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NASA nabs $125 million in funding to develop nuclear rocket propulsion

NASA has been awarded a sum of $125 million to develop nuclear thermal propulsion systems for its future spacecraft. First reported by, the award was given as part of a total $22.3 billion of funding for NASA in a commerce, justice, and science (CJS) appropriations bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee this month.

“The bill’s investment in nuclear thermal propulsion is critical as NASA works towards the design of a flight demonstration by 2024,” said Robert Aderholt, the U.S. Representative for Alabama’s fourth congressional district, during the subcommittee’s markup of the bill earlier in May.

No nuclear thermal rocket has ever flown, although NASA has explored the possibility as far back as the 1960s and early ’70s before ditching the idea. In a nuclear thermal rocket, a fluid such liquid hydrogen would be heated to an extremely high temperature using a nuclear reactor and then accelerated through a nozzle. This is then used to create thrust, with the nuclear reactor’s energy replacing the chemical energy of a propellant’s reactive chemicals in a chemical rocket.

The hope of a nuclear thermal rocket is that it could reduce the travel time for missions in deep space. This would be important for future missions to Mars. It could also potentially be utilized as part of the proposed 2024 moon landing. A report accompanying the House bill saying that NASA must develop, “a multiyear plan that enables a nuclear thermal propulsion demonstration, including the timeline associated with the space demonstration, and a description of future missions and propulsion and power systems enabled by this capability.”

For now, NASA has not announced any official plans to utilize nuclear propulsion technology in its upcoming space missions. However, this could (and presumably will) change as the technology is further developed. In a speech on March 26 delivered at a National Space Council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, Vice President Mike Pence said, “As we continue to push farther into our solar system, we’ll need innovative new propulsion systems to get us there — including nuclear power.”

The only thing better than a Space Force? A nuclear thermal propulsion-powered Space Form, of course!

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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