What if NASA secretly had the capability to send a rocket and crew to Mars and back, in 100 days or-so, even before it was publicly proclaiming to have successfully put men on the Moon? Well, actually they did. So what happened to this technology? And why is it being reintroduced half a century later?
by Martin Harris 16/7/19
The author has in his library a January 1963 edition of Popular Mechanics, which asks the question “Will We Pass Up The Moon For Mars?”. Although the article is somewhat vague about the details, behind the veil of secrecy at Area 25, Jackass Flats, in the Nevada Desert, NASA, in association with the Atomic Energy Commission, was testing nuclear-fueled rocket motors of tremendous size, so powerful that they had to be mounted upside down on their test rigs. Such rockets made the Saturn V look like a glorified firecracker by comparison. From 1963 onwards, while NASA publicly aimed for the Moon, testing and development of nuclear engines went on in secret, until the project, called NERVA, was quietly cancelled in 1973.
The public knew nothing of this until the details emerged via an FOI request in the early 1990’s.
Officially, the reason for the cancellation was the same as the lunar program: Funding cuts due to lack of public interest and support in space exploration.
Now, at the close of the second decade of the 21st Century, with NASA and the US government having drummed up renewed interest in a trip to Mars, nuclear rocket engines are back, but without the secrecy.
While this is all very exciting, should we be concerned about safety? After all, rockets do explode on the launch pad and in the air. Accidents do happen.
What happens if a nuclear thermal rocket explodes?
The source is Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: A Secret History (2011). P309-310.
“..on January 12, 1965,the nuclear rocket engine code-named Kiwi was allowed to overheat…sending fuel hurtling skyward and glowing every color of the rainbow…deadly radioactive fuel chunks as large as 148 pounds shot up into the sky. One ninety eight pound piece of radioactive fuel landed more than a quarter of a mile away…a radioactive cloud rose up from the desert floor and stabilized at 2,600feet…it blew over Los Angeles and drifted out to sea. The full data on the EG&G radiation measurements remains classified”. (Source is James Dewar, an ex Atomic Energy employee and author).
Further down the text:
“..the Atomic Energy Commission and NASA both knew that “in event of such a launch pad accident, death would come quickly to anyone standing 100 feet from ground zero, serious sickness and possible death at 400 feet, and an unhealthy dose at 1000 feet”.
Then it gets worse. Jacobsen relates: “June of 1965, disaster struck, this time unplanned.” The incident involved the NERVA engine codenamed Phoebus. As a result of a faulty gauge, the engine went into meltdown. “So irradiated was the land at Jackass Flats after the Phoebus incident, even HAZMAT cleanup crews could not enter the area for six weeks..” The cleanup took 400 people 2 months to complete. T.D. Barnes, of EG&G (yes, the same outfit that hired Bob Lazar!) Special Projects team fills in more details about what killed the whole deal. He says public interest in space travel was on the wane and funding dried up, but even without the funding cuts, the dangers were becoming all too obvious.
Officially, the project ended in 1973, however a number of former Jackass Flats employees (Area 25) say there was further clandestine testing resulting in a final horrible accident. Investigating cases of AEC workers with cancer, the National Institute For Occupational Safety and Health found that two nuclear reactors were “destroyed” at Jackass Flats during the period in question, and the whole area was heavily irradiated. The report on this was authored and published in 2008.
A reporter by the name of Lee Davidson, who first broke the NERVA story to the public in the early 1990s, learned that residents of Caliente, Nevada had found Iodine 131 in their water supply in the early 60’s. The AEC denied at the time that any nuclear testing had occurred at Nevada during that time and blamed the Chinese! “In fact, a NERVA test had taken place 3 days before the town conducted the water supply test”. None of this bodes well for the continuation of nuclear rocket technology. The final word goes to TD Barnes:
“We do have the technology to send a man to Mars this way. But environmentally, we could never use a nuclear-powered rocket on Earth in case it blew up on takeoff. So NERVA was put to bed”.T.D. Barnes, EG&G Special Projects
Yet look up any information on NERVA and the Kiwi explosion online now, and it’s presented very differently.
The following YouTube presentation, for instance, while very informative, skirts around the risks and dangers.
It would appear that the PR machine is seriously downplaying the hazards of nuclear thermal rocket technology. NASA’s rather bland version of the Kiwi engine explosion test is archived here. And Wikipedia’s expansive item on the NERVA project contains only the following brief passage on the Phoebus accident and the Kiwi test:
The most serious injury during testing was a hydrogen explosion in which two employees sustained foot and ear drum injuries. At one point in 1965, during a test at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, the liquid hydrogen storage at Test Cell #2 was intentionally allowed to run dry; the core overheated and was ejected on to the floor of the Nevada desert. Test Site personnel waited 3 weeks and then walked out and collected the pieces without mishap. The nuclear waste from the damaged core was spread across the desert and was collected by an Army group as a decontamination exercisehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NERVA
A far cry from the apocalyptic scenario depicted by Jacobsen’s sources! Some rather careful wording gives a false impression of what really happened, without actually telling lies. Very crafty.
Do we really want to risk life and limb, not to mention the environment, to send human beings to a dead planet? Why not wait for Nuclear Fusion power once we commence mining HE3 from the Moon? Until we figure out how to re-activate a planet’s magnetosphere, the dream of making Mars habitable again will remain a dream. Life on Mars is unlikely to be pleasant for future human inhabitants. Why the hurry? Is it simply the case that we are once more, as we were with the Soviets in the 60s, engaged in a space-race, but this time with China?