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The Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Stage (NTPS): A Key Space Asset for Human Exploration and Commercial Missions to the MoonThe nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) has frequently been discussed as a key space asset that can bridge the gap between a sustained human presence on the Moon and the eventual human exploration of Mars. Recently, a human mission to a near Earth asteroid (NEA) has also been included as a "deep space precursor" to an orbital mission of Mars before a landing is attempted. In his "post-Apollo" Integrated Space Program Plan (1970 to 1990), Wernher von Braun, proposed a reusable Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Stage (NTPS) to deliver cargo and crew to the Moon to establish a lunar base initially before sending human missions to Mars. The NTR was selected because it was a proven technology capable of generating both high thrust and high specific impulse (Isp approx. 900 s)-twice that of today's best chemical rockets. During the Rover and NERVA programs, 20 rocket reactors were designed, built and successfully ground tested. These tests demonstrated the (1) thrust levels; (2) high fuel temperatures; (3) sustained operation; (4) accumulated lifetime; and (5) restart capability needed for an affordable in-space transportation system. In NASA's Mars Design Reference Architecture (DRA) 5.0 study, the "Copernicus" crewed NTR Mars transfer vehicle used three 25 klbf "Pewee" engines-the smallest and highest performing engine tested in the Rover program. Smaller lunar transfer vehicles-consisting of a NTPS with three approx. 16.7 klbf "SNRE-class" engines, an in-line propellant tank, plus the payload-can be delivered to LEO using a 70 t to LEO upgraded SLS, and can support reusable cargo delivery and crewed lunar landing missions. The NTPS can play an important role in returning humans to the Moon to stay by providing an affordable in-space transportation system that can allow initial lunar outposts to evolve into settlements capable of supporting commercial activities. Over the next decade collaborative efforts between NASA and private industry could open up new exploration and commercial opportunities for both organizations. With efficient NTP, commercial habitation and crew delivery systems, a "mobile cislunar research station" can transport crews to small NEAs delivered to the E-ML2 point. Also possible are week-long "lunar tourism" missions that can carry passengers into lunar orbit for sightseeing (and plenty of picture taking), then return them to Earth orbit where they would re-enter and land using a small reusable lifting body based on NASA's HL-20 design. Mission descriptions, key vehicle features and operational characteristics are described and presented.
Document ID
Document Type
Technical Memorandum (TM)
Borowski, Stanley K. (NASA Glenn Research Center Cleveland, OH, United States)
McCurdy, David R. (Vantage Partners, LLC Brook Park, OH, United States)
Burke, Laura M. (NASA Glenn Research Center Cleveland, OH, United States)
Date Acquired
October 29, 2014
Publication Date
October 1, 2014
Subject Category
Lunar and Planetary Science and Exploration
Astronautics (General)
Spacecraft Propulsion and Power
Report/Patent Number
AIAA Paper 2013-5465
Funding Number(s)
WBS: WBS 279585.04.01.22
Distribution Limits
Public Use Permitted.

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