve licensed under CCA by SA 3.0.

NASA’s going nuclear. It was decreed before most of us were born. Back in 1955, the Air Force set out to design a nuclear-propelled stage for an intercontinental ballistic missile at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. In 1958, a few months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, Congress held hearings on Outer Space Propulsion by Nuclear Energy. And the Air Force project was reassigned to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

NASA was founded as “a defense agency of the United States for the purpose of chapter 17 of title 35 of the United States Code.” Its council—including the U.S. President and Secretaries of State and Defense, and the Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission—would forge “cooperative agreements” with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

NASA’s military roots are deep.

Since 1961, NASA has deployed “more than 25 missions carrying a nuclear power system.” Today, the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is making a nuclear fission reactor and rocket for NASA to test in 2027. The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations aims to replace chemical propellants with nuclear propulsion systems at least three times as efficient, enabling crewed flights to reach Mars.

Chemical propulsion isn’t totally passé. The demo rocket will be nuclear-powered in space, but chemically launched—to limit the potential for an accidental release of radioactive materials on the ground. NIMBY!

The Bad Seed

In 1961, John F. Kennedy found the perfect aerospace engineer for the U.S. space mission. In 1962, JFK publicly vowed that U.S. Americans would be first to set foot on the moon.

JFK’s pick, Wernher von Braun, had reached the rank of major in Nazi Germany’s Allgemeine SS paramilitary forces, invented the V-2 rockets. These monstrosities were linked to many thousands of deaths—of civilians, soldiers, and concentration camp prisoners who were forced to build Germany’s vengeance weapons.

Historian Michael J. Neufeld found that von Braun was not in charge of assignments or punishments of concentration camp prisoners, but had been in “direct contact with them and with decisions how to deploy them.” While von Braun wasn’t directly killing people, the ruin and loss of others’ lives in the course of the work didn’t seem to trouble the scientist.

In the United States, von Braun designed TV satellites and early intercontinental ballistic missiles. As part of Hermes, General Electric’s missile-making project for the U.S. Army, von Braun helped refurbish V-2s taken from Germany after the war. And von Braun led the Saturn V rocket project that launched Apollo 11, fulfilling JFK’s promise.

The Wrong Stuff

Such is the story of NASA’s formative years. Today, the agency touts its moon missions through “graphic novels and interactive experiences” for young people. Artemis 3, NASA’s first crewed mission since 1972, will feature female and Black astronauts. Take that, Gil Scott-Heron.

The European Space Administration has floated the concept of an international “village” on the moon. NASA’s Artemis Accords allow extraterrestrial mining. Israel has launched a rocket made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The governments of China, India, and Russia all have space stations in the works.

As the space domain becomes more contested and congested, the U.S. military Space Force is on display, maintaining Space Domain Awareness. This adolescent language might be laughable, but for the coiled aggression, obscene spending, and the natural resource depletion behind it. It might be laughable, but for the failure of humanity to ensure everyone is housed and fed on Earth. Let them eat interactive experiences?

But here we go, bringing nuclear rockets to Mars.

The Mars Project was written in 1948, and published in 1953. It contained the first technical specification for a crewed Mars flight. Its author was Wernher von Braun. (Per Twitter, the book prophesied that Elon Musk would be involved in a human Mars landing. If von Braun were looking for a 21st-century protégé, an oft-noted habit of prioritizing production over people could fortify Musk’s candidacy.)

By 1969, von Braun’s designs included nuclear thermal propulsion. Nixon sidelined von Braun’s career. And “nuclear power went out of fashion after the disasters of the 1980s,” says Joshua Frank, author of Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America.

“People had turned on atomic energy, so the industry was coming up with the most ridiculous ideas about what to do with all of its deadly stuff, and there was talk about dumping radioactive waste in space, or on the moon.”

Could the new boosters of nuclear technology resurrect these ridiculous plans, asks Frank, “in order to sidestep the valid concerns that radioactive waste is a poison that lasts millennia? Fortunately, at least for now, it’s simply not cost-effective to rocket nuclear waste to space. If it were, you can bet Elon Musk would be loading up his space fleet today.”

The resurgence of nuclear space projects raises these and many other questions.

To What End?

Jim Reuter of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate says nuclear thermal propulsion will show our “transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy.” The economy theme is a popular one. While Toyota develops Lunar Cruisers for NASA crews, Honda has an R&D contract with Japan’s space agency for lunar EVs. Hyundai, Kia, and Boston Robotics are all working on proprietary technologies for lunar robots and vehicles. And so on. A recent Bloomberg article titled Space Startups Are Trying to Make Money Going to the Moon sounds positively moonstruck:

“In the future, private companies could ferry people and cargo to and from the moon, creating a base to conduct science and, eventually, mine resources and even lunar ice as an ingredient to make rocket propellant. It’s a grand vision that could start to take shape this year and eventually lead to a marketplace in which companies could use the lunar environment to turn a profit…”

Anthony Calomino, a NASA research engineer, has said: “It’s important for the United States to remain a primary and dominant player in space. It is the next frontier.”

So, the main reasons for colonizing Space are: (a) because it’s there; (b) fear of missing out; (c) because there’s stuff to extract and profits to be made up there; and (d) because nobody puts a possessive nation of Homo sapiens in the corner.

Curb the Anthropocene

Why can’t our species sit down, seek some peace and quiet, and sort out our priorities? Consider race, sex, and class injustices. Consider human trafficking, animal trafficking, and habitat loss. Wars and famines. The steady disintegration of the ice caps that keep the nuclear nations physically apart, and keep Earth itself balanced, and watered with the seasons. Shouldn’t these be our preoccupations? Instead, we’re keen to expand the outsized footprint of human commerce and conflict.

If living organisms are out there, how will they withstand our acquisitive onslaughts? We lack the standing to colonize other planets. Our penchant for colonizing is, itself, a treacherous flaw. The sensitive among us are beginning to understand, and attempting to remediate, the vast and continuing harm done by the colonial mindset.

Meanwhile, humanity relentlessly drives other species and the climate itself past the brink of breakdown. If there were ever a time to “leave no trace” on nature, it’s now—on Earth and beyond.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.