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National Space Council Hears Presentations on Space Nuclear, Power, and Mining Helium-3

Aug. 21, 2019 (EIRNS)—The National Space Council, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, had its sixth meeting yesterday since it was restored by President Donald Trump in 2017. Pence and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s remarks centered on the progress in the major elements of the Moon-to-Mars program—the Orion spacecraft, and the Space Launch Vehicle that will launch it. Mike Pence also said that they are working with the Congress on the additional funding that is needed for the Artemis program.

The objective of the program, it was explained, is to live on the Moon for months. These will be multi-month expeditions at the South Pole. And unlike Apollo, the program will not rely solely on government funding.

Some of the groundbreaking technology that will have to be developed on the way to missions to Mars were discussed by a panel of experts in the last section of the meeting.

Rex Gevenden, president and CEO of BWX Technologies, and former NASA Chief Engineer, gave a presentation on the company’s work on nuclear thermal propulsion. BWX, formerly Babcock and Wilcox, has 60 years of experience in nuclear technology and power plant construction.

Gevenden said that technology is rapidly evolving, becoming higher power and more compact, which is important for space travel applications. Bridenstine asked: How much time could we save going to Mars using nuclear, rather than chemical propulsion? The answer was that nuclear would take half the time, about three months.

“That is absolutely a game-changer for what NASA is trying to achieve,” Bridenstine said. “That gives us an opportunity to really protect life, when we talk about the radiation dose when we travel between Earth and Mars.” There was no mention of fusion rockets, which would reduce the trip to a matter of days.

With prodding from Bridenstine, Gevenden stated that fission reactors in spacecraft would allow them to maneuver, for reasons of national security or to avoid space debris. He discussed directed-energy weapons, which could be used to divert an asteroid or take out space debris.

Oddly, however, it was not mentioned at the meeting that yesterday President Trump signed a “Presidential Memorandum on Launch of Spacecraft Containing Space Nuclear Systems,” which specifies detailed procedures and departmental responsibilities for launching spacecraft that house fission reactors.

Clive Neal, from the University of Notre Dame, an expert on lunar science and resource utilization, and Emeritus Chair of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), said that developing in situ resource utilization (ISRU) on the Moon will require a sustainable human presence. Importantly, after listing the more commonly known water ice and other resources on the Moon, Neal mentioned helium-3 for fusion is one of the resources for export from the Moon. “China is very interested in this,” he said, and “bringing the economy of the Moon to Earth should be an important goal of the lunar program.”

Finally, Elizabeth (Zibi) Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, discussed their Dragonfly mission to send a version of a drone to Saturn’s moon, Titan. The Dragonfly project was recently chosen by NASA for its next New Frontier mission. The launch vehicle will carry a quadcopter, a kind of helicopter with two sets of two propellers. It will launch in 2024, and arrive at Titan a decade later.

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