The idea of a manned mission to Mars has been the crowning jewel in NASA’s library of high-concept, hard-to-promise mission statements. The biggest problem with this goal is that the Mars Missions are intrinsically the most dangerous venture any astronaut could ever undertake. From radiation belts to cabin fever, but most of all the passage of time, the Mars Missions seem less and less likely to ever come to fruition. With NASA acknowledging that chemical rockets aren’t the solution to a manned mission to Mars, it might be time to turn the clock back to 1972 to focus on old technology that could potentially be a difference maker.
It has been well-documented that the hunt for a manned mission to Mars will probably not come by way of typical chemical-burning rockets. However, you can look back to the early ’50s to see research focused on fission-based rocket concepts. This, NASA believes, could be the key to accomplishing what would surely be the greatest venture in human history. This past August NASA put together an $18.8 million-dollar contract with a company named BWXT. BWXT is focused on developing a reactor that will function with nuclear thermal propulsion, often shortened to NTP. If something successful comes out of this joint venture then we could literally see the space program evolve in our lifetimes.
Michael Houts works at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and it is there that he is in charge of the NTP project we are talking about now. Houts says, “The strengths with NTP are the ability to do the very fast round trip to Mars, the ability to abort even if you’re 2 to 3 months into missions.” Houts went on to explain that was the NTP program successful that it could lead to ‘the growth potential to even more advanced systems.”
The big thing about NTP rockets is that they offer a completely evolutionary way to address the same problems that have plagued chemical based rockets for so long. NTP rockets not only get you more gas mileage, but they also could be life-saving time changers. According to researcher Vishal Patel, “Nuclear thermal propulsion can enable you to get to Mars faster, on the order of twice as fast.” Patel goes on to explain, “We’re looking at nice 3 to 4 month transit times.” Right now Patel’s words are merely optimistic speculation, but if that speculation leads to action ew could be experiencing a life changing moment.