All Aboard: Nuclear Reactors on Faulty Rockets to Mars

John LaForge

One of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rockets  carrying equipment to the International Space Station exploded on takeoff from a NASA facility in Virginia Oct. 28, 2014.
One of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rockets carrying equipment to the International Space Station exploded on takeoff from a NASA facility in Virginia Oct. 28, 2014.

The Washington, DC-based Roll Call reported in November 2016, “Trump’s thinking on … and military space programs [has] gotten next to no attention…. But experts expect such programs to account for a significant share of what is likely to be a defense budget boost, potentially amounting to $500 billion or more in the coming decade.”

As with most major military spending programs, getting taxpayers to put up the cash means plugging new weapons systems as crucially defensive, or by hiding them inside what looks like a science experiment. Viola: The mission to Mars! 
Zach Epstein reported Jan. 19 on his blog that, “A team of researchers from NASA, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Department of Energy announced during a press conference that they have successfully tested” a small nuclear reactor that it calls “Kilopower.”  The idea is to “explore ways of building human habitats on Mars that are capable of sustaining life for long stretches of time.”

There is no basis to the rumors that the military’s nuclear weapons designers at Los Alamos and the DOE are involved at all, and we can rest assured that a peopled mission to Mars using nuclear reactors is nothing but an adventure of the mind and a thrilling exploratory joy ride.
As Newsweek noted Jan. 18: “A prototype [reactor], created by NASA and the Department of Energy, has completed non-nuclear tests and is now running with a real reactor core at a facility in Nevada.” The experiment “will culminate with a test in March when the team plans a 28-hour run at full power with all components in place to make sure everything functions as expected,” Newsweek reported. Gambling like this is legal in Nevada, where the bomb builders always say, “You bet your life!”

If robotic nuclear reactors can actually be blasted off to and then operate on Mars, “It would have a tremendous impact enabling missions that otherwise aren’t attainable,” according to NASA’s Lee Mason speaking at a press conference. “It would enable us to mine the resources on Mars.” The upside here is that mining’s acid drainage would hardly be noticed on a red planet!

NASA dreams big when it’s distracting the tax payers with literal escapism. According to Newsweek, “Kilopower systems could power robots as they explore the outer planets and their moons, or even take a probe beyond the boundaries of our solar system.” Wow! Imagine: The outer limits with no troublesome human rights, pollution laws or territorial boundaries to respect.
The Kilopower project sponsors are especially safety conscious, Newsweek reports. Scientists “are designing a set of small nuclear fission [reactors] that would be safe to operate in space. The plants run on uranium, unlike previous space-bound nuclear systems, which use plutonium.”
This is probably a polite reference to the irksome protesters that always crowd the Cape Canaveral when NASA launches slugs of plutonium into space on top of its rockets. The naysayers never stop harping about the one-in -20 launch pad failures that explosively spew disintegrated engines, payloads and astronauts to the four winds -- as if that would ever happen when plutonium or uranium power packs were on board.

The uranium fuel in the Kilopower reactors is hazardous, so NASA has planned “a range safety features.” “We would not operate the reactor until we reached deep space or a planetary surface,” Pat McClure, a nuclear specialist at Los Alamos National Laboratory working Kilopower project, told Newsweek. Anticipating the usual complaints from eco-nerds and nervous nellies, McClure says that the experimental reactor is “very easy to predict, easy to operate, and in fact can control itself.” McClure of course never said that large commercial power reactors are uncontrollable.
McClure also spoke reassuringly to Popular Science magazine. “People always think you’re going to fly Chernobyl into space or something. …but it’s very small. If something were to happen in a launch accident, it’s really not going to present a problem to the public,” he says. Should something go wrong with a launch, the exploded remnants of uranium in the reactor’s unstarted state would pose very little danger, McClure said. Knowing this will save money since it avoids the cost of an environmental impact study. 

Of course rocketing nuclear reactors to Mars will certainly produce positive good beyond measure, and the $500 billion price tag can’t possibly be curtailed over such trifles as crying human need on Planet Earth.