Just north of the Tennessee River near Huntsville, AL, there’s a six-story rocket test stand in a small clearing of loblolly pines. It’s here, in a secluded corner of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, that the U.S. Army and NASA performed critical tests during the development of the Redstone rocket. In 1958, this rocket became the first to detonate a nuclear weapon; 3 years later, it carried the first American into space.
The tangled history of nukes and space is again resurfacing, just up the road from the Redstone test stand. This time, NASA engineers want to create something deceptively simple: a rocket engine powered by nuclear fission.
A nuclear rocket engine would be twice as efficient as the chemical engines powering rockets today. But despite their conceptual simplicity, small-scale fission reactors are challenging to build and risky to operate because they produce toxic waste. Space travel is dangerous enough without having to worry about a nuclear meltdown. But for future human missions to the moon and Mars, NASA believes such risks may be necessary.
At the center of NASA’s nuclear rocket program is Bill Emrich, the man who literally wrote the book on nuclear propulsion. “You can do chemical propulsion to Mars, but it’s really hard,” says Emrich. “Going further than the moon is much better with nuclear propulsion.”