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NASA’s possible nuclear path to Mars

NASA's NERVA nuclear engine, from APR Pat Duggins' book "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap"
Pat Duggins
NASA's NERVA nuclear engine, from APR Pat Duggins' book "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap"

Alabama is leading NASA in new research on nuclear propulsion. The Space Nuclear Propulsion Project at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville is developing engines to take humans and large amounts of cargo into deep space. Proponents say atomic motors can travel farther than chemically furled rockets. Dr. Kurt Polzin is the chief engineer of NASA’s Nuclear Propulsion Project. He says that kind of rocket has been in development for decades.

“There's been a long history of NASA’s interest in nuclear propulsion that goes back to the fifties and sixties with the NERVA program, but that program was stopped,” Polzin noted. “They had some big technological hurdles, but more recently, developments with the use of uranium, it's much safer to work with. So you see not just NASA's interest, but also interest across the nation.”

Polzin is says that the Marshall Center has collaborated with other government agencies to make nuclear propulsion much safer.

“ Marshall has played as the lead to the project. The Space Nuclear Propulsion Project is centered here at the Marshall Center,” he said. “We've partnered across the Department of Energy. They've done a lot of work on developing accident tolerant reactors that are much safer. So even if you do have an accident, you're not going to have an accident like Chernobyl in the 1980s.”

Marshall is also managing NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. That new booster had its first unmanned launch in November 2022. That new rocket is scheduled to carry astronauts around the moon on Artemis two next year.

Luke Pollock preferred the weather channel to children's programming since the age of two. He started at the University of Alabama in 2022 and began at Alabama Public Radio the following year as an intern. Luke has a passion for writing and interviewing, and he likes to know how money works. He’s majoring in economics.
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