Nuclear Engines Needed to Compete with China, NASA Senior Advisor Says

Tajammul Pangarkar
Tajammul Pangarkar

Updated · Nov 11, 2021

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NASA as well as U.S. aerospace specialists asked Congress to spend more swiftly and significantly in the construction of nuclear-powered spaceships to keep up with counterparts such as China. Representatives of the space program think that spacecraft fueled by a nuclear thermal rocket will approach Mars in 3 to 4 months, almost half the time taken by standard liquid-fueled rockets. “Strategic rivals, notably China, are vigorously investing in a wide variety of space science & technology, including nuclear energy and engines,” stated Bhavya Lal, NASA’s senior advisor for budget and finance, at a congressional committee hearing on Wednesday (20th October 2021) morning.

“The United States must respond quickly to stay relevant and lead the global space industry,” Lal added. The hearing was held before the Sciences, Aerospace, and Technologies Committee of the United States House of Representatives. Experts testified even as rumors surfaced that China had launched an orbital rocket capable of delivering possible nuclear warheads at supersonic velocities. China admitted to testing a spaceship in August, although said it had no nuclear arms. The committee did not take any action while gathering information for future government budget recommendations.

“If the United States is concerned regarding spearheading a human voyage to Mars, we have no time to waste,” stated the committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va. “Over the past few years, Congress has prioritized the advancement of nuclear spacecraft engines, funding around USD 100 million annually for NASA to enhance nuclear thermal propellant capabilities in preparation for a prospective space test flight,” Beyer stated. In July, NASA as well as the Department of Energy granted USD 5 million to 3 firms to develop a concept for a nuclear-powered spaceship reactor. NASA officials have stated that considerably more financing is required, though they did not specify numbers on Wednesday.

According to Roger M. Myers, head of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s committee on interplanetary nuclear engines, the trick to constructing such nuclear propellers is to find or create components that can endure the temperature and radiation needed. “The hazards involved with nuclear propulsion are a basic materials problem that we believe is highly likely to be addressed,” Myers stated at the conference. U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., inquired if there are any “fundamental scientific constraints” to a manned Mars mission by 2033, or if it is just a question of Congress allocating the necessary funding for technological innovations.

Given the funding, NASA can overcome difficulties for a human journey to Mars, but the propulsion technology for such a spaceship is only one issue that must be addressed, according to Lal. “Deep space travel is only one component of reaching Mars. We’ve landed tiny rovers there, but a human-carrying spaceship would be far larger “Lal said. “We must also ensure that climate control, as well as life support mechanisms, are capable of keeping astronauts alive for 2-3 years.”

Tajammul Pangarkar

Tajammul Pangarkar

Tajammul Pangarkar is a CMO at Prudour Pvt Ltd. Tajammul longstanding experience in the fields of mobile technology and industry research is often reflected in his insightful body of work. His interest lies in understanding tech trends, dissecting mobile applications, and raising general awareness of technical know-how. He frequently contributes to numerous industry-specific magazines and forums. When he’s not ruminating about various happenings in the tech world, he can usually be found indulging in his next favorite interest - table tennis.