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NASA Awards First Major Contracts For Nuclear Electric Engines

Artist Concept Of Nuclear/Electric Propulsion Vehicle For Project Pathfinder (NASA file photo 1988)
St. Louis - Oct 3, 2002
A team of government, industry and academia, under the leadership of The Boeing Company, has been awarded a contract with NASA to develop new nuclear electric power systems for deep space exploration.

Responding to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's call to move forward with a "nuclear propulsion initiative," Boeing and a team consisting of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Glenn Research Center, Honeywell, Swales Aerospace, Auburn University and Texas A&M will develop power conversion technologies that enable future reactor electric propulsion missions.

"Our team's proposal was designed to meet the challenge NASA has made to further our exploration of the planets and deep space," said Terry Murphy, division director for Boeing Energy Systems at Boeing's Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power unit.

"This reactor technology would give us a 100-fold increase in power and a 30-fold increase in propulsion efficiency compared to conventional, storable rocket propellants. This means that a mission would take a fraction of the travel time and provide years of scientific discovery."

The focus of the Boeing team's approach is on the Brayton Power Conversion System (BPCS) technology as the baseline concept solution. Critical features of the BPCS have been proven in jet aircraft and terrestrial power plants, and integrated system testing, on a reduced scale, has been performed under separate NASA programs.

"By leveraging proven technology and an established database, we will be able to avoid the more expensive and higher risk development program elements associated with other power conversion cycles," said Richard Rovang, Boeing program manager and leader of the BPCS team.

"Using BPCS technology as a baseline concept will satisfy all design requirements and minimize cost, development time and risk to the program."

At the heart of the team are NASA's Glenn Research Center and its strengths in Brayton technology development, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a center of excellence in system and mission design.

The Boeing participants on the team come from Rocketdyne, with five decades of experience in rocket propulsion, space electric power and space reactor power applications. They join an industry and university team equally rich in experience in these crucial areas.

"Each member of the team provides extensive experience and leading edge facilities to make space reactor electric power a success," Rovang said.

The contract calls for an initial study to define a conceptual design and development plan. This will be followed by two one-year options. The result will be minimal development risk and high-yield technology advancement toward operational reactor electric power for space.

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Nuclear Hammers and Nuclear Hamstrings
Washington - Feb 20, 2002
In the proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2003 NASA has announced a major new technology development initiative in nuclear power and nuclear propulsion. A renewed commitment by NASA to develop nuclear propulsion for deep-space travel can only be applauded. But there are many popular misconceptions about nuclear propulsion, and with a time-critical mission to the planet Pluto in the balance, it is timely to discuss what in-space nuclear propulsion is - and what it is not.

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