America can beat China in space with safe nuclear propulsion


Powered by a “nuclear plasma drive”, the spacecraft in 2001: A space odyssey fascinated moviegoers like the heyday of science fiction in 1969, even though nuclear-powered submarines had quietly patrolled the world’s oceans for over a decade. Today, nuclear-powered spacecraft are about to become a reality – and indeed, they will be crucial to the West’s efforts in the 21st-century space race with China.

Far from the controlled nuclear explosions envisioned by the Sputnik era Orion Project, nuclear thermal propulsion, or NTP, will use thermal energy from a reactor to heat and eject the rocket thruster – especially liquid hydrogen – at a higher temperature and at a faster rate than can be achieved with a chemical rocket . NTP engines promise to be around twice as efficient as today’s chemical rockets while providing a much longer lifespan. This is thanks to Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion – every action has an equal and opposite reaction – because single-use chemical rockets require both fuel and an oxidant that burn at a lower temperature and accelerate. a heavier exhaust at a lower speed.

NTP cannot put a spacecraft into orbit, but it is much more efficient at moving objects in space and for longer periods of time – for example, moving satellites between orbits, parking them in Lagrange pointsand quickly get to suspicious alien spaceships. This kind of quick maneuver in cis-lunar space – from Earth’s orbit to the surface of the moon – will become increasingly important in American efforts to protect DoD space missions (missile warning, satellite communications, positioning / navigation / synchronization, environmental detection, etc. ) and parts of the economy that depend heavily on space systems (financial, transport, communications, etc.). By reducing the time and cost of moving heavier payloads, NTP will extend the capabilities of combatants and the “art of the possible” from Earth’s orbit to the Moon.

As such, the NTP will become a crucial tool in the United States’ enlightened struggle with China. As director of national intelligence recently reported, China “works to match or exceed US capabilities in space in order to obtain the military, economic and prestige advantages that Washington has acquired through space leadership.” Beijing is apparently seeing lunar missions – the type that could benefit NTP – as part of its campaign: China landed a probe across the moon in 2019 and is working to send a crewed mission there.

US NTP research and development has long been the subject of crises and start-ups, but again appears to be making solid progress. DARPA and industry aim to put an NTP system into orbit by 2025 under a program called DRACO, for Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cis-lunar Operations. In 2019, Congress allocated $ 125 million to help NASA develop its own NTP demonstration.

Critically, modern NTP systems are designed with minimal radioactive components and enhanced security features. Reactors are designed not to start accidentally, even under catastrophic circumstances. Fissile material is both minimized (less than a typical Mars rover) and designed to be inherently safe by encapsulating small individual amounts with protective layers to reduce the risk of dispersal of radioactive material during an unsuccessful launch. And they don’t violate any law or treaty. Unlike Project Orion or Kubrick’s original engine concept, NTP does not use nuclear explosions. It is a legal and safe approach to the driving force in space.

There is growing bipartisan support for the development of space nuclear power and propulsion – SNPP, for short. The Trump administration produced a flurry of national security documents in its final months to turn SNPP goals into official policy. The Biden administration has indicated its willingness to continue this momentum, at least when it comes to the development of advanced nuclear reactors for land use. the American employment plan announced in March supports nuclear power as a way to modernize power generation and provide clean energy. The White House also Highlighted Nuclear R&D in its allusions to the 2022 budget request.

But more needs to be done to advance this crucial technology. The White House Biden may, for example, highlight the SNPP in its next National Security Strategy Update. Its Management and Budget Office can support the SNPP in the short term by leading a formal, multi-year baseline program in the next 2023 budget; it should also declare the implementation of Executive order on the promotion of small modular reactors for national defense and space exploration inter-agency priority objective. The Biden administration wisely chose to adopt the National Space Council, the ideal forum to carry the momentum through the administrations. It would be prudent to create a permanent sub-committee to oversee the SNPP.

The DoD has similar opportunities to prioritize the SNPP in its upcoming defense strategy papers and posture hearings. The Pentagon could also consider examining these capabilities as part of a space posture review, which would inform force development, doctrineand operations, while helping industry and its allies become better partners.

Congress also has a vital role to play. Lawmakers should strive to codify the objectives of the executive order of modular space reactors into law; lead a federally funded research and development center to review the recent National Academy of Sciences report on nuclear space propulsion from a national security perspective; hold a hearing with the government and outside experts; and fully support SNPP programs in 2022 appropriation laws, including increasing funding for R&D, as approved in a recent report from the American Nuclear Society.

Although Kubrick’s description of space travel has not arrived, the US space company is making steady progress. The United States is twenty years behind, but with continued bipartisan leadership, the fundamental technologies will be in place to realize this vision and maintain American dominance in space. And that can’t happen soon enough.

Gregory Pejic served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy from 2020 to 2021. Previously, he helped the Assistant Secretary of Defense establish the United States Space Command and the United States Space Force.

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