NTRS - NASA Technical Reports Server

Back to Results
Robust Exploration and Commercial Missions to the Moon Using NTR LANTR Propulsion and Lunar-Derived PropellantsThe nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) has frequently been identified as a key space asset required for the human exploration of Mars. This proven technology can also provide the affordable access through cislunar space necessary for commercial development and sustained human presence on the Moon. In his post-Apollo Integrated Space Program Plan (1970-1990), Wernher von Braun, proposed a reusable nuclear thermal propulsion stage (NTPS) to deliver cargo and crew to the Moon to establish a lunar base before undertaking human missions to Mars. The NTR option was selected by von Braun because it was a demonstrated technology capable of generating both high thrust and high specific impulse (Isp 900 s) twice that of todays best chemical rockets. In NASAs Mars Design Reference Architecture (DRA) 5.0 study, the crewed Mars transfer vehicle used three 25 klbf Pewee engines the smallest and highest performing engine tested in the Rover program along with graphite composite fuel. Smaller, lunar transfer vehicles consisting of a NTPS using three approximately 16.5 klbf Small Nuclear Rocket Engines (SNREs), an in-line propellant tank, plus the payload can enable a variety of reusable lunar missions. These include cargo delivery and crewed lunar landing missions. Even weeklong tourism missions carrying passengers into lunar orbit for a day of sightseeing and picture taking are possible. The NTR can play an important role in the next phase of lunar exploration and development by providing an affordable in-space lunar transportation system (LTS) that can allow initial outposts to evolve into settlements supported by a variety of commercial activities such as in-situ propellant production used to supply strategically located propellant depots and transportation nodes. The utilization of iron-rich volcanic glass or lunar polar ice (LPI) deposits (each estimated at billions of metric tons) for propellant production can significantly reduce the launch mass requirements from Earth and can enable reusable, surface-based lunar landing vehicles (LLVs) using liquid oxygen/hydrogen (LOX/LH2) chemical rocket engines. Afterwards, LOX/LH2 propellant depots can be established in lunar equatorial and polar orbits to supply the LTS. At this point a modified version of the conventional NTR called the LOX-augmented NTR, or LANTR would be introduced into the LTS allowing bipropellant operation and leveraging the mission benefits of refueling with lunar-derived propellants for Earth return. The bipropellant LANTR engine utilizes the large divergent section of its nozzle as an afterburner into which oxygen is injected and supersonically combusted with nuclear preheated hydrogen emerging from the engines choked sonic throat essentially scramjet propulsion in reverse. By varying the oxygen-to-hydrogen mixture ratio, LANTR engines can operate over a range of thrust and Isp values while the reactor core power level remains relatively constant. Eventually, a LANTR-based LTS can enable a rapid commuter shuttle with one-way trip times to and from the Moon ranging from 36 to 24 hours. Even if only 1 of the extracted propellant from identified volcanic glass and polar ice deposits were available for use in lunar orbit, such a supply could support daily commuter flights to the Moon for many thousands of years! An evolutionary mission architecture is outlined and a variety of lunar missions and transfer vehicle designs are examined, along with the increasing demands on propellant production as mission complexity increases. A comparison of vehicle features and engine operating characteristics, for both NTR and LANTR engines, is also provided along with a brief discussion on the propellant production issues associated with using volcanic glass and LPI as source material.
Document ID
Document Type
Conference Paper
Borowski, Stanley K. (NASA Glenn Research Center Cleveland, OH United States)
Ryan, Stephen W. (NASA Glenn Research Center Cleveland, OH United States)
Burke, Laura M. (NASA Glenn Research Center Cleveland, OH United States)
McCurdy, David R. (Vantage Partners, LLC Cleveland, OH, United States)
Fittje, James E. (Vantage Partners, LLC Cleveland, OH, United States)
Joyner, Claude R. (Aerojet Rocketdyne, Inc. West Palm Beach, FL, United States)
Date Acquired
May 26, 2017
Publication Date
February 27, 2017
Subject Category
Spacecraft Design, Testing and Performance
Spacecraft Propulsion and Power
Report/Patent Number
Meeting Information
Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space (NETS 2017)(Orlando, FL)
Funding Number(s)
WBS: WBS 894614.04.03.01
Distribution Limits
Public Use Permitted.
Spacecraft design
Nuclear Rocket Engines
Lunar-derived propellant

Available Downloads

NameType 20170004744.pdf STI

Related Records

IDRelationTitle20170005398See AlsoRobust Exploration and Commercial Missions to the Moon Using NTR LANTR Propulsion and Lunar-Derived Propellants