NASA: Racing to Mars

Reaching Mars is job #1 for NASA in the next 20 years, according to Charlie Bolden. Speaking at a press event last week, the NASA chief discussed both conventional rockets and newer advanced propulsion technologies.

The conference was held at the Aerojet Rocketdyne plant in Canoga Park, CA. Appropriate to its heritage as a major part of the space race, the plant’s entryway is adorned with a huge F-1 engine out front, the same unit that powered the Saturn V moon rocket.

Bolden lauded the RS-25 shuttle engines that the company is repurposing for the new Space Launch System, but also ventured into more forward-looking territory of advanced propulsion, also known as in-space propulsion, as it is used once the rocket it off-earth.

Speaking of the Aerojet Rocketdyne workers, Bolden said, “They are working very hard to help us get to the point where we can get astronauts to Mars much quicker than today. Right now it’s about an 8-month mission; we’d like to cut that in half.”

Bolden was flanked by Aerojet Rocketdyne’s CEO and president Scott Seymour and Julie Van Kleeck, Vice President of Advanced Space and Launch Systems. Together they discussed the advanced solar-electric propulsion systems (SEP) the company has been working on. “We’re now trying to get to higher power levels, that’s the next step,” Seymour said, referring to the 5 kilowatt (kW) engines they are currently building for NASA robotic missions. “Fifteen kilowatts would be the next step, and then to cluster them together… then in the long term, 50 to 100 kilowatts.”

Bolden pointed out that electrical power was key to getting more umph out of solar-electric engines: “The more power we can get, the larger we can make the engine and its capability… the advantage of using that kind of propulsion, pound-for-pound, is that it can fly nearly forever as opposed to chemical engines,” said in reference to the traditional liquid-fueled rocket engines that propel the vast majority of NASA’s spacecraft.

An enormous step beyond solar-electric is nuclear power. Discussing more advanced in-space propulsion, Van Kleeck spoke of projects such as NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Performance) conducted by NASA in the 1960’s. “This country did a lot of work on [nuclear rockets] back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and there is some technology being looked at regarding the fuels aspects of that, to make it lower cost and safer for the future.” NERVA was scrapped in 1972, despite successful ground firing tests and promising performance.

Bolden said that these advanced space-only systems would be “game-changers,” and not just for delivering cargo to Mars as has been much discussed. “You’ve got to be specific,” he said. “If I say I want game-changing in-space propulsion, everyone will go back to [the idea of] moving cargo. I want industry to focus on getting people to move really fast. I think we can do far better than we are doing today, but we’ve got to show our commitment by putting some money into it.”

Bolden also discussed the utility of the International Space Station for studying long-duration spaceflight and the necessity for continuing to fund Earth-observation programs and robotic planetary exploration. In a jab at the Hill, he mentioned that while he welcomed all investment in NASA programs, he did not like being told how to spend it (in a clear reference to monies being moved from, for example, commercial crew programs to the SLS). But the primary “thrust” of the discussion was about better rockets to get people to Mars faster.

Referring to various in-space propulsion technologies, Bolden closed by wondering aloud, “Should we go nuclear, or some big ion engines, of even VASMIR? There are all kinds of ideas; we’re just looking for the best idea that we can make happen…”

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