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Thomas-Peters's avatar


After Apollo 11 and Apollo 12, NASA used the momentum of those triumphs to launch their proposal to develop several pieces of hardware, the Nuclear Ferry or Primary Propulsion Module, which could provide regular transportation to Geosynchronous orbit and the Moon, and the Standard Mission Module, which could serve as a planetary surface base or orbital station. These, combined with a Science Mission Module specific for the destination, could be combined to form Project Argosy spacecraft, capable of missions to Mars, Venus, asteroids and comets. For these deep=space missions, the Argosy spacecraft would launch from Earth orbit, with two PPMs boosting the main craft into its transfer orbit, then separating, to decelerate themselves to return to Earth orbit for reuse. The lone remaining PPM would provide power and propulsion for the rest of the mission. In this way, a robust compatible collection of manned craft would be available for standard missions, in a flexible architecture to meet varieties of mission needs. I've attached the name Argosy, or treasure fleet, to the project.

We see the two Argosy mission spacecraft, with their nuclear PPMs attached, in final preparations in Earth orbit. The vehicles have been assembled next to a space station, home of the orbital operations teams required to service and maintain the Lunar ferry craft and other cislunar space logistic craft. The station is designed to be launched by a single Saturn V. It rotates to provide about 1/6th gravity, the same as the moon's, on its outer rim.

I'd like to point out there is nothing "old school" or "retro" about this image. These plans are still viable, requiring only a Booster rocket in a similar class as the Saturn V. The only thing lacking, making this seem like an image from the past, is the Will to do it.

Done in Lightwave 10. The background plate is a NASA photograph. Thanks for looking!
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OnlyTheGhosts's avatar
This a very interesting "Might Have Been"
QuantumInnovator's avatar
The sooner this happens, the better.
runewuff's avatar
Looks good (wonder if the reflection in the silver parts was hard to do...)

I discovered a similar grandiose plan,…
while looking up,…
because it is the setting of the FreeMarket RPG.
(because you seem like the kind of guy who might find such things interesting/ sorry if you already know this stuff)
EnginesOfError's avatar
Nice work! 

We could go out there, but it seems humanity has so much more fun mucking about on Earth.  Our nations are so content in vying against one another for scarce surface resources and influence that it's hard to look up.  And since the nations of the world don't look up, they never see the incredible wealth that is literally floating around us, achievable with just a little effort, money and will. 

The good news is that once those resources start drying up, we're going to get motivated in a real hurry.  Unless, of course, things get really desperate and we end up nuking each other, setting us technologically back a few hundred years.  But then if we do that we didn't really deserve the stars anyways.
JESzasz's avatar
 I'm sure that the expense is also a reason why it hasn't come to pass, even though it is well within our technological abilities. Now, what is beyond Mars could well be worth the costs...

 Well, at least once we start living throughout the solar system.
MASCH-ART's avatar
gute arbeit, very Nice
RobCaswell's avatar
Rockin'! That's some serious delta-V! :)  Great execution and brings me back to the 70's when this all seemed so imminent.
LordOmegaZ's avatar
Was the NERVA engine really good?

I have no knowledge of this engine, so was it due to petty politics or was there many drawbacks that cancelled it? (assuming it is cancelled)
William-Black's avatar

As I was saying, the best source for information on NERVA is Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site, Engine List page under NTR Solid Core. (I always find it funny when someone steps into a conversation for purposes of offering less information, it's almost as though they are afraid someone will learn something.)

The principal objective of the NERVA program was to "establish a technology base for nuclear rocket engine systems to be utilized in the design and development of propulsion systems for space mission application". Cite: Robbins, W.H. and Finger, H.B., "An Historical Perspective of the NERVA Nuclear Rocket Engine Technology Program", NASA Contractor Report 187154/AIAA-91-3451, NASA Lewis Research Center, NASA, July 1991.

Among the applications considered for NERVA were a nuclear third stage for the Saturn V, the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle (the primary propulsion module of which forms the basis of the Argosy spacecraft Tom has superbly modeled, seen in the image above) which was one component of the "Integrated Program Plan." The Nuclear Shuttle primary propulsion modules were the basis for the planned 1981 Boeing Mars mission spacecraft, and the Argosy spacecraft pictured above is Wernher Von Braun's optimization of the Boeing proposal. 

For more information on the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle see the following articles by Space Historian David S. F. Portree Integrated Program Plan “Maximum Rate” Traffic Model (1970)




The Last Days of the Nuclear Shuttle (1971).


The Wikipedia entry for NERVA gives a fairly complete background on the program, you can find the page here: NERVA

It really was developed for a maned Mars mission proposed for the '80's, which was canceled.  It also could have bee very useful for lifting ultra heavy cargo loads to high orbits, or as part of a Earth orbit to moon and back system.  None of that was developed, and as a flying nuclear reactor, it incited a lot of anti-nuclear histeria.  No reason to go through a political fight for a unpopular engine developed for missions that were canceled.

With some recent interest in maned Mars missions, nuclear engines like this are being discused again, since it would allow quicker or better equiped missions -- but NASA is very gunshy about discussing anything related to nuclear.
LordOmegaZ's avatar
like nuclear powered vasimr and ion drives? :3
The NERVAs didn't use ion thrust, just directly heated hydrogen and vented it out a rocket nozzle.  But it would only need about a forth as much mass per secound would be consumed to generate as much thrust. 
William-Black's avatar
Ion shares the same problem as the other electrically powered low-thrust drives. In the words of a NASA engineer the problem is "we can't make an extension cord long enough." That is, electrical power plants are weighty enough to make the low thrust an even larger liability. A high powered ion drive will generally be powered by a nuclear reactor, Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP). Low powered ion drives can get by with solar power arrays, all ion drive space probes that exist in the real world use that system, but that's not going to work for a heavy payload, like a manned spacecraft.

Some quotes from Winchell Chung's Ion section of the Engine List page on Atomic Rockets.

“And it suffers from the same critical thrust-limiting problem as any other ion engine: since you are accelerating ions, the acceleration region is chock full of ions. Which means that it has a net space charge which repels any additional ions trying to get in until the ones already under acceleration manage to get out, thus choking the propellant flow through the thruster.


The upper limit on thrust is proportional to the cross-sectional area of the acceleration region and the square of the voltage gradient across the acceleration region, and even the most optimistic plausible values (i.e. voltage gradients just shy of causing vacuum arcs across the grids) do not allow for anything remotely resembling high thrust.”  Dr. John Schilling speaking on the Gridded Electrostatic Ion Thruster.


“You can only increase particle energy so much; you then start to get vacuum arcing across the acceleration chamber due to the enormous potential difference involved. So you can't keep pumping up the voltage indefinitely.


To get higher thrust, you need to throw more particles into the mix. The more you do this, the more it will reduce the energy delivered to each particle.


It is a physical limit. Ion drives cannot have high thrusts.” Erik Max Francis


VASIMR suffers from the same problem. A VASIMR powered tug could move 34 metric tons from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to Low Lunar Orbit (LLO) by expending only 8 metric tons of argon propellant. Transit Time: 6 months.

A chemical rocket tug would require 60 metric tons of liquid oxygen - liquid hydrogen propellant, but would make the same trip in three days.

A tug with a nuclear thermal rocket, such as the Nuclear Shuttle, would make the same trip in as little as 12 hours.

As I said, it depends on what kind of capabilities you want, and what kind of payloads you are hauling. You would use faster transit nuclear systems to move human crew and priority payloads, and low thrust systems to haul lower priority cargo.

LordOmegaZ's avatar

nuclear shuttle? i have seen one picture of a nuclear space shuttle in a space poster before. looked a lot bigger and longer
William-Black's avatar
When you are looking at the image above, the Argosy Mars mission spacecraft modeled by Drell-7, you are looking at a design derived from three Nuclear Shuttle's. The two side-body modules are Nuclear Shuttle's. The center body is a modified Nuclear Shuttle.
LordOmegaZ's avatar
ah, was thinking of shuttle as in space shuttle we have.
William-Black's avatar
Follow this link: The Last Days of the Nuclear Shuttle (1971)

The very first image is the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle, it is a space tug for hauling payloads around in cislunar space. The two outboard modules in the image above are the same spacecraft, configured along with a modified center-body nuclear shuttle, these make up the Argosy (pictured above) for manned Mars missions. 
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William-Black's avatar

Best source for information on NERVA is Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site, Engine List page under NTR Solid Core.


Wikipedia entry here: NERVA


A couple of corrections to the below information.


Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory began researching nuclear rockets in 1952 (not 1959 as AmericanEagle2076 incorrectly states below), accelerating into Project Rover in 1955. Devolopment and testing continued till the programs end in 1972.


NERVA was a joint project between the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) and NASA. managed under the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office.


By 1961, after unexpectedly fast-paced progress on the part of Project Rover, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center began to use nuclear thermal rockets in their mission plans. Marshall planned to use a nuclear-powered rocket from Los Alamos to power a RIFT (Reactor-In-Flight-Test) nuclear stage to be launched as early as 1964, and the need for planning and oversight led to the formation of the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office. SNPO was formed so that the AEC and NASA could work together, and H. B. "Harry" Finger was selected as its first director.


Aerojet and Westinghouse were primary contractors for design and development, not the AEC as AmericanEagle2076 incorrectly states below.  


Almost all of the NERVA research design and fabrication was done at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.


Testing was done at a large installation specially built by SNPO at Area 25 (commonly called "Jackass Flats") on the Nevada Test Site. Interestingly Jackass Flats was proposed as a possible launch site for Project Orion, administered by General Atomics in the late 1950s.


For more information on the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle, the nuclear PPMs (Primary Propulsion Module’s) of the Argosy spacecraft superbly modeled by Drell-7, and the story of NERVA’s demise, see the following articles by Space Historian David S. F. Portree Integrated Program Plan “Maximum Rate” Traffic Model (1970)




The Last Days of the Nuclear Shuttle (1971).

NERVA, Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications, was under design and development by the old AEC at Jackass Flats, Nevada from 1959 to 1973. Although great progress was made, the environmentalist lobby and the budget cutters of the Nixon Administration, brought the effort to an end in the Summer of 1973.
LordOmegaZ's avatar
would it have been good if it was developed fully?

say if we brought it back today?
William-Black's avatar
Certainly, had NERVA been fully developed the final production flight ready engine would have been capable of performing all of the missions described in the David S.F. Portree articles cited above.

Advances in high-temperature metals, computer modelling and nuclear engineering in general, as demonstrated by the Project Timber Wind studies, resulted in an improved engine.

However, a few corrections to the information offered below by AmericanEagle2076.


Timber Wind initially received funding by the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or popularly, "Star Wars") from 1987 through 1991 and was later expanded into a larger design after the project was transferred to the Air Force Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (SNTP) program.


It did not, however, disappear in a mysterious cloud of secrecy as AmericanEagle2076, with much undue drama, claims. It stalled rather un dramatically when adequate funding support for the national ground test facility was not obtained. Cite: Second paragraph under the list: Participating or Cooperating Agencies, at the link: Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Program.  


The Air Force had estimated construction of the test facility at $407 million, the DoE estimated the cost of a test facility that would satisfy both DOD and NASA at $1 billion. Cite: U.S. Government Accountability Office, Space Nuclear Propulsion: History, Cost, and Status of Programs page 7.
LordOmegaZ's avatar
so... gee thanks nixon :p (i heard it was mostly thanks to him it got thrown away)

at least i get to use it in kerbal :3 and real life solar system mod XD

i also heard a nuclear engine isnt radioactive unless you overload it?
William-Black's avatar
Yeah, Nixon's the culprit. 

I'm not sure where you heard that a nuclear engine isn't radioactive, but it is wrong. Dead wrong (emphasis on "dead").


The NERVA engine has a heavy radiation shield between the reactor and the rest of the vehicle. This creates a conical shadow, a safe-zone, within which the hydrogen tanks, payload, and crew module are protected. The engine emits significant levels of radiation while firing and even after shut-down, and while passengers and crew are protected by the engines shadow-shield and hydrogen tanks, you wouldn’t want to point the engine at other spacecraft or space platforms. During the U.S. nuclear thermal rocket engine development program NFSD contractors had recommended that no piloted spacecraft approach to within 100 miles behind or to the sides of an operating NERVA engine. The only safe approach to a spacecraft with a NERVA engine is through the conical “safe-zone” within the radiation shadow created by its shadow-shield and hydrogen tanks. Other spacecraft docking with a NERVA propelled spacecraft to transfer crew or payload must approach from the front and remain within the conical safe zone. Docking NERVA propelled spacecraft to a space station or habitat is problematic because structures protruding outside the conical safe-zone can reflect radiation back at the spacecraft, irradiating the passengers and crew. 

Since hydrogen acts to buffer radiation generated by the NERVA engine, the length of the tank was carefully calculated and later designs included a "stand-pipe" running down the center which would always remain filled above and beyond propellent needed for the mission, this was to allow NERVA's designers to use the minimum amount of the heavy shielding material.


See Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets informative Shadow Shield page for more information.

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