In a nuclear thermal rocket a working fluid, usually liquid hydrogen, is heated to a high temperature in a nuclear reactor, and then expands through a rocket nozzle to create thrust. The nuclear reactor's energy replaces the chemical energy of the reactive chemicals in a chemical rocket engine. Due to the higher energy density of the nuclear fuel compared to chemical fuels, about 107 times, the resulting propellant efficiency (effective exhaust velocity) of the engine is at least twice as good as chemical engines. The overall gross lift-off mass of a nuclear rocket is about half that of a chemical rocket, and hence when used as an upper stage it roughly doubles or triples the payload carried to orbit.
A nuclear engine was considered for some time as a replacement for the J-2 used on the S-II and S-IVB stages on the Saturn V and Saturn I rockets. Originally "drop-in" replacements were considered for higher performance, but a larger replacement for the S-IVB stage was later studied for missions to Mars and other high-load profiles, known as the S-N. Nuclear thermal space "tugs" were planned as part of the Space Transportation System to take payloads from a propellant depot in Low Earth Orbit to higher orbits, the Moon, and other planets. Robert Bussard proposed the Single-Stage-To-Orbit "Aspen" vehicle using a nuclear thermal rocket for propulsion and liquid hydrogen propellant for partial shielding against neutron back scattering in the lower atmosphere. The Soviets studied nuclear engines for their own moon rockets, notably upper stages of the N-1, although they never entered an extensive testing program like the one the U.S. conducted throughout the 1960s at the Nevada Test Site. Despite many successful firings, American nuclear rockets did not fly before the space race ended.
To date, no nuclear thermal rocket has flown, although the NERVA NRX/EST and NRX/XE were built and tested with flight design components. The highly successful U.S. Project Rover which ran from 1955 through 1972 accumulated over 17 hours of run time. The NERVA NRX/XE, judged by SNPO to be the last "technology development" reactor necessary before proceeding to flight prototypes, accumulated over 2 hours of run time, including 28 minutes at full power. The Russian nuclear thermal rocket RD-0410 was also claimed by the Soviets to have gone through a series of tests at the nuclear test site 50°10′12″N 78°22′30″E / 50.170°N 78.375°E near Semipalatinsk.
The United States tested twenty different sizes and designs during Project Rover and NASA's NERVA program from 1959 through 1972 at the Nevada Test Site, designated Kiwi, Phoebus, NRX/EST, NRX/XE, Pewee, Pewee 2 and the Nuclear Furnace, with progressively higher power densities culminating in the Pewee (1970) and Pewee 2. Tests of the improved Pewee 2 design were cancelled in 1970 in favor of the lower-cost Nuclear Furnace (NF-1), and the U.S. nuclear rocket program officially ended in spring of 1973. Research into nuclear rockets has continued quietly since that time within NASA. Current (2010) 25,000 pound-thrust reference designs (NERVA-Derivative Rockets, or NDRs) are based on the Pewee, and have specific impulses of 925 seconds.
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