Prometheus bound?

According to a Congressional source, NASA is planning to transfer $150 million in FY05 funding out of Project Prometheus to other, unidentified programs. This decision is apparently linked to NASA’s decision to indefinitely defer (or, effectively, cancel) the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) mission. NASA hasn’t yet determined what the pilot mission of its nuclear power and propulsion initiative will be, as agency officials testified before the House Science Committee last week, taking some of the pressure (and, hence, need for funding) off of the program. However, some in Congress reportedly plan to press NASA to maintain its commitment to Prometheus, including perhaps restoring JIMO in the FY06 budget proposal.

4 comments to Prometheus bound?

  • GuessWho

    Yet again NASA has completely botched the space nuclear effort. Prometheus will be come nothing more than a job works/engineer training program for the DOE NR laboratory. Given the number of young engineers at NR, the maturity of existing NR reactor designs, and need to keep these lab guys employed now that the latest carrier and submarine reactor design efforts are essentially complete and have progressed to manufacturing and deployment, the NASA nuclear effort is nothing more than a funding bridge to the next reactor effort that is 3-4 yrs down the road. To support the VSE, a reactor design compatible with lunar/martian surface operations is a different beast than a deep space NEP reactor due to material issues. Both concepts are completely out of the realm of experience of DOE-NR which deals with water reactors. It will take them several years just to get comfortable with the materials issues let alone optimizing the design for space applications. By then, public and congressional support will likely have evaporated.

  • From where I’m sitting NASA looks set to make an incompetent mess of managing the nuclear propulsion program, as it did for next generation launch in the past decade.

    For VSE to succeed in the long term that launcher research program needed to be well conceived and include real research that was done by more than just those who played ball with MSFC. How they managed to turn so much money into so little useful work I hope someone will someday dare to look into – and publish the uncensored results.

    When the nuclear thermal propulsion was transfered from AEC to NASA… it died. When DC-X was transfered from SDIO to NASA… it died.

    From the outside it sure looks like giving programs to NASA is a convenient way to make them die of ‘natural causes’.

    The trouble is, someone 10 years from now will again realize we need nuclear propulsion and again try to do something about it. They will take on this task that needs a small experienced team working the problems for a decade, and give it to a large inexperienced team to do in 4 years.

    They won’t make much progress, the program will be cancelled, and the whole cycle will repeat again after the memories of the last failure have worn off, assuming NASA lasts that long.

  • Mr. Walker

    The redirection of the Prometheus program was the result of NASA taking a step back and realizing that a mission such as JIMO was overly ambitious and did not incorporate a good systems approach to nuclear space exploration.

    It is far better to test the nuclear systems on expeditions to the moon and Mars before heading into the much harsher environs of the Jovian system. A spiral development of the needed systems can only enhance the eventual JIMO mission.

  • GuessWho

    “It is far better to test the nuclear systems on expeditions to the moon and Mars before heading into the much harsher environs of the Jovian system. A spiral development of the needed systems can only enhance the eventual JIMO mission.” – Walker

    Harsher for what? The Jupiter environ does not pose a significant environment to the reactor end of the spacecraft beyond what it generates on its own. For the remainder of the spacecraft, Jupiter’s radiation environment does pose a significant challenge. If that was the only issue, then a Saturn/Titan or Neptune/Triton mission would have been a more logical choice as an alternative mission since it would still require development of a space nuclear NEP system without the radiation issues associated with JIMO. The real issue is the complete immaturity of the reactor power plant needed for an NEP application that requires long life, high temperatures, autonomous operation, and high reliability. We are essentially back to a reactor technology development program as originally planned under the NSI program. NASA’s challenge is keeping a technology development effort funded without a specific mission tied to it. This is what drove them to select a mission (JIMO) only a space nuclear powered system could perform that was high on the decadel survey priority list. The problem was that NASA (MSFC, GRC, JPL) and its DOE-NE team grossly underestimated the scope of the program during the initial salesmanship effort to HQ and Congress. A mission that could be launched in 2012, take 7 years to get there, and cost less than $2-$3 Billion suddenly became a mission that would launch by 2015 at its earliest (before DOE-NR was signed up) and more likely by 2018-2020 (given NR’s slow entry into the program and their submarine reactor design approach that is based on manned systems that will not fail, would take 9-12 years to get to Jupiter because of launch vehicle limitations and the desire to launch to escape, and cost $10B plus.

    Lunar and Martian surface power applications pose a completely different set of problems owing to such things as dust, oxygen, manned presence, etc. that affect the selection of materials that can survive (refractory metals really don’t like oxygen and carbon) and a design that is semi-autonomous yet servicable if absolutely necessary. Further, performance can be traded for temperature and mass resulting in a system based on reactor materials with greater operating heritage and thus less development of the reactor is needed. Given the reactor NR costs are the major cost and schedule driver, this approach has a lot of appeal. It doesn’t however support a spiral development that Steidel prefers since an NEP system operates at temperatures beyond what terrestrial reactors have been operated and for which a good materials database exists.

    The one reactor fits all mentality is what doomed SP-100 (along with ballooning costs and schedules associated with this approach) during NASA’s last foray into space nuclear power.