Challenger Nuclear Prometheus rockets
February 3, 2003 12:04 AM   Subscribe

To give it more funding, one can only hope. If they stopped spending $500M a launch it sure would free up funds for developing cutting edge systems like Prometheus.

These anti-nuclear left wing nuts bug the hell out of me, mostly because they speak from "bad science". They give a bad name to the rest of the left wing environmental movement who are mostly correct about the global warming issues.

Some of the "facts" stated on your link are totally false. NASA does not give a "1 in 30" chance of a launch accident. Systems like prometheus won't even have significant radioisotopes to release, since the reactors would not be "on" during launch.

-B (who is pretty left wing himself)
posted by benh57 at 12:16 AM on February 3, 2003

Yeah, that's really just a bad piece of journalism... The only "authority" it seems to cite is this professor of journalism! Joplin, Missouri certainly isn't the first place that comes to mind when I think of high-class journalism.

That aside, I wonder how much of the NASA troubles over the last couple years are due to the continuing cuts in their budget? As I understand it, the Mars orbiter problem came about because they were forced to subcontract a great deal of the project, lacking the resources to do it themselves. Investing in NASA is an investment in human achievement. The work they've done over the years transcends the boundaries of nationalism: One day, the man on the moon may stand as one of the wonders of the world while the memory America itself fades slowly away. I'd like to see a lot of that money going into bombs being used to make our mark on the interplanetary maps.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:33 AM on February 3, 2003

I'd like to see a lot of that money going into bombs being used to make our mark on the interplanetary maps.

I dunno, the moon and Mars already look like they’ve been bombed.
posted by apostasy at 12:41 AM on February 3, 2003

These anti-nuclear left wing nuts bug the hell out of me

You know, that really fucking annoys me too. As far as a self-contained spacecraft that can ply outer space, orbit planets, study them, hence benefitting all of humanity with its discoveries, with of course the risks toned down as the reactors would not be "on" during its proximity to Earth as it blasts away from it, it makes no sense to debate the cost analysis.

It's cheaper and less accident prone than a solar panel unfurlment gone awry once on Mars.

If anything, the impromptu believers of the humanity on Mars movement, of which I include myself, should be the ones admonishing the engineers for including plutonium aboard our Earthly emmissaries, because we intend to travel to Mars one day ouselves and we'd like to visit the registered historical locales without getting radiation poisoning.

I'm sure we'll all have that worked out though when the time comes.
posted by crasspastor at 12:56 AM on February 3, 2003

I'll chime in too with an annoyed-from-the-inside view of left-wing nuclear paranoia. His ties to fossil fuel industries notwithstanding, Bush has been consistent in his ability to look beyond widespread fear of nuclear power and see its potential. He could be going even further--resurrecting the breeder reactor program, for instance--but given the need highlighted by the Columbia (not Challenger) disaster for safe and modern manned spacecraft, Prometheus is a timely and appropriate place to start. It's overly optimistic to imagine this project producing an immediate successor to the shuttle. Still, it's comforting to know that NASA is exploring ambitious options even in the face of ignorant blather like this.
posted by hal incandenza at 1:51 AM on February 3, 2003

I for one certainly hope that NASA has thought about Project Prometheus since the Challenger incident. It has been seventeen years, I believe.

Snark aside, I can see why someone might be against nuclear weapons, or nuclear reactor proliferation in countries which might use them for the production of nuclear weapons, but it has always seemed somewhat extreme to deny that nuclear power has safe and useful applications for which it should be used.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 1:52 AM on February 3, 2003

Here is some good pro-Prometheus propaganda.

And as an aside, here's more on the experimental breeder reactor. According to signs posted in my neighborhood, Berkeley is a "nuclear free zone." Grr.
posted by hal incandenza at 2:23 AM on February 3, 2003

The Challenger? I thought this might be an old story, but it's just a bad typo.

Anybody else feel that this was "less worse" than the Challenger disaster? Maybe it's just that I was younger, but I still have problems looking at the old Challenger footage.
posted by ajpresto at 3:36 AM on February 3, 2003

It's hard to describe the loss of the Columbia and its crew as 'less worse' than the loss of the Challenger and its crew, both are bad. The reason that the loss of the Challenger and its crew probably had more of an impact than the loss of the Columbia and crew is that the Challenger accident was the first time that the US lost lives in an actual flight situation. Apollo 1 was a static test -- Challenger was the first time someone had died in flight.

I'm afraid that my biggest problem with watching the Challenger explosion is ennui. I mean seriously, it was played a million times if it was played once.

I'm tired of people harping on the program's failures, rather than its successes. When things go wrong, it's news -- if they go right, no one notices.
posted by TheBaffler at 3:50 AM on February 3, 2003

In recent years Congress has cut funding for the space program (in particular funding for shuttle maintenance) and NASA has turned to the Pentagon for financing of many of its missions. NASA’s O’Keefe said upon taking the helm of the space agency that all future missions will be dual use – with the military now in control of the space program.

Prargraphs like that make me sad. Especially the latter portion with yields control of space to the military. That is a shame. Why does government have to equal military? Why can there not be another side to it? NASA is supposed to be science oriented no?
Oh well, Death Star full speed ahead, we'll get those damn terrorists !! Hey, is there oil on that moon thingy over there?
posted by a3matrix at 5:22 AM on February 3, 2003

This one is easier to take than Challenger because (a) Challenger already happened and (b) 9/11 happened. Our expectations have changed and our toughness has risen a little.

Sneer at "left wing nuts" all you like, but Prof. Grossman is quite right, if there had been significant nuclear material aboard Columbia in any form, East Texas and Louisiana would now be fallout zones operating under radiation emergency conditions. Look what they're going through just for the OMS/RCS hydrazine residue. Plutonium would be a nightmare.

That doesn't mean they shouldn't launch nuclear powered space probes (the containments are built to survive aborts at launch speed and it happens over the Atlantic), but it does mean they shouldn't fly them on the Shuttle. And they're not, and won't.

It's also already known that the exhaust plume from next-generation nuclear rockets would be too "hot" (in both senses) to use in Earth's atmosphere, so they will have to be built and launched from orbit, at a height where a few years' neglect won't result in a messy fireball in the skies.
posted by anser at 6:13 AM on February 3, 2003

Old thread, new relevance.
posted by norm at 7:06 AM on February 3, 2003

The military has had a long history in space, this is nothing new! Remember a few years back when Clementine the ice caps were found on the moon? Clementine was no happy science craft sent up for pure research, it was an SDI craft! SDI is Ronald Reagan's Star Wars for those who may have forgotten!
posted by Pollomacho at 8:14 AM on February 3, 2003

read: ...when Clementine showed us the ice caps... Thanks!
posted by Pollomacho at 8:15 AM on February 3, 2003

I applaud all attempts to diversify our energy sources, but I'm no aeronautical/nuclear engineer, so please explain: I thought the objections to rocketing radioactive material was what anser describes - the risk of a catastrophic rocket failure resulting in radioactive fallout. Is that risk exaggerated? Or how is it negated by turning off the reactors when it's near to Earth?

Of course, small amounts of radioactive material results in smaller risks, and I suppose such small amounts could be brought by shuttles and rockets into orbit bit by bit and assembled there to create a nuclear power plant for interplanetary travel or colonization.
posted by cx at 9:15 AM on February 3, 2003

Of course though spreading the fuel over multiple launches increases the risk by increasing the number of opportunities for something to go wrong and for the length of time that the craft has to stay close to the earth. If it is up, fueled and on its way in one shot, then its gone out the reach of our gravitation and no longer a direct risk to the earth. You are certainly right that the single risk would be greater should anything go wrong on that one shot. Isn't there any way that they can encase the plutonium that it won't be a great risk in an accident? I mean if human remains can survive Saturday's events, couldn't a hardened container inside a hardened container inside a... well, you see where I'm going with this? Seems like they could just about contain the stuff to survive anything and were talking about, what, something the size of a baseball, max, no?

That still doesn't answer the earlier questions about having to deal with it later on Mars though.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:27 AM on February 3, 2003

I wouldn't see a radioactive Mars situation happening if very simple precautions were made. A reactor, when built correctly, can easily provide necessary containment and shielding to not pose any real problems. And the amount of energy needed for a Mars lander type would probably be less than a civilian nuclear plant, which would mean the core could be much smaller.

The main thing is, reactors can weigh a lot, especially with all the shielding and containment necessary. If you can load something like that up in a rocket anyway, I would think it would be small potatoes to have necessary protection from a rocket (or shuttle) failure.

But then again, I'm not an aerospace engineer, though I work with nuclear type stuff. [disclaimer]
posted by Lord Chancellor at 9:53 AM on February 3, 2003

According to signs posted in my neighborhood, Berkeley is a "nuclear free zone." Grr.

So it has one of those Montgomery Burns Sun Shields(tm)? Or, did they grandfather in the sun?
posted by Bonzai at 10:06 AM on February 3, 2003

Since the reactor is the heavy and awkward part of the ship, couldn't it be sent up separately? Seems like the big heavy rockets, like what would be needed to take up the reactor and shielding, etc. are more dangerous, then a small, tried and true rocket shoots up the fuel cell once the reactor is ready, its loaded, flies off and voila, no more threat of plutonium raining down on mother earth. How much plutonium are we talking about here anyway, LC? Would this be a table spoon full, a boxcar, a bowling ball, what?
posted by Pollomacho at 11:05 AM on February 3, 2003

Well personally, I would think Uranium or Plutonium would be good, although a thermal version of either would be preferable. First of all, fuel cells are more of the radioisotope type nuclear battery, nice for long term probe energy needs, but nowhere near the output a reactor can create.

I would be very skeptical of the ability to assemble a nuclear reactor in space. The amount of equipment and personel on earth is already high, in space it would be impossible. For example, the metal bolts sealing the reactor can exceed a torque of one million foot pounds. The possiblilty for nuclear mishaps in space by sending a sealed reactor would be far less then sending up unsealed uranium to put together on the spot.

As for nuclear material, it would largely depend on the size of the reactor. A reactor the size of a boxcar would probably have a few bowling balls worth of fissionable material inside rods or pins (depending on what design you were doing). But once again, the entire safety of a reactor depends on its total integration and containment, which would be much compromised if it could be broken down and assembled like a kit.

Well, uh, I might mention that there are ideas for reactors utilizing pressurized helium where the fuel is contained in tennisball sized chunks and is made for easy refueling. Still, probably still requires a very industrialized setting for resealing. In my humble opinion, the only way a reactor will get into space will be in one piece. This doesn't preclude sending different parts of the ship up at a time, with the reactor being one of those parts.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:58 AM on February 3, 2003

This one is easier to take than Challenger because (a) Challenger already happened and (b) 9/11 happened. Our expectations have changed and our toughness has risen a little.

also, they were playing the lift-off on live tv, weren't they? I mean, classrooms tuned in to see something amazing - this was back when space travel seemed less routine. Everyone was excited about this great new mission. There was at least one non-professional astronaut on board - a teacher, maybe?

I don't think many people were really thinking about Columbia's return until disaster struck.
posted by mdn at 12:42 PM on February 3, 2003

Actually, all of this is irrelevant. We just need to develop the SPACE ELEVATOR!
posted by kaibutsu at 2:23 PM on February 3, 2003

Wired article: "NASA: Nukes to Power Spacecraft".
posted by homunculus at 11:11 AM on February 5, 2003

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