The United States finds itself in yet another race back to the moon and eventually Mars more than 50 years after the first moon landing. But as development continues on rockets to power those missions — and failed attempts like Elon Musk’s Starship rocket self-destructing three minutes into flight happen — NASA looking back at original blueprints from the 1960s using nuclear power for spacecraft.
NBC’s Tom Costello traveled down to Huntsville, Alabama, where scientists are putting the old models to the test. Dr. Tabitha Dodson, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program manager, says the programs from the '60s were “extremely successful” and “flight ready,” but were canceled in the early '70s due to budget cuts and changing priorities in the Space Shuttle program.
“What does the United States have which gives us that leap ahead advantage over our adversaries,” Dodson told Costello. “We don’t want to be on par with our adversaries. We want to be ahead of them. And we have the means to do so.”
The current nuclear rocket project, Draco, uses high-assay, low-enriched uranium, rather than weapons-grade uranium. With a much smaller propellant tank, Draco is able to carry heavier cargo faster and further, something Dodson says could accelerate travel time by at least a third.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, the former Florida senator, told Costello he’s optimistic the current models will be successful.
“Can we sustain human life in a crew all the way for two years, the first time we go to Mars? That’s pushing it,” Nelson said, “So if we can get there faster, then that’s what we need to do. And that’s what this nuclear propulsion will do. And it’s safe.”
“The fact that we now have a very aggressive competitor I think all the more makes it a space race. And the Chinese government has clearly indicated that it’s going to the moon and it’s going to land humans on the moon,” Nelson told Costello.
For more on the modern-day space race, check out the latest episode of Meet The Press Reports.
Correction: An earlier version of this story cited Dr. Tabitha Dodson of Darpa as saying the programs were canceled in the 1960s due to nuclear safety concerns. Dodson had told NBC News the programs were "extremely successful" and "flight ready” but were canceled due to budget cuts and changing priorities in the Space Shuttle program.