US Goes All In On Nuclear Power In Space Race With China

The United States is doubling down on nuclear power and propulsion systems in the new space race with China. The Trump Administration unveiled in the middle of December a National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion, the so-called Space Policy Directive-6, aiming to develop and use space nuclear power and propulsion (SNPP) systems to achieve scientific, national security, and commercial objectives.

In the new space race between Western nations and China, the United States is betting on developing and demonstrating the use of new SNPP capabilities in space.

The strategy on nuclear power and propulsion sets a goal for the U.S. to develop uranium fuel processing capabilities that enable fuel production that is suitable to lunar and planetary surfaces and in-space power, nuclear electric propulsion (NEP), and nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) applications. Another objective is to “demonstrate a fission power system on the surface of the Moon that is scalable to a power range of 40 kilowatt-electric (kWe) and higher to support a sustained lunar presence and exploration of Mars.”

Collaboration with the private sector is also a pillar of the nuclear power and propulsion strategy.

NASA strongly supports the nuclear space strategy, pointing out the advantages of nuclear power and propulsion in driving spacecraft.

“Space nuclear systems power spacecraft for missions where alternative power sources are inadequate, such as environments that are too dark for solar power or too far away to carry sufficient quantities of chemical fuels. Space nuclear systems include radioisotope power systems and nuclear reactors used for power, heating, or propulsion,” NASA said, commenting on the new national strategy.

NASA believes that nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) is an attractive option for in-space propulsion for exploration missions to Mars and beyond. NTP offers virtually unlimited energy density and specific impulse roughly double that of the highest-performing traditional chemical systems, according to NASA.

As part of the U.S. strategy, NASA’s near-term priority will be to mature and demonstrate a fission surface power system on the Moon in the late 2020s, in collaboration with the Department of Energy and industry. Such a system could provide power for sustainable lunar surface operations and test the potential for use on Mars.

Earlier in 2020, the Department of Energy said that NASA plans to build a base and a nuclear power plant on the Moon by 2026 and is inviting proposals from companies ready to take on the challenge. The plan will involve the construction of a 10-kW class fission surface power system to be used for demonstrative purposes. The plant is to be manufactured and assembled on Earth and then shipped to the Moon on a launch vehicle. This vehicle will take the plant to Moon orbit, from where a lander will take it to the surface of the satellite. The demonstration will continue for one year, and if successful, it could open the door to other missions on both the Moon and Mars.

“Space nuclear power and propulsion is a fundamentally enabling technology for American deep space missions to Mars and beyond. The United States intends to remain the leader among spacefaring Nations, applying nuclear power technology safely, securely, and sustainably in space,” Scott Pace, Deputy Assistant to the President and Executive Secretary of the National Space Council, said in a statement, carried by

The U.S. should continue to enable American entrepreneurs and innovators to further bolster its commercial space industry to continue leading the space race, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross wrote in an op-ed in December.

“Competition is increasing, especially between Western nations and China. Our advantage in this new space race is the U.S. commercial space industry. It is critical that we continue to enable American entrepreneurs and innovators, lest we miss the opportunity and potentially lose the race,” Secretary Ross said.


2 Points

I am happy to see nuclear energy research and development space colony use and hope in some way it continues to evolve. This program should have had a constant flow of money into it over the past 50 years (at least). It has huge spin off tech potential not only for places other than the Moon but also for spacecraft and space stations. But it also has HUGE beneficial tech spin offs back on earth as well to help pay for the R&D (something the GOV sucks at capturing). Such as:
Advancements in shielding and containment
Advancements in computer and robotic maintenance
Advancement in miniaturization of a Nuclear power plant
Advancements in fuel rod design
Advancements in Fuel Rod Efficiency

All of our nuclear powered Naval vessels all run a miniature power plant so it is not like they have decades of real science and engineering data to build on. But most of these vessels power plants have not had any real advancement in design in decades to make them smaller, safer or more efficient. So they may benefit the most from a new design. After all if we can operate a small plant on the moon we can do the same in a sub.

Second set of research they can feed of is companies like General Atomics has been working with the Department of Energy for years on a small Nuclear plant capable of using spent rods to continue to create energy. Spent rods are not fully depleted, just lower quality than the Large current plants can safely use.

Now for my not so happy comments:
I am not so optimistic about space craft propulsion. My biggest problem with this is that currently we do not have a way to build a space craft large enough to take advantage of a Nuclear Propulsion and probably wont until we have Moon, Mars and Space Station Colonies up and running that can build one. At that point the space reactors will be the easy part of the design so why spend a ton of money now. Secondly I think this is way down the road and there are other tech in the works that will negate the need for a Nuclear Propulsion until we start long haul mission out of the solar system.

Space Policy Directive-6 as with everything trump has done, this directive is more problem than solution even if the idea is great. It assumes a magic wand can be waved and NASA can and will make it happen. Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Regan all tried to put out “NASA WILL DO THE FOLLOWING” and all those missions failed (reference Star Wars, Orion, Constellation, SLS (maybe)…). Not because there Idea was wrong but because there approach with just a directive like this forcing NASA to change direction from what they wanted to do to focus on something they didn’t fully support and with no per-agreements and deals being setup ahead of time with Congress, NASA and industry.

To get NASA to succeed at anything you must create a steady stream of money with an aggressive even handed oversight that crosses administrations. You must get everyone to agree in the project and that can only happen if you keep the funding low enough and the work spread across enough states without making it a them vs us fight. You also have to involve academia and other nations to make it successful (reference ISS, Hubble).

Overall I am quite optimistic with the direction the space industry is going. As long as WWIII Nuclear War doesn’t happen first I may even live long enough to see both a Moon and Mars Colony (something I had given up on decades ago).

4 Points