NASA to focus on nuclear-powered craft to reach new destinations, O'Keefe says

Oct. 25, 2002 5:42 p.m.

Before we can achieve visionary goals such as sending manned missions to Mars or to other solar systems, we must first overcome some practical limitations, according to Sean O'Keefe, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Primarily, he said, NASA needs to improve the speed of its propulsion systems and to find ways to minimize the negative effects of extended space travel on human beings.

O'Keefe, appointed by President George W. Bush last December, spoke about "The Future of NASA" before a capacity audience at Princeton University's Computer Science Building on Friday, October 25.

"When John Glenn first flew into space more than 30 years ago, the speed he flew at was 18,000 mile per hour," O'Keefe said. "The recent Endeavor mission flew at the same speed. We need new types of propulsion that go beyond solar power. This becomes especially important as the craft moves away from the sun and loses power as it moves toward distant destinations."

O'Keefe said that NASA is pursuing nuclear-powered transport, adding that nuclear technology is highly mature and has been used safely for submarine transport for more than 40 years. An onboard nuclear reactor would triple the speed possible with solar power and would liberate the craft from its dependence on the sun. O'Keefe also said that NASA should take more active steps to promote this approach through greater collaboration with environmental groups.

The second major consideration for long-term space travel is the effect on humans, said O'Keefe. "During only 190 days in space -- the longest effort so far by American astronauts -- the astronauts lost approximately 25 percent of their muscle mass and six to seven percent of their bone mass. In order to pursue much longer space travel, we must find ways to protect astronauts against the debilitating effects of microgravity."

"These ideas are practical, not visionary," O'Keefe concluded, "but they will enable the next person in my position to pursue more visionary and dramatic goals."

O'Keefe's talk was sponsored by the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Wright brothers' flight.

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601