Review, Analyses and Recommendations Related to Modern International Use of Nuclear Space Technologies with Focus on United States and Russia


T. Smith (2012), JBIS65, 360-372

Refcode: 2012.65.360
Keywords: Nuclear Space Technologies, International partnerships, Americium-241, Bimodal propulsion, Nuclear electric propulsion, Nuclear thermal propulsion

The current Administration under President Barack Obama has given NASA a new directive in manned spaceflight. Instead of building a fleet of Ares rockets with various load specifications to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and return them to the Moon, the 2011 NASA Strategic Plan [1] states that NASA will develop “integrated architecture and capabilities for safe crewed and cargo missions beyond Low Earth Orbit.” The technologies developed within this architecture will take astronauts beyond the Moon, to destinations such as Mars or asteroids and will most likely require the use of Nuclear Space Technologies (NSTs).

While there are other proposals for novel power generation and propulsion, such as fusion technology, these technologies are immature and it may be decades before they have demonstrated feasibility; in contrast NSTs are readily available, proven to work in space, and flight qualified. However, NSTs such as nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) may or may not reach completion – especially with the lack of a mission in which they may be developed. Prospects and progress in current NST projects, ranging from power sources to propulsion units, are explored within this study, mainly in the United States, with an overview of projects occurring in other countries. At the end of the study, recommendations are made in order to address budget and political realities, aerospace export control and nuclear non-proliferation programs, and international issues and potentials as related to NSTs. While this report is not fully comprehensive, the selection of chosen projects illustrates a range of issues for NSTs. Secondly, the reader would be keen to make a distinction between technologies that have flown in the past, projects that have been tested and developed yet not flown, and concepts that have not yet reached the bench for testing.