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  • Laurent Pellerin <nightsight1@yahoo.com>
    White House Go-Ahead On NASA Nuclear Prometheus Project Mon Jan 20, 8:51 AM ET By Brian Berger Space News Staff Writer, SPACE.com NASA (news - web sites) s
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 20, 2003
      White House Go-Ahead On NASA Nuclear Prometheus Project
      Mon Jan 20, 8:51 AM ET

      By Brian Berger
      Space News Staff Writer, SPACE.com

      NASA (news - web sites)'s 2004 budget request, officially embargoed
      until U.S. President George W. Bush (news - web sites) presents his
      spending plan to Congress in February, contains significantly
      increased funding for a revamped nuclear propulsion research effort
      the U.S. space agency is now calling Project Prometheus.

      A source familiar with the NASA budget request for 2004 told Space
      News that the amount of money the White House is requesting strongly
      suggests an expansion of the program. "There is significant money in
      the budget for Prometheus," the source said. "More than I expected
      to see."

      Spin control

      NASA spokesmen were busy calling into question details revealed in a
      January 17 story in the Los Angeles Times. The story stated that the
      Bush Administration has given an agency go-ahead to build a nuclear-
      powered rocket. Not only would the project make human travel to Mars
      feasible, the story suggests, work on the nuclear space rocket would
      be a boon to California aerospace firms.

      Los Angeles Times reporter, Peter Pae -- based on an exclusive
      interview with NASA chief, Sean O'Keefe -- said the space effort may
      be announced during President Bush's State of the Union address set
      for January 28.

      NASA spokesman, Don Savage, said that the Los Angeles Times story
      misstated some elements of what O'Keefe discussed regarding the
      agency's Nuclear Space Initiative (NSI). NASA formally requested the
      newspaper for clarification of several points in the story that
      could be misconstrued, he said.

      NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone acknowledged that O'Keefe did talk
      generally about the upcoming State of the Union but did not make a
      prediction that Bush would use it to make any NASA-related

      In response, Pae told SPACE.com : "We're sticking with the story.
      This came from an interview."

      Significant expansion

      NASA would not provide details about Project Prometheus. NASA's
      Savage said it is "in large part a renaming of part of the [Nuclear
      Systems Initiative] that was announced last year."

      Specifically, Savage said, it refers to the part of the program
      focused on nuclear fission reactors and in-space propulsion. Savage
      would not confirm O'Keefe's statement to the Los Angeles Times that

      Prometheus represents a significant expansion of the Nuclear Systems

      "At this point I can't say what they plan beyond what we announced
      in the 2003 budget," Savage said.

      "O'Keefe didn't say that there would be announcement in the State of
      the Union concerning NASA. He doesn't know what's going to be in the
      State of the Union and certainly wouldn't get out in front of the
      President," Savage responded to SPACE.com .

      Mission to Mars

      Announced early last year, NASA has been seeking funds to establish
      the Nuclear Space Initiative. The program would develop new types of
      radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), as well as perform
      research on nuclear propulsion.

      That technology would not only support robotic exploration of the
      Solar System. NSI research could open the door for more rapid human
      access to targets beyond low Earth orbit, should the nation decide
      to pursue such a long distance goal.

      The NSI is set to develop reactor technologies for advanced robotic
      exploration, Savage said. "We're also looking at ion propulsion and
      things of that natureĀ…but not looking at a specific human mission to
      Mars," he added.

      Savage said that the term "nuclear rocket" is not what NASA is
      developing. Rather, reactor technology is being pursued.

      Nuclear rocket is a term that's very easily misconstrued in the
      public, Savage said. "In their mind, they see the spewing out of
      radioactivity from the back end of a rocket. That's not what is
      being talked about in any of the programs we're looking at," he said.

      Where's the money?

      NASA is seeking $125.5 million to kick-start the NSI. However, the
      agency's budget, including work on nuclear space power and
      propulsion, has yet to be settled.

      "It's a Fiscal Year 2003 program that's on the books and we're
      waiting for the budget. Then, of course, we're coming up close to
      the Fiscal Year 2004 budget request," Savage said.

      Overall, NASA has stated it anticipated spending a total of some $1
      billion over the next five years on NSI.

      An early target for the money is fabricating a new generation of
      power generators called multi-mission RTGs.

      These devices are not nuclear reactors. Rather, they use heat
      created by the natural decay of Plutonium-238 to generate

      In the past, these devices have been used in a variety of deep space
      missions, such as the Galileo mission to Jupiter, as well as onboard
      the now en route Cassini spacecraft to Saturn. A Kuiper Belt-Pluto
      spacecraft expected to be launched in the 2006-2007 time frame would
      also be RTG powered. NASA is reviewing use of the souped-up RTG for
      use on its Mars Smart Lander slated for launch in 2009.

      Radioactive reaction

      NASA's embrace of space nuclear power has stirred up controversy in
      the past, and will do so in the future.

      The Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, based
      in Gainesville, Florida, has been particularly vocal in this regard.

      The group has campaigned against the launch of Galileo and Cassini
      missions in past years. A "No Nukes in Space Protest Vigil" is
      slated in early February, outside a symposium on nuclear space power
      to be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

      In addition, the group is ready to protest at the Kennedy Space
      Center (news - web sites) this May and June the launchings of NASA's
      two Mars rovers. The wheeled Mars Exploration Rovers both carry
      eight Radioisotope Heater Units (RHUs), with each RHU containing 2.7
      grams of plutonium.

      In learning about the prospects for NASA's Project Prometheus, Bruce
      Gagnon, coordinator of the anti-nuclear group, said they oppose this
      development as a "dangerous step in the expansion of nuclear
      technology into space."

      "First we are concerned about the likely toxic contamination at the
      Department of Energy (news - web sites) labs as they increase
      plutonium processing for the Nuclear Systems Initiative," Gagnon
      told SPACE.com .

      "Secondly the dramatic escalation of nuclear launches in the coming
      years only increases the chances of an accident from Florida or
      other launch sites," he said.

      Gagnon said that he and his group fear that the nuclear reactors for
      Mars missions are "the ice breakers that end up becoming the reactor
      technologies that get adapted for space based weapons systems, long
      the dream of the Pentagon (news - web sites) Star Warriors."

      Prometheus power

      The march to Mars by humans becomes ever more achievable given the
      Prometheus effort. And that's welcome news to Robert Zubrin,
      President of the Mars Society in Indian Hills, Colorado.

      "The decision by NASA to revive its nuclear rocket development
      program is a tremendously positive step. It will greatly enhance the
      prospects for human exploration and settlement of the Solar System,"
      he told SPACE.com .

      Using nuclear thermal rockets, the payload delivered from low Earth
      orbit to the Moon or Mars can be doubled, Zubrin said. That cuts in
      half the launch costs associated with lunar or Mars exploration
      programs. Nuclear power reactors are essential for Mars base surface
      power. Duties performed include powering life support hardware,
      ultra-high data rate communications, and making on-the-spot
      propellants, he said.

      "Administrator O'Keefe's decision to develop space nuclear power is
      a wise move that will save billions of dollars and greatly expand
      our space capabilities," Zubrin said.

      "The name 'Project Prometheus' is well taken. Prometheus gave fire
      to man, giving us the power needed to create civilization on Earth.
      NASA's Project Prometheus will give us the power we need to extend
      human civilization to the heavens," Zubrin said.
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