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Doing Something Useful

For all the (often legitimate) grief NASA gets, here at least is one thing it’s doing that’s useful in a “NACA airfoil” basic R&D way: NASA To Accelerate Space Nuclear Power:

NASA’s objective will be to use nuclear power much more frequently to open previously isolated areas of the solar system for robotic exploration as early as 2013, Aviation Week reports. NASA is moving quickly to make space nuclear power, and eventually nuclear propulsion, an inherent design element in near term, medium cost planetary missions.

This has come about with development progress in closed-loop Stirling cycle nuclear power systems, which are four times as powerful as the radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) used on past missions.

Alan Stern, who heads NASA science programs, is anxious to exploit this maturing technology for robotic exploration, and he wants to move fast. Initial proposals for Discovery and Mars Scout missions that would use Stirling closed-loop nuclear systems are due at NASA headquarters by Nov. 30.

While I’d prefer on principle that this sort of thing be done by private entities, jumpstarting a useful new technology and demonstrating it on ambitious science missions is at least giving us something useful (flight-proven simple nuclear power systems, plus the resulting science data) for a portion of the taxpayer money spent on the agency.

1 comment to Doing Something Useful

  • It really would be nice if NASA spent more of its money on technology development and less on trying to operate launch vehicles…Griffin himself pointed out in a big article earlier this year that back in the Apollo days, over 10% of NASA’s budget was going to technology maturation projects (in addition to the typical categories of aeronautics, space science, and manned spaceflight). If NASA were putting even 5% of its budget into funding technology maturation projects (things like space nuclear power, propellant transfer/storage/depots, reusable reentry/aerobraking TPS systems, etc) I think it would be some of the most effectively used money in their budget.