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The Reusable Nuclear Shuttle: To the Moon, Again and Again
September 30, 2013 9:21 AM   Subscribe

NASA's abandoned plan for a re-usable, nuclear powered moon shuttle.

Via False Steps (previously).
posted by Chrysostom (34 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Man between the RAND Corp PDF, reading Command And Control, and this it's like the universe is conspiring to have Atomicpunk colonize my brain.
posted by The Whelk at 9:30 AM on September 30, 2013


Surely, Atomic Punk is the least interesting song on Van Halen's debut album.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:42 AM on September 30, 2013


Looks like I have a new project for Kerbal Space Program
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 10:02 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised that the article doesn't mention Project Orion. It was an older idea than NERVA and a serious rival to the Apollo program. It would have gotten to Earth orbit on the same Saturn 5 rocket as Apollo but then carry an eight person team and a small moon base to the moon. That's how big of an advantage you get from going to nuclear fuel.

Project Orion was a series of designs for nuclear bomb powered spacecraft. Throw a nuclear bomb out the back door and surf the resulting wave of plasma that bounces off a pusher plate at the back of the ship. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. A few dozen nuclear bombs later and the ship is going pretty fast.

Orion-type spacecraft become more fuel efficient the larger they are. There were designs that would launch 4000 ton spacecraft into orbit, spaceships the size of a navy frigate. Missions to the moons of Jupiter were seriously considered. By the late 1960s Freeman Dyson was sketching designs for manned interstellar colony ships capable of travelling at speeds up to 0.1 c.

The technical obstacles seem to have been surmountable. Preliminary testing was promising. What stopped Project Orion was the Partial Test Ban Treaty, fear of massive fallout from ground-launched versions and somewhat understandable concerns about the idea of launching hundreds of nuclear weapons into space.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:02 AM on September 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


Project Orion was a series of designs for nuclear bomb powered spacecraft. Throw a nuclear bomb out the back door and surf the resulting wave of plasma that bounces off a pusher plate at the back of the ship. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. A few dozen nuclear bombs later and the ship is going pretty fast.

I don't even play Kerbal Space Program and I want this feature added if it's not already there.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:06 AM on September 30, 2013


Hi, I'm the Atomic Rocket guy.
I was sad when I saw that the wonderful game Kerbal Space Program lacked a Project Orion nuclear bomb engines.

So I made a mod
http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/sealofapproval.php#id--Computer_Simulation--Kerbal_Space_Program--Orion_nuclear_pulse
posted by Nyrath at 10:13 AM on September 30, 2013 [43 favorites]


I don't even play the lottery and I want a million dollars!
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:19 AM on September 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Hi, I'm the Atomic Rocket guy.
I was sad when I saw that the wonderful game Kerbal Space Program lacked a Project Orion nuclear bomb engines.

So I made a mod


Dude. You and your website are amazing.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:24 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


The trouble with the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle is the radiation exposure to the poor pilots. I write about it here:
http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/realdesigns.php#id--Reusable_Nuclear_Shuttle

Back then, astronauts had a yearly maximum allowed radiation exposure of between 0.1 and 0.25 Sieverts. Blasted nuclear shuttle would give 0.1 Sievert with each engine burn.
Nowadays the yearly maximum allowed radiation exposure is 3 Sieverts, with a career limit of 4 Sieverts. Which means 40 burns would end an astronaut's career.

The solution is more radiation shielding, which of course means more mass, which of course drastically reduces the size of the payload due to the tyranny of the rocket equation. However, the NERVA engine only has a specific impulse of about 816 seconds.
A pebble-bed solid core nuclear engine has a specific impulse of more like 970 seconds, which would partially counteract the added mass of the radiation shield.
posted by Nyrath at 10:24 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


So I made a mod

There goes tomorrow's productivity.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:26 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am so disappointed that the Army didn't get their project approved (damn that Eisenhower guy). I mean, an army base on the Moon in the late 60's. What could go wrong with that? Oh, well the missile stuff. There's that.

But still.

I could have been stationed at Fort Le May, Mare Imbrium, instead of Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. How cool would that have been? (Maybe they could have given Bob Heinlein a free trip up there while he was still around to appreciate it.)
posted by mule98J at 10:27 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


We just need to sort out this slingatron thing so we can hurl the inert stuff like radiation shielding up into orbit on the cheap.
posted by rustcrumb at 10:30 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I assume it'll be run by PanAm?
posted by Apropos of Something at 10:57 AM on September 30, 2013


Holy jumping cats. The KSP mod actually illuminates the surface of Kerbin when the "engine" fires. It's like God taking a photograph. And another photograph. And another. Another. God's strobe light.
posted by steef at 11:02 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


The slingatron did not seem like a practical approach but it would seem like there are mountains in the Himalayas or Peru that would be a good candidate to build an accelerator to launch small packages to a large percentage of escape velocity and at the ejection point have a low enough atmosphere to avoid catastrophic decomposition.

It seems pretty clear that there should be separate launch strategies for supplies and people, as opposed to the huge SLS boondoggle. But would the pretty substantive engineering challenges of an accelerator be more cost effective than the approach Space X is taking? Run the numbers someone.
posted by sammyo at 11:07 AM on September 30, 2013


My other rant is usually "we need machine shops" in orbit. Once there is a critical mass of resources and the ability to actually build what's needed for space IN space, nuclear engines will probably be an obvious early project, but there are a few (hundred million) folks with a (somewhat justified) paranoia about nucs in space.
posted by sammyo at 11:13 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


catastrophic decomposition

Rapid Unplanned Disassembly
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:18 AM on September 30, 2013


But would the pretty substantive engineering challenges of an accelerator be more cost effective than the approach Space X is taking? Run the numbers someone.

We know chemical rockets work and have built several facilities to launch them. Designing, testing and building an accelerator sounds like would be much expensive, at least in the short term.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:10 PM on September 30, 2013


It's like God taking a photograph.
What's the sound like? I'm going to have to hook my laptop up to a subwoofer, huh?

One of the most memorable quotes from the novel Footfall was a description from a crew member on an Orion launch: "God was knocking, and he wanted in bad."
posted by roystgnr at 12:59 PM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


sammyo, genuinely interested, what is impractical about the slingatron idea?
posted by rustcrumb at 1:43 PM on September 30, 2013


Enjoying the False Steps blog, and learning a lot. First life to go around the moon? Some Russian fruitflies and a tortoise or two, three months before A8.

But very taken, in a wistful way, by the Armstrong Whitworth Pyramid space plane proposal, from that oh so brief period when the UK was the third space-going nation. Godammit, we could have landed the first monarch on Mars by now. (Stiff upper lip quivers as Devonian remembers Arthur C Clark short story about the Prince of Wales stowing away on a rocketship.)
posted by Devonian at 2:02 PM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I mean, an army base on the Moon in the late 60's. What could go wrong with that?

You mention Heinlein, so I'm sure you're familiar with his short story "The Long Watch".
posted by The Tensor at 2:29 PM on September 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is a very interesting BBC doc on Project Orion featuring the always fascinating Freeman Dyson, (youtube).

Their plan was not assemble it in orbit, but to actually launch it with the mini-nukes, all kinds of great stuff, Czech resistance fighters (bomb experts), the Coca-Cola company consulted on the mechanics of releasing up to 4 bombs a second to drive the thrust, Geniuses struggling with their role in the Manhattan Project. Just fascinating.
posted by Divine_Wino at 2:41 PM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Project Orion engine is sort of a trope in science fiction as the "we can get anywhere in the inner system pretty damn quick with relatively straightforward engineering if we absolutely have to" last resort.

Well, also outer system and even interstellar. With the latter, it's about the only technology presently available that could get to a decent fraction of c (which is still a small fraction of c); but even then we're still talking at least decades for the nearest stars. That's pretty impressive, though.

My sense is that if we ever decide we need to get something to another star in a hurry, that'll be how we do it. Say, if we detect an Earth-like planet (Goldilocks zone, promising absorption lines) within 15 light years and then with maybe a hastily launched Earth-orbit interferometry telescope see signs of life. We'd almost certainly be highly motivated to send a probe but hope to get data back from it within a lifetime — the only thing possible in that timescale is a nuclear impulse rocket.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:34 PM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Golly. That doc referenced by Divine_Wino won't play on my tablet because "This video contains content from Muyao, WMG, Made in etaly, Rumblefish, BFM Digital, Warner Chappell, SACEM, PEDL, Bliss Corporation, Horus Music and UMPI, one or more of whom have blocked it in your country on copyright grounds."

1. Apologies if I made a mistake in transcription. The message is not capturable except as a bitmap, and my eyes are bad.
2 The documentary plays fine on my laptop, which is on exactly the same domestic LAN and the same broadband IP. It and the tablet are, oh, maybe two feet apart, and no international border or state line divides them. Both run variants of Linux, but steered from different continents - is this the deciding factor?
3. I paid for this documentary, as a UK BBC licence fee payer and proud of it.
4. What on earth does that message mean? How does it relate to any reality I can grok? What is its purpose? How am I supposed to react? Is there a single human being on the planet who knows what's going on here and thinks it's a good thing?

It's a pretty decent documentary, by the way, and I recommend it. If you're a member of Homo sapiens - the race that visited the Moon, so pretty savvy on the tech chops - you won't have any difficulty in viewing it. The morality of doing so, you'll have to sort out for yourself.
posted by Devonian at 4:38 PM on September 30, 2013


From the article:

"Each [rocket engine] would be used up to ten times (with refueling gingerly taking place after each use), after which it would be discarded in a high orbit due to its extreme residual radioactivity."

Nuclear rockets sound awesome (so long as they're not burning up in orbit), but ditching them in space seems like a real waste of spent fuel. I know, back here on earth, we can reprocess spent fuel, as well we should: Uranium is pretty rare, cosmologically speaking, and we should conserve what we've got.

I'm envisioning some kind of robotic, moon-based nuclear fuel reprocessing plant: no soft, air-breathing fleshbodies to cook with gamma rays, and no deep gravity well to ascend with new fuel. Just park the old, hot engine assembly on a conveyer, and let the robot factory dismantle it and recycle its fuel to fill up new, waiting engine assemblies.
posted by wormwood23 at 4:56 PM on September 30, 2013


Much as I like the bass-thumping shock of the Orion, the discovery of easily-liberated water in Martian soil changes everything. It allows production of methane propellant and makes the Mars Direct plan feasible.

Of course, you still might need a small nuclear reactor for the energy-intensive process of baking soil. But you send that and the robot miner ahead to start making methane and water. When they arrive, the crew has what they need to survive on the surface and get back home.

Better yet, Mars has only a 5 km/s escape velocity -- how about we have the robot miner launch balloons of fuel into orbit? Then the crew can gas up in orbit -- before landing and before buggering off back to Earth. We're getting pretty good at autonomous docking, so maybe additional robot miners will be able to gas up around Mars too.

Maybe we can also mine water from Mars' moons -- we save all that fuel required to launch from the Martian surface. Better yet, how about we send that fuel back to Earth? Maybe stick it at a Lagrange point? Then we can just launch robot miners all day long and they'll gas up both around Earth and Mars.

I for one would welcome our nuclear-powered methane-producing space-swarming overlords.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:43 PM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


You still need a good reason to go to Mars, in order to get someone to pay for the trip.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:46 PM on September 30, 2013


When I made the nuclear Orion mod for Kerbal Space Program, I made each detonation light up the landscape like a strobe light, for dramatic night launches. The fact it lights up the entire hemisphere of the planet was unexpected behavior, due to some oddity of how Kerbal handles planets.

For some odd reason, the very first detonation on lift-off is very loud, the rest are more reasonable.

Anything not attached to the ship (with the Orion drive) that is a bit close will be pushed away by the shock wave. Anything not attached to the ship that is extremely close will be vaporized by the shock wave. I had to make the effects only happen for objects that had a mass less than 100 tons, one of my testers inadvertently vaporized an asteroid.

This means any aircraft parked too close to the launch pad will be blown over the horizon. It also means that if you want to dock to a space station or another ship you'd better have a secondary propulsion system or the results will be ugly.
posted by Nyrath at 6:14 PM on September 30, 2013


Re: The Long Watch.

It's a poignant story. But, in that story, Heinlein didn't think about the rocks. You don't need nukes, when you can just drop rocks down the gravity well. That's where the railgun thing comes in handy. Maybe the story I'm thinking about is "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress."

Them moonies is a rowdy bunch. Or will be.
posted by mule98J at 7:42 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Orion project used nuclear shaped charges... they aimed the thrust upward at the craft, making most efficient use of the energy of the explosion.
posted by MikeWarot at 9:03 PM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


(Stiff upper lip quivers as Devonian remembers Arthur C Clark short story about the Prince of Wales stowing away on a rocketship.)

Still a popular concept!

We know chemical rockets work and have built several facilities to launch them. Designing, testing and building an accelerator sounds like would be much expensive, at least in the short term.

Yes, but they do have their limitations -- expensive rocket fuel being only one, a tendency to blow up being another.

When you look at what has been happening with railgun and scramjet technology, just this year alone, it's not inconceivable that we could be testing a system for at least cargo launch purposes within the decade. There was some noise at NASA about pursuing this as recently as 2010, but I couldn't find any indicators of where it might be now. -- Wait, ah, here's a 2011 paper and a 2013 paper.
posted by dhartung at 12:57 AM on October 1, 2013


Yes, but they do have their limitations -- expensive rocket fuel being only one, a tendency to blow up being another.

Fuel might as well be free for all the contribution it makes to launch costs.
posted by atrazine at 1:05 AM on October 1, 2013


Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle used the atomic-bomb-powered rocket idea in the novel Footfall
posted by DreamerFi at 4:18 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


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