Image: Nuclear thermal rocket
Pat Rawlings / NASA
An artist's conception shows a nuclear thermal rocket inserting a Mars transfer vehicle into orbit. This concept called for the rocket's reactor to remain inert until it was ignited in deep space for the trip to Mars.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/28/2011 11:05:47 AM ET 2011-09-28T15:05:47

For weeks to come, NASA will be working with the aerospace industry on its plans to develop its new super-sized rocket for missions back to the moon, the nearest Lagrangian point, asteroids, Mars and other ports of call in deep space.

The agency will be working with the latest technology, as well as innovations yet to be invented. Some even dare to whisper rocketry's N-word: nuclear.

But first, it seems logical to assume that NASA will use what it has. 

For the initial flight tests, NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket will use two five-segment versions of the space shuttle’s solid-rockets.  The solids will be strapped to a tank structure equipped with shuttle-style main engines, forming the basic “core stage.”

The second stage will use the J-2X engine, an updated version of the upper-stage rocket that powered the Saturn 1B and Saturn V rockets in the 1960s and '70s. The system was used for 16 manned space missions, including nine Apollo flights that carried crews to the moon and back.

When the last Apollo moon ship made its final voyage in 1972, few people would have guessed that the gap in deep-space exploration would last so long. Here's how the scene played out, as described in "Moon Shot," the book I wrote with NASA chief astronaut Deke Slayton and Alan Shepard, America's first astronaut and one of only 12 men who walked on the lunar landscape:

The end of the space race: An excerpt from 'Moon Shot'
The last man on the moon, Gene Cernan, paused for a final look at the black beauty of the world about him.  He had a message to send home before departing.  "As I take these last steps from the surface for some time in the future to come, I’d just like a record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.  And as we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind."

It will be 39 years this December since he spoke those words.  No American, no earthly being has yet returned to the moon. Sadly, no one will again for some time to come.

Within a period of four years, 24 American astronauts, some twice, sailed through the vacuum from Earth to the moon.  Twelve out of those 24 rode their landers down to the lunar surface, walked and drove through the dust and rocks of the small world.

Image: "Moon Shot"
Open Road Integrated Media
"Moon Shot" recounts the story of the early space effort. NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree has updated the book, written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton as co-authors, for the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. and Soviet spaceflights.

Had the Soviet Union sustained its early lead in power and technology over the United States, the number of humans going might have increased greatly.  It was a fierce competition, and the Soviets went all-out in their desperate attempts to lead the human race to another solar body, small though it might be and devoid of life.  The Russians went through a series of devastating rocket explosions and suffered equal costly failures after reaching earth orbit.

Just two weeks before the last Apollo departed for the moon, the Russians were down to a last-gasp hope that their mammoth N-1 rocket, even more powerful than Wernher von Braun’s spectacularly successful Saturn V, would enable them, at least, to reach the moon during the same period.

It was not to be.  The fourth launch of the N-1, intended to fire a large and heavy unmanned lunar lander directly to the moon in a rehearsal for a manned flight, was ripped apart by a series of violent explosions as it climbed through the atmosphere.  When the wreckage tumbled back to earth, it sounded the death knell of the Russian manned lunar effort.

Bitter and frustrated, the Soviet government insisted it had never been in the moon race.  History records otherwise.  Several Russian manned landers became dust collectors in remote hangars.  The rocket stages and enormous fuel tanks of the leftover N-1s were hammered into storage sheds and playgrounds for children.

Reinventing the rocket
Thirty-six years after Gene Cernan left the moon, the Obama administration swept into office and brought with it those who insisted on reinventing the wheel. They kicked everything that did work, as well as the things that didn’t, out the door — leaving them with paper drawings.  For nearly three years this resulted in massive confusion, infighting and tortuous delays between those from blue and red states.

The ones who plucked sanity from this ungodly mess proved to be the ones who had been sanely chosen to head America’s space agency.

Charles Bolden, an African-American born in South Carolina, shook off the shackles of segregation in a Jim Crow south, and with the help of a congressman from Detroit entered the U.S. Naval Academy, walking in the footsteps of astronauts Alan Shepard and Tom Stafford.  Bolden became a major general in the Marine Corps after proving his mettle as a test pilot and space shuttle commander. He became NASA's administrator in 2009.

Bolden laced up his combat boots and stomped his way into the middle of the disorder with his second-in-command, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who first dipped her toe in Space Lake as an intern for John Glenn's presidential campaign in 1984.

Bolden quieted the fight over NASA's future and reached into his bag of “things that work.” Satisfying the majority, he and Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier came up with a heavy-lift deep-space rocket derived from Apollo, the space shuttle and the canceled Constellation back-to-the-moon program.

NASA's plan calls for using proven rockets and facilities — and most importantly, the space agency's experienced workers — to build a new system for deep-space exploration. The Space Launch System, or SLS, is projected to cost taxpayers $3 billion a year, about $1 billion a year less than the space shuttle, through 2017 when the first test flight is scheduled to take place.

There’s little doubt that NASA can build a heavy-lift rocket to fly astronauts beyond Earth orbit, but can the agency build one that can reach deep-space ports without going nuclear?

Nuclear perspective
"Nuclear propulsion should be included when considering deep-space travel," said Princeton physicist Gene H. McCall, retired chief scientist for the Air Force Space Command and a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. "The engines could also be used for years as a power source for establishing a base on the moon or Mars, or any long-term base where gathering power from the sun would be difficult.”

McCall said the arguments over nuclear space propulsion "are usually emotional rather than technical.”

While I was growing up on the family farm, my father tried for years to bring electricity to our rural area of Georgia, only to be met with protests motivated by fear of electrocution and fires. Irrational fear of the unknown has been with us since the dawn of humanity. But consider this: You can count the deaths in this country from nuclear energy on one hand. Meanwhile, 40,000 Americans die every year on our highways, yet practically no one hesitates to ride in an automobile.

Just ask someone what was the worst nuclear accident in America’s history. Most will tell you it was Three Mile Island in 1979.  But when you follow up by asking, "How many died?" ... you are met with a wide stare.

Little is really known by the public about nuclear energy, let alone nuclear propulsion. McCall was involved in closing the Rover and Nerva experimental programs at Los Alamos, and in transferring people and equipment to appropriate places in the nascent laser program, which had strong nuclear connections.  In the process, he became very familiar with the nuclear rocket program and its prospects.

"Nuclear fuel has a very high energy density," McCall said.  "One can design a nuclear rocket with one-half the mass of a liquid or a solid [rocket] and double its payload while cutting travel time by half."

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The nuclear rocket operates by heating liquid hydrogen and pushing it out a nozzle at the rear of the reactor.  The low molecular weight exhaust and high velocity give a high specific impulse. The power is precisely controllable.

"Specific impulse is the most important quality of a rocket’s fuel," McCall explained. "It tells you how fast you can go and how efficient your rocket fuel is. You might call it 'fuel quality.'"

Toward the end of their tests, McCall and the rest of his team built a reactor capable of rocket flight. "Called Nerva, it ran more than two hours, with 20 minutes of the time being at full power," he said. "At full power, it generated 75,000 pounds of thrust into a vacuum, and demonstrated a specific impulse of 850 seconds, more than any of our liquid or solid rockets yet flown.

“Thus, based on experimental evidence, nuclear rockets have a specific impulse, and a payload capability, twice that of a liquid or a solid.”

McCall mused on the past and the future of nuclear propulsion. "In a logical world, unfortunately not the one we live in, the choices of propulsion systems for deep-space travel, the moon and beyond, would be first nuclear by large margin," he said.

America has already accepted nuclear propulsion for ships and submarines. If the children and grandchildren of today’s space family are to navigate what John F. Kennedy called "this new ocean," to reach Mars and other deep-space ports, irrational fears must give way to logic — just as they did when Columbus sailed, when the wagon trains left Saint Joe, and when Orville and Wilbur dared to fly.

If humankind is to survive, knowledge must always triumph over anxiety.

More excerpts from 'Moon Shot':

NBC News' Jay Barbree is the only journalist to cover every spaceflight flown by astronauts from Cape Canaveral. He has won NASA’s highest medal for public service and the National Space Club’s 2009 Press Award. Barbree also has written several books about the space effort, including an updated version of "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," published by Open Road Integrated Media and available from Apple iBookstore,,, Sony Reader Store  and Kobo Books. "Moon Shot" excerpt updated and reprinted with permission, copyright 2011.

© 2013  Reprints

Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station


    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology


    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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