RECENT ACTIVITIES AT THE CENTER FOR SPACE NUCLEAR RESEARCH FOR DEVELOPING NUCLEAR THERMAL ROCKETS Page: 2 of 11
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RECENT ACTIVITIES AT THE CENTER FOR SPACE NUCLEAR RESEARCH FOR DEVELOPING
NUCLEAR THERMAL ROCKETS
Steven. D. Howe
Center for Space Nuclear Research, USA, showe&ycsnr.usra.edu
Robert C. O'Brien
Center for Space Nuclear Research, USA, robert.O'brienyinl.gov
Nuclear power has been considered for space applications since the 1960s. Between 1955 and 1972 the US built and
tested over twenty nuclear reactors/ rocket-engines in the Rover/NERVA programs. However, changes in
environmental laws may make the redevelopment of the nuclear rocket more difficult. Recent advances in fuel
fabrication and testing options indicate that a nuclear rocket with a fuel form significantly different from NERVA
may be needed to ensure public support. The Center for Space Nuclear Research (CSNR) is pursuing development
of tungsten based fuels for use in a NTR, for a surface power reactor, and to encapsulate radioisotope power sources.
The CSNR Summer Fellows program has investigated the feasibility of several missions enabled by the NTR. The
potential mission benefits of a nuclear rocket, historical achievements of the previous programs, and recent
investigations into alternatives in design and materials for future systems will be discussed.
According to the Independent Review Panel 
convened in 1999 to review the propulsion
technologies examined in the NASA Advanced
Space Transportation Program:
"The Review Team categorized fission as the
only technology of those presented [45
concepts were presented] which is applicable
to human exploration of the near planets in the
near to mid-term time frame..."
Nuclear power has been considered for space
applications since the 1960s [2,3]. Both the US and
the Soviet Union orbited nuclear reactors as sources
of electricity for satellites. The only US reactor
flown is space, the SNAP-10A, flew in 1965 . The
Soviet Union flew 33 reactors to power their Radar
Ocean Reconnaissance SATellites (RORSAT) but the
last flew is 1988 .
Between 1955 and 1972 the US built and tested
over twenty nuclear reactors/ rocket-engines in the
Rover/NERVA programs. The tests of the nuclear
thermal rocket (NTR) demonstrated a specific
impulse (Isp) of 850 s, a range in thrust from 25 Klbs
to 250 klbs, operational duration of over two hours,
and the ability to restart multiple times [6,7]. In
short, the program demonstrated the ability to have a
core running at 2500 K inside a cooled pressure
vessel operating at near ambient temperature.
Unfortunately, National priorities shifted away from
space exploration and those programs terminated -
yet the knowledge that such systems work and what
they can accomplish has been invaluable.
Nuclear thermal rockets offer the potential for high-
thrust and high specific-impulse. Many studies during
the past few decades have identified missions where
the NTR is either enabling or significantly enhances
the mission performance. The Center for Space
Nuclear Research (CSNR) has begun to reexamine 1)
the technology involved in an NTR, 2) the benefits to
various missions both manned and unmanned, and 3)
the issues in redeveloping a NTR in the current socio-
II. HISTORY OF NUCLEAR THERMAL
In 1955, the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory
began the Rover program to develop a solid core
nuclear rocket engine . The basic concept was to
allow a graphite-fuel based nuclear reactor to reach
high temperatures, to cool the reactor with clean
hydrogen, and to exhaust the high-speed hydrogen
for thrust. In 1963, the Nuclear Engine for Rocket
Vehicle Applications (NERVA) began with Aerojet
as the prime contractor and Los Alamos as a
supporting contributor. The goal of the NERVA
program was to transform the nuclear reactor
technology developed by Los Alamos and produce a
space qualified nuclear engine. Both programs were
terminated in 1972. Before termination, however, the
Rover/NERVA programs built and tested over 20
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O'Brien, Robert C. RECENT ACTIVITIES AT THE CENTER FOR SPACE NUCLEAR RESEARCH FOR DEVELOPING NUCLEAR THERMAL ROCKETS, article, September 1, 2001; Idaho Falls, Idaho. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc835064/m1/2/: accessed November 16, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.