Printed on: January 10, 2013

Giving nuclear research a boost

By Alex Stuckey

A petition to the White House could raise the visibility of nuclear thermal rockets in the United States, a push that would greatly help the Center for Space Nuclear Research's quest to get a manned vessel to Mars by 2020.

Last week, Aaron VanAlstine of Dupont, Wash., submitted a petition to the White House's "We the People" program urging the Obama administration to "rapidly develop and deploy a nuclear thermal rocket adaptable to both manned and unmanned space missions."

"I'm not an engineer and I'm not a scientist," VanAlstine said. "But it seems we're losing our edge as far as science research. (A nuclear thermal rocket) would kick-start the space program."

It's a technology that Steve Howe has been working on since 2006.

Howe and his team at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies are improving reactor technology that dates back to the 1950s, when the U.S. government designed and created reactors for nuclear-powered rockets as a part of its ROVER and Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application programs.

The idea behind the center's rocket is to run cool hydrogen through a hot reactor and shoot the super-heated gas out of a nozzle. The propulsion is two times greater than today's chemically powered rockets.

One improvement Howe's team plans to make is coating the reactors' uranium in tungsten instead of graphite. During the 1950s and '70s, reactors were graphite-based, meaning they were more fragile and radioactive fission products could escape through the exhaust.

Tungsten, on the other hand, is more durable and has a higher density than graphite, preventing fission products from escaping.

If budgets allow, Howe told the Post Register in September, a manned vessel could make the 40-million-mile trek to Mars by 2020.

But if this petition gains ground, Howe said, that time frame could be cut nearly in half.

"(The petition) will create publicity, which will have an obvious impact on (our program)," Howe said. "If NASA gives us $10 million to $20 million a year for 10 years, we could get the nuclear rocket built and ground-tested in a decade."

More than 900 people had signed the petition as of 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. It needs 25,000 signatures by Feb. 2 to prompt a White House response.

VanAlstine is surprised by the number of signatures and hopes that people -- especially kids -- start thinking about nuclear technology in space.

"I'm 49 -- I'm never gonna do something like this," he said. "It's gonna be some 8- or 10-year-old now who is gonna be the (person) actually building these and flying on them."

Howe -- who signed the petition and sent it to all his colleagues and fellows -- is not confident the petition will get enough attention to make any changes. But he said it would be nice if it did.

"This could realign the priorities at NASA," Howe said. "This is game-changing technology. (The petition) would be a nice step if it works."

On the internet

To read and/or sign the petition:

http://tiny -petition