I love what I do, but I have a confession. It was not always my dream to be a patent agent or even a lawyer. I never watched lawyer TV shows. I didn’t see “A Few Good Men” until half way through law school. 12 year old me might be a little disappointed with my current passions (I bet I could distract him with my tricorder-like iPhone though). So what did 12 year old me want to be when he grew up? A fighter pilot, a physicist, and/or a submarine captain. Actually, I still want to be a submarine captain! If I win the lottery or otherwise become filthy rich I will likely do a couple of things: buy a submarine, donate a huge pile of money to my alma mater’s physics department, and become more directly involved in a private commercial space company. In my flight of fancy, it occurs to me that there is a way to combine all three of these dreams of mine: nuclear-powered spacecraft!
In my opinion, nuclear-powered spacecraft are one of the most promising technologies available for real, low-cost, reliable space access. I think nuke-powered spacecraft could form the backbone of a space-based economy. Why? Power-to-weight and MPG.
We have a ton of nuclear-powered submarines, so why don’t we have a bunch of nuclear-powered spacecraft? Submarines share many of the same operational challenges as spacecraft (e.g. travelling under their own power, operating in environments while will nearly instantly kill their human cargo, and having to bring along all their own fuel and food supplies). At least two factors have prevented nukes in space: fear and ignorance. Ignorance of the real safety record of nuclear vessels and fear that a small hiccup would lead to catastrophic, irreparable damage to the earth. Talk of nuclear power typically evokes images of disasters like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or the Fukushima accident. If you’re into naval vessels, nuclear power might also make you think about ill-fated vessels like the Kursk, K-19, Thresher, and Scorpion. For a lot of people, nuclear power also evokes an image of the catastrophic harm nuclear weapons cause. It’s no wonder that the general public is fearful of nuclear-power with these images dancing through their heads!
It doesn’t have to be that way though. The public is largely ignorant of just how safe modern nuclear power plant designs are especially modern US nuclear submarine design. Even old designs are incredibly robust; the tsunami and earthquakes that rocked Fukushima were more intense that the facility was designed for. Despite enduring a disaster greater than its safety systems contemplated and never being able to produce power again, damage to the 30 year old facility had minimal effects on the environment.
US nuclear submarines, probably the closest analog to a nuclear-powered spacecraft, have an incredibly good safety record: only two have been lost since the first nuclear submarine was commissioned in 1954. This is thanks in large part the Navy’s safety assurance program SUBSAFE. No SUBSAFE-certified nuclear submarine has ever been lost.
Implementation of a safety certification program for nuclear-powered spacecraft based on the Navy’s SUBSAFE program could be an ideal way to open up space to nuclear-powered vessels. Such a program would provide a clear development pathway for both public and private spacecraft developers seeking to implement nuclear systems. Potentially, it could also streamline the development paths of RTG-powered vehicles, like Cassini. In the wake of the Columbia disaster, some suggested that NASA model its safety programs off of SUBSAFE.
In order to open space up to nuclear-powered craft a certification program should be developed, drawing from historical experience with nuclear-powered spacecraft and naval vessels, alike. This would pave the way for vehicles like the Falcon XX, which might use a nuclear-powered upper stage.