Target Mars. On Tuesday, NASA announced a partnership with the Pentagon to develop a nuclear-powered rocket designed to send humans to the red planet. The head of the space agency, Bill Nelson, said he is collaborating with the US military research agency Darpa to “develop and test advanced nuclear thermal engine technology as early as 2027.”
“With this technology, astronauts can travel to and from deep space faster than ever before,” he said, quoted in the statement.
According to NASA, a nuclear-powered thermal rocket can be three to four times more efficient than conventional rockets and reduce flight time, an integral part of a trip to the Red Planet. In a thermal nuclear rocket, a nuclear fission reactor produces very high temperatures. This heat is transferred to the liquid propellant, converted to gas, and, like in a conventional rocket, is expelled through a nozzle to create thrust.
Project aborted 50 years ago
Darpa, the scientific arm of the US military, is at the forefront of many of the innovations of the 20th century, including the Internet. “Darpa and NASA have a long history of successful collaboration,” said Stephanie Tompkins, director of the military research agency, citing the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo missions to the moon as an example.
She added that the development of a new type of launch vehicle “will be critical to get materials to the moon faster and more efficiently, and then people to Mars.” NASA tested a nuclear missile more than fifty years ago, but the project was halted due to budget cuts and Cold War tensions.