When NASA Had Nuclear Rockets


Most people think that Star Trek-style nuclear rockets are a thing of the future, but the fact is we had them in the 1960s… and gave up on them.

The Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application…NERVA… program was a joint effort between NASA and the US Atomic Energy Commission, and managed by the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office. Los Alamos Labs had begun work on nuclear rockets in 1952 and this research accelerated so quickly that by 1961 the Marshall Spaceflight Center started using nuclear rockets in their mission planning, with the first launch to be in 1964 as a final demonstration of the space-worthiness of these engines. The NERVA engine was built by Aerojet and Westinghouse. The first of these actually built and tested in a spaceflight configuration was the Kiwi-B4 engine that produced 70,000 pounds of thrust. The NERVA NRX/EST engine in 1966 ran for two continuous hours. The NERVA-XE engine tests ran for 115 minutes and as a result, it demonstrated that nuclear engines were now flight-ready as a technology. The nuclear engine program had demonstrated thrusts as high as 250,000 pounds, 90 minutes of continuous and controllable thrust delivery, and thermal power equal to 4,500 megawatts.

The plan was to use a NERVA engine as the third stage of the Saturn V rocket and plausibly get to Mars by 1978 and even use this engine as the work-horse to establish a large lunar colony by 1981. These plans were canceled in 1972 once President Nixon came into office and decided that the Saturn V and the Apollo program were no longer needed to prove US space superiority in the Cold War. Without the Saturn V, there was no way to place the heavy nuclear engine into space, even though once there it would dramatically out-perform any chemical —> Read More