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Dr. Steve Howe, Tuesday, 1-24-12 January 25, 2012

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Dr. Steve Howe, Tuesday, 1-24-12


Guest:  Dr. Steven Howe.  Topics:  space nuclear power for power & propulsion systems, & radioisotope power generators. You are invited to comment, ask questions, & discuss the Space Show program/guest(s) on the Space Show blog, https://thespaceshow.wordpress.com.  Comments, questions, & any discussion must be relevant & applicable to Space Show programming. Transcripts of Space Show programs are not permitted without prior written consent from The Space Show (even if for personal use) & are a violation of the Space Show copyright.  You will want to follow the websites along with our guest:  http://csnr.usra.edu/index.html &  www.usra.edu.  If you are interested in the CSNR 2012 Summer Fellowship Program, you can learn more & apply no later than March 9, 2012  from CSNR at  http://csnr.usra.edu/2012_summer_app2.html.  We welcomed Dr. Howe to the program to discuss space nuclear power.  We started out with an overview of both the Center for Space Nuclear Research & the Universities Space Research Association.  Dr. Howe then told us that they were working on nuclear rockets with the Aerojet Corporation, focusing on a new fuel form away from based on tungsten.  During our discussion, he had much to say about this fuel, its advantages, & its testing.  He also talked about ISP & thrust to weight ratios.  He was asked about testing & we learned they plan on doing ground tests at the Nevada Test Site.  Listen to why their tests will be different from earlier nuclear rocket engine tests & how they are expelling the exhaust into the ground.  You will hear There is no radiation, only hydrogen which bleeds into the rock strata.  We also talked about public concern for nuclear power in space, then we shifted our focus to a nuclear rocket mission to Mars.  Dr. Howe told us about the three year Mars mission but also said with a nuclear rocket a one year mission would be possible.  We also talked about the costs for developing the nuclear rocket as well as the possibility of other countries doing it before the U.S.  Next, we talked about the use of uranium & even the possibility of thorium, including why thorium is not useful for weapons. One listener question asked about the Mars Direct method & insitu resource utilization.  Dr. Howe supported the use of insitu but suggested it for later trips as it might be too risky for the initial trips.  He then described their Mars Hopper project which will certainly interest us all.  As this segment ended, we talked about using the nuclear rocket for going to the Moon & for a lunar & even Martian habitat. 

As we started our second segment, Dr. Howe was asked if QuickLaunch could be useful.  Dr. Dewar sent in a clarification note about U-233 as a byproduct of  thorium & why its a problem for weapons.  In talking about a lunar habitat, Dr. Howe told us about the NASA Fission Surface Power Program (FSP).  We also talked about using the new tungsten fuel for habitats.  He told us about the Nuclear Thermal Mars Sample Mission Study that compared the nuclear rocket to Delta IV launches.  Listeners asked about Vasimr & our guest was asked to clarify for us the differences between nuclear electric propulsion & nuclear thermal propulsion & why the latter is preferable.  Dr. Dewar sent in another note to talk about Y-12.  Later, much was said about plutonium & its pending shortage.  Make sure you hear what Dr. Howe had to say about this looming shortage. Near the end, Dr. Howe mentioned his efforts with Hbar Technologies, LLC, suggesting that possibly using these nuclear advancements for medicine, specifically cancer, might be a driver for space applications. As we concluded, Dr. Howe told us about his books on Kindle & the consolidated all in one book, “Earth Rise.”  Here is the Amazon URL & remember, if you buy it using this URL, Amazon contributes to The Space Show: www.amazon.com/Earth-Rise-ebook/dp/B005LD3LYS/ref=onegialeafou-20

Post your comments/questions on the blog URL above.


1. Nuclear Fan - February 4, 2012

Dr. Howe,
I am a propulsion engineer, but most of my experience is with traditional systems: solids, liquids and hybrids. While I have read a small amount about nuclear rocket, I’m not sure where to look for further material. Do you have any suggestions either for the nuclear propulsion in general, or your work in particular? Any texts, histories or papers would be appreciated.

steven howe - February 5, 2012

Nuclear fan, there are several papers published at the STAIF-2007 conference and the NETS 2011 symposium. You might also google Steven Howe, Stan Borowski, Ross Allen and Robert O’Brien to fidn papers on missions and fuels technology. If you don’t find what you want, feel free to email me at steven.howe@inl.gov .


2. Kelly Starks - February 4, 2012

Been meaning to post this for a while.

Dr. Howe,
You mentioned the Mars “hopper” for sample return. What was the reaction mass you were going to have the hopper harvest when it lands?

Dr Zubrin listed a similar manned craft concept using I think CO2 as the reaction mass. It would boost from LEO to Mars, land on Mars, retank and hop several times to different exploration sites – then retank and boost back to Earth. That seemed a extremely appealing concept – but I don’t know how possible it is?

steven howe - February 5, 2012

Kelly, Yes, we are using liquified CO2 as a propellant. The difference is that Zubrin used electricallt heated magnesium oxide , I think. The issue is getting enough electrical power. The MERs have shown that the solar power reduces pretty fast due to dust. Also, getting enough power is tough. We use a small radioisotope source to heat the core then thrust with the CO2. We expect to hop 7 km every 7 days for 7 years.


Kelly Starks - February 6, 2012

Cool, thank you.
Hopefully you can do something similar for a future maned flight.

3. John Hunt (in Atlanta) - February 4, 2012

I don’t disagree about the goal of getting a low cost means to go to LEO. That is why I was never for retiring the shuttle. But, that one is done. I have a moderate about of confidence that the commercials plus EELVs and Falcon 9 will give us an alternative to relying on the Russians. However, the larges “foot in the door” for HSF funding is SLS/Orion. We need to fight to keep that opening in the budget with preferred treatment during the current budget cutting phase.

4. John Hunt (in Atlanta) - January 27, 2012

At the close of the show I made a comment that Dr. Howe’s nuclear Mars mission concepts require HLVs as an enabling capability. Just to support this note Dr. Howe’s comments earlier in the show that the nuclear Mars mission requires 9 HLV launches compared with 12 for the conventional. This is why I continue to counter the “new space” anti-SLS bias. SLS far from being a rocket with a mission it is a rocket with many missions. This includes Moon and asteroid missions, heavy life to LEO to support space stations (new modules for ISS or new structures), and assembling Mars capable craft.

Ideally a robust space program would have both a large expendable HLV for outsize payloads and a reusable space plane for personel and smaller cargo/supplies. Given that there is little support for the latter vehicle at present, we should support the HLV based on Constellation R&D.

Andy Hill - January 29, 2012

While I agree that heavy lift is ultimately going to be needed as an enabler to beyeond LEO operations,the way that NASA will do it is likely to prohibit any advancement at all.

Soaking up all the available funds to create a rocket with a biannual flight rate will wipe out any research into new technologies that are also needed.

The first task needs to be getting people reliably to LEO in a cost effective way (without paying the Russians) with a regular shedule of launches, solve that then there will be need for heavy lift.

Another thing from what I can make out SLS appears to be pretty much the same as Ares V or even Direct 3 so I see very little need for this thing to be designed again.

Kelly Starks - February 4, 2012

I’ld disagree that its critical you have a real (Sat-V or Ares-V class) HLV for nuclear propulsion options. But obviously if you don’t at least have shuttle (MLV) class your not really going to be able to do any major project in space. And of course we now have no maned launch capacity at all – so were really in no position to talk about missions to Mars at all without some serious infastructure upgrades.

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