NASA thinks US needs nuclear-powered spacecraft to stay ahead of China

Recent experts shared their belief that the U.S. should seriously invest in nuclear technology if it wants to keep up with China in space.
Experts say the U.S. should invest more in nuclear-powered spacecraft in order to compete with countries like China.

Experts from NASA and the aerospace sector discussed how the U.S. compares to other countries when it comes down to developing nuclear propulsion technology during a Wednesday hearing. They also said that the U.S. must move quickly to keep up with other nations in developing new nuclear propulsion technology. The hearing, entitled "Accelerating deep orbit travel with space nucle propulsion", was held before the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Bhavya Lal (NASA's senior advisor on budget and finance), stated that China and other strategic competitors are investing heavily in space technology, including propulsion and nuclear power. To remain competitive and a leader in global space, the United States must move quickly.

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NASA previously discussed the possibility that nuclear propulsion technology could be used to help send people to Mars faster than traditional chemical rockets.

NASA stated that nuclear electric propulsion systems use propellants more efficiently than chemical rockets, but they provide less thrust. "Nuclear-electric propulsion systems can accelerate spacecraft for longer periods of time and propel a Mars mission with a fraction of high-thrust propellant systems."

Space technology can use multiple types of nuclear propulsion. Nuclear electric propulsion is a way to convert thermal energy from a reactor into electricity that can be used to power any type of propulsion technology or electrical thruster that a spacecraft may use. Nuclear thermal propulsion is when reactors heat propellants such as hydrogen, and then the gas resulting from that reaction is released, creating thrust. This can produce a lot more thrust that electric propulsion systems.

The experts who spoke at Wednesday's hearing said that NASA must act quickly if it wants to reach Mars. U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D.Va.), chair of the committee said, "If the United States wants to lead in a human mission, we have nothing to lose." Beyer said that Congress has funded NASA's nuclear space technology development over the years "with the aim of conducting an in-space flight trial."

While nuclear electric propulsion is a great option, especially when you are trying to reach Mars quickly, there are risks associated with the development and use of this technology.

Roger M. Myers (co-chair of the Committee on Space Nuclear Propulsion Technologies) stated during the hearing that "the risks associated with [nuclear propel] are a fundamental material challenge that we believe is quite likely to be solvable." Myers said that this materials challenge involves finding or developing materials that can withstand heat and other extreme elements in space.

The hearing was held in response to claims that China had tested a hypersonic weapon capable of delivering nuclear energy in August. These claims have been denied by China.