Nuclear power for spaceflight has been a bugaboo in the American space program for decades. I believe it was the SALT II Treaty of 1967 that banned the use of nuclear weapons in the upper atmosphere and low earth orbit. Since then, the nuclear incidents of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) have driven home the need for nuclear safety in the areas of energy production and the environment. But as far as space exploration is concerned, especially in the U.S., things have gotten out of hand.
The recent proclamations of China, Russia, India, and yes, America to return to explore the Moon, Mars and the rest of the Solar System using human beings have offered up the old questions of human durability and travel times between planets. Various propulsion methods have been suggested and designed. But guess what the good ol’ U.S. decided to use for it’s return to the Moon. That’s right, chemical rockets. With subtle improvements of course, like using cheaper fuels like kerosene or methane. The only differences being the way that the chemicals are stored, like better cryogenic systems, meaning the stuff is stored colder. Wow, big deal! Colder cheaper fuel with the oxydizer, liquid oxygen, gets you the same horsepower as the liquid hydrogen, which is more expensive to produce. Impressed yet?
Estimates made by researchers over recent years show that nuclear power, if used in long-distance space voyages, will save considerable funds and shorten interplanetary journeys. In a Mars mission a nuclear-powered engine would cut flight time almost by two thirds, compared with a jet engine using ordinary chemical fuel. The rim of the solar system could be reached within three, rather than 10, years. Nuclear plants can be used not only as sources of electric power, but also as sources of heat to support life and productive activities at bases beyond Earth.
Russia and the United States have laid a good groundwork for progress in this field. But Russia leads in such key factors as maximum hydrogen temperature and specific thrust impulse. In fact, it is the only country in the world that has a hands-on technology for building space-based nuclear reactor plants.
The U.S. only once tested a nuclear reactor like the Soviet Topaz unit. It was in 1965. The reactor lasted 43 days, although the satellite on which it was installed is still in orbit as part of space junk. Russia has launched about 40 spacecraft with nuclear plants aboard. Most of them were used for spying purposes and, once activated, stayed in low near-Earth orbits for several months on end.
These small nuclear power units are safer and more reliable than the old 1960s designs that were previously proposed. Reduced travel times to the planets are more cost effective when using small, modern nuclear power cells. I realize radiation is always in back of people’s minds, especially Americans, almost to the point of pathology I think. We want cheap energy to run our toys and lifestyle, which means burning fossil fuels and polluting the air. But then we complain (or ignore it as official government policy) to the rest of the world that there’s global warming, give Al Gore a Nobel Prize and tell Third World countries they can’t burn oil or coal to fuel their rising economies! What’s up with that? A bit more than a “little” hypocracy I’d say! It must be because we know what nuclear radiation does to people. Hiroshima, Nagasoki anyone? Add guilt to that also.
Time has passed for that crap now. While solar power satellites in orbit beaming down energy to solar energy plantations are great, they would only supply 10-20% of our needs. Modern compact nuclear power cells using helium-3 as fuel are outstanding stop-gap powerplants for both space travel and here on Earth. Until we can figure out that pesky hydrogen fusion issue anyway.
And remember you nay-sayers, if Americans won’t/don’t do it, for sure China, Russia and India will. Think about that when you’re peddling your bike-powered electric generator to charge up your cell-phone!