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NASA Space Science

Nuclear Rocket Petition On White House Website 205

Posted by samzenpus
from the rad-rocket dept.
RocketAcademy writes "A petition on the White House website is calling for the United States to rapidly develop a nuclear thermal rocket engine. Nuclear rockets are a promising technology, but unless NASA develops a deep-space exploration ship such as Johnson Space Center's Nautilus X, a nuclear rocket would be wasted. Launching nuclear rockets may pose regulatory and political problems as well. Practical applications may depend on mining uranium or thorium on the Moon."
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Nuclear Rocket Petition On White House Website

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 13, 2013 @06:36PM (#42577685)

    Like free hookers / pot?

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Like free hookers / pot?

      Free hookers are called WIVES.

      But in the end, they are pretty expensive.

    • by Jeremy Erwin (2054) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @07:07PM (#42577851) Journal

      One step at a time. It's more useful than a Death Star.

    • Don't forget the theme park and the blackjack!

    • Like free hookers / pot?

      If hookers were free wouldn't they then fail to meet the definition of hooker? I think they would transform into sluts.

  • The original... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @06:38PM (#42577697)

    The NERVA test engine is on display at Johnson Space Center, as I understand it.

    Being 40+ years out of date, I imagine they'll have to spend billions to repeat the original work, but I'd hope that the fact that we already built a working nuclear rocket would mean that developing a new one wouldn't be overwhelmingly difficult.

    • Re:The original... (Score:4, Informative)

      by Ken_g6 (775014) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @07:46PM (#42578043) Homepage

      The NERVA test engine is on display at Johnson Space Center, as I understand it.

      National Geographic confirms your understanding [nationalgeographic.com].

    • Re:The original... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by TubeSteak (669689) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @07:55PM (#42578079) Journal

      Being 40+ years out of date, I imagine they'll have to spend billions to repeat the original work,

      The real cost to ressurect old aerospace technology is in remaking the molds and figuring out the exact composition of the materials used.
      If NASA saved any of the old molds/dies or documents, it'll save them a lot of money and effort.

      And I'd like to point out that "out of date" is a questionable statement when we're talking about rocket technology.
      The R&D has already been done and it's not like the old designs deteriorate with age.
      Computers aside, most of what's done today isn't very different from 50 year old rocketry.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        The big difference modernising a 50 year old design would bring is a huge increase in weight efficiency - new materials, new understanding and better ability to manage finer tolerances.

        You could take a 1950s Boeing 707 and remove about 50 tonnes from it just through the above.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 13, 2013 @08:02PM (#42578123)

      Being 40+ years out of date, I imagine they'll have to spend billions to repeat the original work, but I'd hope that the fact that we already built a working nuclear rocket would mean that developing a new one wouldn't be overwhelmingly difficult.

      If you hire big bloated corrupt incompetent defense contractors it is guaranteed to take longer than the original and costs BILLIONS more:

      1. [a] The Apollo capsule, recreated as Orion/MPCV is an example. Yeah, I know Orion is bigger, but the shape is the same (because that was supposed to save time and money by allowing them to re-use the original test and flight data). Some uniformed idiot (or drone working for one of the contractors) will point out that Orion seats 4 while Apollo seated 3 but there are some facts to consider: As part of Constellation, Orion was supposed to carry a crew of 6, which 40 years of progress should have enabled (Remember: the massive power-hungry avionics can now run on a small battery and be the size of an Android Tablet) but apparently today's Lockheed is less capable than NorthAmerican was 40 years ago. One Apollo capsule rolled-out to the pad with seats for 5 (and blueprints of NorthAmerican's Apollo show it was capable of fitting 6 ) ... google "Skylab Rescue Mission" and you'll probable stumble onto the details ..... the 5-seat rescue mission was not needed so it did not launch in that config but it was capable and the configuration was real.
      2. [b] The Saturn-IB, recreated as Ares-I is another example. Sure, replacing the 1st stage of 8 liquid engines with an nearly existing current tech shuttle SRB was a chore ..... but Von Braun's team studied the same basic idea in the 60's as an upgrade path of the smaller crew-launch Saturn (so the idea was not exotic and unstudied). Forty years of progress should have made this a no-brainer. The oft-cited excuse for cancellation: thrust oscillation was hardly an unexpected or misunderstood thing and turned-out to be less severe than critics predicted. The upper-stage of Ares-I was essentially a Saturn S-IVB (LOX/LH2, common-bulkhead single-engine design) using an updated version of the Apollo J-2 engine (designated J-2X). Boeing apparently was incapable of re-creating what NorthAmerican could do 40 years ago with the basic stage structure. Did we even get a boilerplate version of the stage for our tax dollars?
      3. [c] After billions of dollars and years of work the new J-2X engine (derived from the Apollo J-2) is still in development. In the Apollo era, by this point in the program the J-2 design was already flying .... and it was not derived from any previous engine

      Remember that all the above was in response to the destruction of Orbiter Columbia during reentry ten years ago. Oh, for Constellation haters: the Ares-I 1st stage now exists (ATK has test fired several of them and has essentially finished it .... they are just optimizing and characterizing now) and it will fly as part of the SLS system...... now if we just had an Orion and an upperstage with a J-2 derived engine......

      The nuclear engine is a great thing..... we developed it in the sixties and even ran them at a test site in the desert..... but if you hire some big aerospace corporation that has been sucking on the government teet for decades and is used to delivering defective garbage to the taxpayer, demanding more for that garbage than was originally bid, and being rewarded by being offered new projects ..... well you're just gonna spend billions and either get nothing or get junk. (the normal pattern is that you spend billions and years and then eventually cancel the program so the taxpayers get nothing for the money but a few desktop display models...... google X-20, X-33, X-38, OTV, NASP, A-12 ....)

      • by steelfood (895457)

        Giving it to some aerospace contractor wasn't really to make the development faster or cheaper. It's all just a kickback to the guys who donated a ton of money to some particular politicans' campaigns.

        The difference between a project done by government employees and a project done by a private contractor is that the former isn't in it for the money. And usually, that means they're doing it for pride. Pride is more productive than any amount of money.

      • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

        I think it helped that Apollo had a fixed deadline to work to, and the contractors could not therefore just drag things out and keep sucking up money on the project. There was no question of it being randomly cancelled in a few years by the next administration either, NASA was well funded and the goal was very clear.

        I hope the Chinese are serious about manned moon missions. That might convince the ESA, JAXA and NASA to get serious about it.

    • The NERVA test engine is on display at Johnson Space Center, as I understand it.

      So? That's about as relevant as having a LEGO Millennium Falcon on display at Johnson Space Center. NERVA isn't a flight ready engine, it isn't even close to being a flight ready engine. It's a technology demonstrator.

      But the real problem is, nuclear thermal propulsion is a solution in search of a problem - a billion dollar engine doesn't make any sense without a multi--tens-of-billions of dollars spacecraft sitting o

      • Re:The original... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Nefarious Wheel (628136) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @10:40PM (#42578863) Journal

        “This is not a model,” NASA physicist Les Johnson says as we gaze at the 35-foot-tall assemblage of pipes, nozzles, and shielding. “This is an honest-to-goodness nuclear rocket engine.”
            -- From Nat.Geographic (link above)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 13, 2013 @06:40PM (#42577705)

    In this case I believe the judgement of professionals at NASA is worth more than of some random petition signers. Give NASA a bigger budget and let them decide how to spend it.

    • Maybe it's entrepreneurs you should be consulting. From the article: "One of the more interesting concepts from this period did not come from NASA but from a model company called MPC."

    • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

      by Montezumaa (1674080)

      No, the United States of America is a democratic republic(started as a republic, but the 17th Amendment, including how states, which are sovereign entities and thus equal to the national government, hold referendums and such). We elect representatives, who hold authority to make governmental decisions on out behalf. It is a generally held, but false belief that the US is a democracy; democracies are a farce, at best(read Federalist number 10).

      Authority and power are derived from the citizens of the US, but

  • Good and Bad (Score:4, Informative)

    by balsy2001 (941953) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @06:49PM (#42577759)
    Nuclear rockets have a much higher specific impulse than chemical rockets, which is what makes them attractive for space exploration (this is not the only thing to consider though). However launching them from earth would poses some risks. A failure on launch could result in releasing radioactive fission products over large areas. The US and USSR did a good bit of research on these decades ago. Some interesting info http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_thermal_rocket [wikipedia.org].
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Both the US and the USSR have launched nuclear reactors into space (not just those radioisotope decay generators, real reactors). Some of them are still up there in graveyard orbits. Launching a nuclear rocket in a cold shutdown and only bringing it into full active state when safely above the atmosphere wouldn't be much different.

      • by Creepy (93888)

        It still would take years to get past the public perception of nuclear, despite the fact that a reactor in cold shutdown would have little risk, even as a "dirty bomb" explosion that spread all of its radioactive materials around. Public perception is still any amount of any kind of radiation is bad.

        The USSR had a bunch of nuclear powered spy satellites, but AFAIK, the only non-radioisotope reactor the US has launched into space is SNAP-10A (in fact, confirmed [wikipedia.org]). I vaguely remember the Soviets had nu

    • Yes, build it in space and work from there. I think we're going to have to re-evaluate the idea of spaceships taking off from earth in the same way that cargo ships can't go across land.

      • by symbolset (646467) *
        Yes, and for that we'll need raw materials and fuel to lift up from LEO the masses involved. Fortunately Planetary Resources is all over this one. I suspect the first uses of nuclear energy in space will be the secret projects of commercial entities. Which isn't so far fetched. Kodak [gizmodo.com] used to have their own nuclear reactor, and GE does still.
    • > A failure on launch could result in releasing radioactive
      > fission products over large areas.

      Wrong. The reactor would be launched cold, prior to having ever been fired up. In that state it would contain no fission products and fewer curies of radioactive material than an RTG. It also (like an RTG) would be constructed in such a way as to almost certainly survive re-entry intact.

    • by fermion (181285)
      Thank you for saying that. Also, systems that are going to propel a rocket over long times have to be reliable. Like in Voyager reliable. Who power comes from nuclear thermoelectric device,but propulsion from hydrazine. For small satellites the propulsion can be nitrogen.

      Space travel is hard and there are three steps. The launch, the travel and the landing or orbit. For unmanned travel, there are several options. One of the most interesting might be an ion drive, which would accelerate a ship to 300

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      The reactor would not be powered up until late in the launch, possibly not even until it had reached parking orbit and was leaving for its destination. For NERVA launches which started the reactor before reaching orbit, the trajectory was chosen so if there was a failure the reactor would crash in Antarctica... unfortunately that made it far less efficient so it's debatable as to whether it was worthwhile.

    • Nuclear rockets have a much higher specific impulse than chemical rockets.

      Solar Thermal has the exact same higher specific impulse, because both heat up Hydrogen to produce thrust. The only difference is the heat source. Solar Thermal is lighter than Nuclear Thermal (reactors are heavy, and require shielding), and completely avoids all the issues with Nuclear (protests, accidents). The only place to consider Nuclear Thermal these days is if you are going to Jupiter or beyond. Jupiter has intense radiation belts, so extra shielding is a moot point, and beyond that distance sun

      • by FirstOne (193462)

        Seams to me that Solar-PV-ion drive is the only real way to go..

        Anything else is going to run into material thermal limits needed to provide the directional trust vector needed.

        As for powering a moon base. Better to string a HVDC line near the poles, and collect the electrical energy produced energy from half a dozen PV installations. No moving parts, redundancy, no refueling. Most of the elements needed for construction in abundant supply.

  • by mspohr (589790) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @06:55PM (#42577785)

    I would really like to be able to vote against some of the stupid ideas on the White House web site. It would help to have a crowd function to weed out some of the wackier ideas.

    • by a_hanso (1891616)

      I agree. These petitions (What's next? Convert Cheyenne Mountain into a wormhole research facility?) dilute what little influence the petition process already has. Someday the government will be able to point to all the wacky petitions when they really need to trivialize a valid petition that they consider a threat.

      Want to do something for science? Look at the Brits. They petitioned for an apology for the way the government treated Alan Turing. And they got an uncharacteristically honest and unqualified apo

      • by a_hanso (1891616)

        I just compared the highly voted vs. the not-so-highly-voted petitions at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petitions [whitehouse.gov] . It made me question the wisdom of universal suffrage.

        • by AK Marc (707885)

          These petitions dilute what little influence the petition process already has.

          People watched the first few with great intensity. The White House dodged any "tough" peititions and made a mockery of it. The current round are a backlash against the pointlessness of the process. At least the White House honestly answers these. It's an improvement over the serious petitions they ignore.

  • by cosm (1072588)
    Signing those petitions is pissing in the wind.
    • by timeOday (582209)
      Yeah, well, last week's big petition was to build a Death Star, that got 34,435 signatures. So, yeah, they're toilet paper.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      "Pissing in the wind" is about something unpleasant blowing back at one. What you're talking about is "Pissing in the sea".

  • by 3seas (184403) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @07:41PM (#42578001) Journal

    "we the people" white house petitions are perceived as being nothing more than hollywood babel.
    Do you really think there are 25,000 people who have any clue about this subject matter of the petition?
    Imagine the "Death Star" petition and the white house response. if that ain't hollywood... what is.

    Here is one for contrast: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/provide-each-taxpayer-independent-voice-where-taxes-they-pay-are-be-allocated-and-used-all-tax/cxBlXQht [whitehouse.gov]

    lets prove the point.

  • Enough of this namby-pamby nuclear rocket talk. What we need is Project Orion [wikipedia.org] to be restarted. Imagine lifting oil-tanker sized craft from the ground into space using only a few hundred nuclear bombs, what could possibly go wrong?
  • Yaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.

    Someone wake me up when we get to the 21st century tech.

    -Hack

  • by Soralin (2437154) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @09:43PM (#42578603)

    Nuclear Thermal Rockets can have a higher efficiency than than conventional chemical rockets, but it's not as much as you might think. There's a limitation that to have a higher exhaust velocity in a thermal rocket, the exhaust needs to be hotter. And it can only be so much hotter before your reactor starts becoming molten rather than a solid. Which means that efficiency tops out at a bit less than double the exhaust velocity of conventional rockets.

    Now, that's still useful, if you can get enough thrust to get up off of the planet (and to overcome the weight of the reactor in the process), then you might be able to lift quite a bit more into orbit. Except the petition is for an NTR that would only operate in space. And in space, where you don't really have to worry about the amount of thrust, and your speed is limited by your fuel and your exhaust velocity, things like ion drives can reach efficiencies an order of magnitude higher, or more. Which means, an NTR in space only wouldn't be as useful, compared to nuclear-electric or solar-electric propulsion.

    I suppose an NTR not used for Earth surface to orbit might still be useful in landing or taking off from other objects. Really, that's where its strength would be, if you can get it to have high enough thrust, then it would be useful for getting things into orbit and back, as a surface-to-orbit ship. But as far as orbit-to-orbit ships go, ion drives and other electric propulsion can get a lot more speed out of the same tank of propellant.

    • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @11:17PM (#42579027)

      Hmm, ion engine Isp of 20000, say. Thrust of 10 newtons. All-up spacecraft mass of 75 tons.

      Time to escape speed from LEO, about 22 months.

      NERVA, Isp = 800, say. Thrust of 300,000 newtons. All-up spacecraft mass of 100 tons.

      Time to escape speed from LEO, about 18 MINUTES.

      NERVA isn't a replacement for an ion drive on a deep-space probe, it's a replacement for a chemical rocket on a (large) manned spacecraft going from LEO (or higher) to a similar orbit around the moon/mars/venus/wherever.

      • by balsy2001 (941953)
        Correct, but one idea that gets tossed around is to have a nuclear reactor (different than a nuclear rocket) to power the ion engines. Last decade there was a project in the works (it got canceled) to use a reactor to power the Jupiter Icy Moons mission.
      • by FirstOne (193462)

        "Hmm, ion engine Isp of 20000, say. Thrust of 10 newtons. All-up spacecraft mass of 75 tons. Time to escape speed from LEO, about 22 months.

        Next generation ion engines [newscientist.com] produce far more thrust.. (`~833 newton/sec).. reducing time to escape orbit to a little over week.. Fringe benefit, the space craft would only consume ~4 kg of xenon to accomplish that task..

        That leaves all other propulsion tech, including nuclear in the dust so to speak..

    • Ion drives get you delta-V at low cost, but that delta-V takes time. This matters if you have meat sacks on the mission who persist in eating and breathing and need to minimize their exposure to cosmic radiation.

    • by deimtee (762122)
      It's not just about the heat though. Because you're not burning the hydrogen you use as the propellant, the exhaust speed is higher because of the lower molecular weight.
      NERVA got an Isp of about 1200 before it was scrapped.
    • by Rufty (37223)

      Nuclear Thermal Rockets can have a higher efficiency than than conventional chemical rockets, but it's not as much as you might think. There's a limitation that to have a higher exhaust velocity in a thermal rocket, the exhaust needs to be hotter. And it can only be so much hotter before your reactor starts becoming molten rather than a solid.

      So have a gaseous reactor [wikipedia.org].

  • by kimvette (919543) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @11:19PM (#42579049) Homepage Journal

    We have energy shortages here, why would we waste fissible materials on this? We need to solve problems on the ground first before we consider using limited resources that will be spent in space with no possibility of recycling.

  • There's tons of thorium right here on earth. Mining it on the moon sounds pretty impractical.

    • by cdrguru (88047)

      Lifting a ton of material from the Moon to LEO requires a lot less thrust than lifting it from Earth. Even better, lifting it to orbiting the Moon requires so much less thrust that you could almost throw it there.

      How about a linear accellerator using nothing but electricity to lift materials from the Moon to LEO?

  • by fufufang (2603203) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:41AM (#42580091)

    I wonder how long do we have before they stop e-Petition completely. e-Petition is asking awkward/unrealistic questions. We already had a request of building a Death Star.

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