Monday, November 13, 2023

Why the Cartoon Names for a Serious Mission?

I was reading an otherwise serious story about nuclear power in space missions and was struck by a couple of odd things.  Otherwise serious missions with cartoon names.  

Let me start at the beginning.  The story is that the US Air Force Research Lab has awarded defense contractor Lockheed Martin a $33.7 million contract to develop a space qualified nuclear power source.  More specifically, this is to be part of the Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-Orbit Nuclear (JETSON) effort to "mature high-power nuclear electric power and propulsion technologies and spacecraft design."

Wait.  JETSON?  As in George Jetson?  OK...

JETSON aims to launch a fission reactor that will be started up once in space. The reactor will generate heat, which is then transferred to Stirling power converters to produce electricity. This can then be used to power spacecraft payloads or electric thrusters for propulsion.

Using a reactor to generate heat... to run Stirling engines, er, power converters to produce electricity?  That sounds like that program called KRUSTY (Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology) that we talked about five years ago?  As in Krusty the Clown?   

Despite the cartoon names, this is a real mission with a serious looking "artist's concept" rendering.

Los Alamos National Laboratory's concept of a space nuclear reactor system to produce high-power electricity. (Image credit: LANL) 

"Nuclear fission development for space applications is key to introducing technologies that could dramatically change how we move and explore in the vastness of space," Barry Miles, JETSON program manager and principal investigator at Lockheed Martin, said in a statement.

"From high-power electrical subsystem and electric propulsion to nuclear thermal propulsion or fission surface power, Lockheed Martin is focused on developing these systems with our important government agencies and industry partners," Miles added.

Lockheed will work with Space Nuclear Power Corp (SpaceNukes) and BWX Technologies, Inc. (BWXT), both of which have expertise in nuclear power and reactor design.  The contract is to get from the preliminary design review (PDR) stage, with the option to go to critical design review (CDR) level.  The source article doesn't describe how this will proceed. 

This contract was apparently part of a trio announced back on September 29 but is just now getting talked about in sources I reference daily.  The three contracts were related to JETSON.  Intuitive Machines received a $9.4 million contract to design a spacecraft concept utilizing a compact radioisotope power system - and yes, that's the same Intuitive Machines that is preparing to launch their lunar lander mission NET January 12.  The other contract was to Westinghouse Government Services, based in South Carolina, to continue research into utilizing high-power nuclear fission systems in spacecraft. 

You might recall Lockheed Martin receiving a contract back in July that's along a similar direction, to build and develop a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) engine.  

Lockheed Martin and BWX technologies under DARPA’s DRACO (the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) program and in partnership with NASA will build the nuclear thermal rocket. NASA and DARPA are committing up to $499 million towards this program.

To editorialize just a little: it's about time.  The future is undoubtedly nuclear and totally different propulsion from the chemical explosions we use now.  As I said back in 2011, go outside on a clear, dark night.  Wait until your eyes are used to the dark and look up.  Everything you see that is shining by its own light is nuclear powered.  Everything you see shining in reflected sunlight (the moon, the planets), all of that is lit by nuclear power.  Now look toward your house or a nearby city.  Everything you see is lit by chemical bonds being broken and re-established.  As someone put it, "everything God powers is nuclear; everything man powers is fire."  Pretty much true.


  1. Why the cartoon names? Because the people that fund the projects are simple-minded simpletons and buffoons. I mean, our fearless and most wonderful congresscritters.

    And the people reporting on said project to the masses are the media. A media degree is easier to get than an actual phys-ed degree. Only easier degrees to get are social work and edumacation. Seriously. Your dumb-as-a-rock jock has a harder classload than your up-and-coming reporter, or teacher or social worker.

    Thus... cartoon names.

    You have to dumb it down to make it fit into a synopsis paragraph on your research grant else nobody will understand what you are seeking a grant for.

    And... it's catchy.

    Think... SNAP - Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power - so much catchier than it's name, or saying "Nuclear reactors for auxiliary power in space-based applications."

    Or NERVA - Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application. Why not just say "nuclear powered thruster engine for space-based applications?" Because it's not snazzy nor rolls off the tongue easily.

  2. we haven't yet learned to use nuclear power, we're still wastefully/lossfully converting it into heat to power engines.
    but it won't be in my lifetime.

  3. And, yeah, about time we get serious about the various methods of nuclear propulsion, from electric thrusters to all-out nuclear-heated reaction engines.

  4. Photons have a high exit velocity, why aren't we using matter+antimatter? Turning matter into antimatter shouldn't take much energy because you aren't putting the output energy in, right?

    1. So, please elucidate on the storage of anti-matter for me. I'll wait.

    2. I'd start with putting it in something that doesn't matter.

  5. I have an alternate theory, which is that nerds and geeks, including space geeks and rocket science nerds, like to be silly from time to time about what they take with utmost seriousness. Orbit is hard, as folks have noted, so why not have a little fun with an acronym which is going to be a mouthful anyway?

  6. Starting to look a bit like this one, aren't they?

  7. I thought nuclear reactors required real time monitoring and cooling. I guess cooling is easy enough Up There, open the window and it's plenty cool, unless it's not, because Sun..I'm totally on board with the idea. I'm sure that the cost of development will land on The People, who will then be somehow further Managed and Controlled and made to pay more for whatever benefit the technology we paid to develop offers.

    1. Cooling is actually very hard to conduct in space if one is anywhere near a nuclear furnace (star, some jovians.) Big radiators, hanging out in the dark side required and takes a looong time.

      As to nuclear reactors, there are nuclear reactors like we have creating power on subs or for utilities, then there are decay reactors that create heat or energy by just decaying at a steady rate and don't need to be monitored. Those we've had since the 50's and 60's and work great on satellites and space probes and some far-away military listening posts (yes, really.) GE even had an 'ad' announcing the creation of said small reactors for civilian use, but that got shut down.

      Then there are more modern nuclear plants that haven't been put into production yet because the world-wide public is scared of nuclear energy. Most production reactors are basically based on 1950's tech. Military reactors on 1960's tech. It's the 2020's and we've made huge technical leaps since then and... nobody's been allowed to build newer designs, until recently that is.

      Back in the 1980's there was talk about neighborhood micro-reactors that provided a constant output, required no monitoring or servicing, would basically fit in a conex container, and would last about 25 years of service, and be far cheaper per megawatt than coal, gas or conventional nuke plants. And nothing happened because of government regulations and public fear spurred on by the media.

      Back in the 1990's, talk about neighborhood microplants was again active, but nothing happened for the same reasons.

      Back in the 2000's... same.

      Back in the 2010's... same.

      Now, in the 2020's, the same companies are talking about the same (but upgraded) microplants and both a company in Japan and Rolls Royce are building some.

      If the public and the governments weren't so whiny and easily influenced, California's power problems would have been solved in the 1980s. Small communities could have a micro plant and there'd be no to little need for expensive and fragile transmission lines linking small communities to the main grid.

    2. Way back in the first year of the blog I threw out the idea of having the big utility power plants replaced with or augmented by essentially neighborhood scale nuclear reactors. The Navy's A4W reactors are a standard design, national stock number, and deliver 500 million watts when maintained by 20-something year olds. It's true they have an infinite cooling water supply, but ignoring that necessity, think of how many homes could run on half a gigawatt. 15-20,000 at a rough calculation based on running the reactor at around 25% of rated power.

      It's always opposed. The China Syndrome - the movie, that is - effectively doomed nuclear power. As you say, Beans, people are terrified of that "n-word."

      I thought cooling would work in space if they just opened the windows and let the vacuum blow through - as Justin_O_Guy almost says.

    3. GE even had an 'ad' announcing the creation of said small reactors for civilian use, but that got shut down.

      Yeah, that would take away infrastructure and the necessary maintenance, digging into necessary budgets and the manpower that goes with it, might give consumers a less expensive bill,,can't be having that.
      Diminishing the size of a manager's department is always fought tooth and nail. AT&T sure fought being broken up. The idea that we could own our own phones instead of rent just really hurt.
      And the Public knee wobbling Willies can be extracted from a small number of ill informed or agencies driven Mostly Peaceful protesters at the drop of a Soros checkbook.

  8. @ Beans
    tell me I'm crazy or it's not possible (or just what have I been smoking), but, for nuclear propulsion in space, back in 1951/2 (yeah! I was just a young kid reading too much Scientific American back when it was scientific), I'd been thinking of a carbon tube wrapped with wires per an accelerator (increasing the frequency as you got towards the far end: 5763 oscillators with 203A amplifiers - you didn't even need a glass envelope: you were operating in a vacuum) with a piece of nuclear junk (you choice) throwing heavy particles (at that time I was thinking of bromine ions) into the near end and running them with increasing velocity down the tube.
    Crazy, ne?

    1. And then you have Heinlein's nuclear tea-kettles. Using a pile to heat liquid mass. That was back in the 40's. Which is... what NERVA is. Use a nuke pile to heat to high temps a liquid that then expands and squirts out at a very high velocity.

      The best place to find info is at atomicrockets, at

      You can go from a simple overview to basically a doctorate-level treatment of space propulsion, all things nuclear in space, and what is currently possible and what can be in the future.

    2. We've known and demonstrated how to use nuke propulsion for decades, now over half a century. Hell, we had a B-36 with a nuclear jet engine, for frick's sake, as a potential for a space engine.

      The end of the Saturn rocket system cost us a lot. Post-Apollo launches were planned to have nuclear upper stages for permanent use as space-taxis and space-trucks between the Earth, Moon and local Lagrange points, as a way to develop interplanetary travel by the 2000's.

      Boy, we missed it bigly, no?

  9. As part of a hard SF novel(s) I'm writing, I'm researching the prospects for MHD interplanetary drives, arriving in the early 2020s according to my alternate history timeline. This article is interesting, and I'm going to have to do some research on it to see whether it is more viable than MHD.

    I may end up using both concepts, just as I'm using both John Powell's Balloons to Space concept as the main form of launch, along with Gary Hudson's Rotary Rocket program(heavily modified).

    Silly me; I thought that retiring would give me time to do a lot of writing, but instead I get doing other things besides writing. Among them is surfing the net. Thank you, SiG, for an interesting read and site.

    1. Magnetohydrodynamic drives? Interesting!

      I virtually always find I have a bunch of things I want to accomplish and can't get to them all. Forget the idea of having more time. I don't read as much of anything as I used to, but especially paper books, app notes, and tech stuff. I have a solid afternoon's worth of videos I'm waiting to watch, just a long list of stuff I need to do and learn more about.

  10. Looks . . . like a lawn dart. Good way to put your eye out.

  11. Never forget the original "Boaty McBoatface." Originally crowd chosen name for Britain's newest polar ship, but their Betters did not approve. However, they later chose that name for an AUV carried on one of their research ships!

  12. Your post is a beacon of brilliance! Insightful, well-crafted, and thoroughly engaging. Thank you for sharing your perspective with us.

  13. The Jetsons remains the single most cogent argument describing with withering accuracy the perils of technocracy for its own sake, lessons which shall remain relevant for some good time to come, if not in perpetuity.

    I see using the name as no more flippant than naming the first Space Shuttle Enterprise.

  14. There were various proposals for orbiting reactors in the late 1950s and early 1960s, for powering the big space station, the first step to the Moon. JFK's "space race" killed the space station when they decided to go straight to the Moon.

    After Apollo ended there was still some interest in a permanent station, but suddenly there were objections based on 'environmental issues'; i.e., "if the station was abandoned, the orbit would eventually decay and then a bunch of ultra-bad radioactives would hit a major city and oh, the horror!"