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Nuclear Space Rockets and the Most Fascinating NASA Man You’ve Never Heard Of

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posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 10:00 AM

Harold B. Finger-1960's

If Congress found a half trillion dollars tomorrow for a down payment on a mission to Mars, how would we get there? For more than 50 years, a hard core of rocket scientists has promoted a propulsion system that holds, in roughly equal measure, promise and danger: nuclear.

One in a line of Kiwi nuclear reactors used to test the nuclear rocket concept. Courtesy NASA

No nuclear rocket aficionado has been as active as Harold B. Finger, the former head of the U.S. nuclear rocket program and a man whose involvement with the American space program predates NASA’s creation. This week, the 86-year-old Finger will advocate for nuclear propulsion at a space conference in Dallas.

He has written, “the technology of nuclear rocket propulsion was fully demonstrated as ready for flight mission applications… Let’s do it!” Harold Finger is, far and away, the most fascinating rocket scientist you’ve never heard of.

Finger became part of a nuclear group at NACA that tried to figure out how to shield pilots from nuclear plants in aircraft. The group did experiments such as installing a one megawatt nuclear reactor in a B-36 Peacemaker Nuclear Bomber – though it was never used to propel the craft – to see what kind of shielding the crew would require to escape radiation exposure. The concept of nuclear aircraft was eventually scrapped too. The last, best remaining idea for nuclear propulsion was space.

By the time of NASA’s founding in 1958, it was considered possible, probable even, that man would ride a nuclear powered rocket into space and the destination would be Mars. In 1960, Finger was made the manager of the Atomic Energy Commission – NASA Space Nuclear Propulsion Office and he set to work testing nuclear propulsion systems. In an article for Astronautics magazine in 1961, he wrote, “Although we may not be able to overtake the Russians in the race for the moon… I believe we are ahead in the race for manned exploration of the planets.” The reason was nuclear rockets.

Testing & Accidents:

A Kiwi nuclear reactor was deliberately destroyed in Jackass Flats, Nevada, to simulate an accident during a launch. Courtesy NASA
ex]it seems he may have omitted details in interviews. An account in Annie Jacobsen’s “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base,” paints an even wilder picture. On Jan. 12, 1965, Jacobsen writes, a Kiwi reactor at Los Alamos was allowed to overheat as a kind of practice drill for a nuclear accident , and eventually burst. A radioactive cloud floated west toward Los Angeles and then out to sea, according to Jacobsen’s book. The Russians argued it violated the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. NASA’s official history confirms the test. Jacobsen asked Finger about the test in 2010. “I don’t recall the exact test,” he replied.


Never heard of the man. I would assume some ATS member has known of this man/or his projects.

NO wonder they Gov't doesn't want anyone around Area 51. Purposely causing nuke accidents can be a good thing. I wonder how many people have died or been seriously injured while working at Area 51. We'll never know.

Interesting how Mr. Finger doesn't remember the nuke accident. Nope-wasn't me mood. An odd group of folks that work there-I am sure.

Anyway, the concept of Nuke Space travel is getting more and more closer to reality. I bet the Russians will be the first ones to do it. Any takers. They don't have the same restraints the USA does-so it seems from their history of Space Exploration.

edit on 8/6/2011 by anon72 because: (no reason given)

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 10:10 AM
I used to occasionally rant at friends over the fact we could have had successful nuclear space propulsion in the 1960s. People just think i'm a loony so i've pretty much given up. The program was called 'NERVA'

and it died for political reasons.

The future is probably Chinese VASIMR engines powered by thorium reactors, unless the USA lets some of its 'black world' tech out of the bag in an attempt to stave of economic collapse.

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 10:42 AM
reply to post by anon72

Hi anon72,
This reminded me of "project orion"which was another concept they wanted to get working-they actually tested the idea of an propulsion system which used a series of nuclear explosion in order to generate thrust,and it worked sort of,but I think the project was canned due to fears about costs/saftey.

I thought Harold B Finger may have been involved in this,project but his work is separate projects I think.

Here is a vid of the tests:

Project Orion was a study of a spacecraft intended to be directly propelled by a series of explosions of atomic bombs behind the craft (Nuclear pulse propulsion).
Early versions of this vehicle were proposed to have taken off from the ground with significant associated nuclear fallout; later versions were presented for use only in space.

Hmmm,on the danger side of things-I was wondering...
Could we not transport one or many shipments of raw uranium up into space,to an orbital enrichment facility(One high enough to be of no threat to earth in the event of an accident)?

Enrich the uranium in space,then fly the mars ship up from Earth on conventional fuel to the enrichment station,and load it up with plutonium,then head off to Mrs and beyond!

That should be safer,and I think we are not far off being able to have our orbital enrichment factory manned only by robots...look at some of the high tech car factories we have nowadays...VW is a good example of what robots are doing.
They have robots laser etching engine blocks,and other robots moving components all over the factory floor.
I bet NASA could whip up some robo centrifuges no problem-after all they are just spinning tubes basically.

Good thread.

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 11:03 AM
reply to post by Silcone Synapse

Thats interesting but i'm not sure we need to get that elaborate. The worry people have is "what if it blows up on launch" thats certainly true if you are dumb enough to launch a fuelled reactor.

However, if you launch the spacecraft/reactor separately from the fuel rods then you could launch the small amount of fuel rods in a massive armoured capsule tough enough to survive falling into the sea. You'd fuel the reactor on orbit.

Ok so you pay for the launch mass of a lot of armoured cask but i'd guess its safer and cheaper than the alternatives.

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 11:15 AM
reply to post by justwokeup

Put Mars at a common opposition distance of say 60M miles and boost straight there and back, very roughly, you can do it in 4.59 days at 1G or 14.5 days at 1/10 G round trip

Give us a constant boost and we can tour the solar system

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 12:21 PM
reply to post by justwokeup

That sounds good-it must be possible in terms of todays tech.
Am I correct in thinking that once this type of nuclear pulse engine is used in space,you could just give say,20 blasts to reach a certain acceleration,then you keep getting faster?
Then more blasts etc

Certainly makes sense to go full nuclear in space I think-but earlier in the thread someone mentioned a thorium based reactor-would that be a possible safer alternative to a plutonium engine I wonder?

That vid I posted was part of a bigger program,its all on youtube I think but I can't find part 1,but here is the 2nd part of the program "to mars by A bomb."
(If you hit the youtube link you should see the other parts of the prog.)

Worth a watch-those guys had a great vision IMO.
The idiots in suits let them down though-Sound familiar folks???

edit on 6/8/2011 by Silcone Synapse because: addded YT vid

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 12:26 PM
They can use lasers now along with resonating nuclear material to make it usable in space for propulsion.

Normal safe radioactive material you could lick....can be made highly usable by increasing it's beta decay rate (time) to a level you can generate energy from, your changing its state to a Plasma (4th State of matter). When the engine is off and the astronauts are gliding around in space, they are safe....when they kick on the booster the astronauts are also still safe.

The radiation stays behind the crew because space (time) is being expanded behind them where the radiation/engine is.

Nuclear research has gone a long ways since that old coot who radiated America just for kicks. His mentality is still rampant in nuclear energy application today...kill your own.

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 12:38 PM
Nice thread,

Thank you for the information.....

Too bad the economy is hogging all the readers time. I believe this information needs more attention.

S&F from me anon

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 01:35 PM
Outstanding OP. S&F.

Encyclopedia Astronautica has some good information on Project NERVA.

President Kennedy asked for funding during the same speech in which he set goal to land on the Moon by the end of the decade:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Secondly, an additional 23 million dollars, together with 7 million dollars already available, will accelerate development of the Rover nuclear rocket. This gives promise of some day providing a means for even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself.

I've never heard of Harold Finger, and I am totally kicking myself for missing the Mars Society convention where he was speeking just a few miles from me.

Originally posted by anon72 An account in Annie Jacobsen’s “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base,” paints an even wilder picture. On Jan. 12, 1965, Jacobsen writes, a Kiwi reactor at Los Alamos was allowed to overheat as a kind of practice drill for a nuclear accident , and eventually burst. A radioactive cloud floated west toward Los Angeles and then out to sea, according to Jacobsen’s book. The Russians argued it violated the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. NASA’s official history confirms the test. Jacobsen asked Finger about the test in 2010. “I don’t recall the exact test,” he replied...

...NO wonder they Gov't doesn't want anyone around Area 51. Purposely causing nuke accidents can be a good thing...

Jackass Flats is not in Area 51. It's 40 miles away, in Area 25 - part of the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site, and before that the Nevada Proving Grounds). Tours of the NNSS are available to the public.

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 01:36 PM
reply to post by anon72

Hey anon,I remembered a thread I started back in 06.
Its got a (still active)fliker pool of the project orion nuke craft plans:

Not asking for flags or anything,just thought it could be a useful related resource for this thread topic.

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 02:57 PM
reply to post by Silcone Synapse

Great info at your thread. Thank you for putting that up. needs more attetnion.

Yes, I have been thinking and we must perfect this method and gtet moving into Space-faster.

I want to see and know more before I did. Is there any oddities on the moon? Was there life on Mars? Things like that.

posted on Aug, 6 2011 @ 10:39 PM
An unlinked comment by me about this whole nuclear propulsion and related power. First the VASMIR ion propulsion method is not very functional for manned spacecraft, small prototypes work to a degree largely due to what mass they are, the ion propulsion needs an electrical power source which is being used now namely on deep space probes like the one going to Pluto because solar power is out of the equation. It uses a plutonium heat generating radioactive decay, which not only provides the heat necessary for instruments to function in deep space travel but also produces electricity to power the craft, and the ion thruster.

The problem with scaling up the ion thruster lies in the electrical power source and that's where we get the idea that a nuclear reactor could provide that necessary power source, yet untested.

I think there is a better way of utilizing nuclear powered thrust than the pulse method the Germans used in rocketry to invent the first jet engine in WW II, just a bit too late to effect their demise in their grand scheme. Had the Germans focused their technology to accelerate the operational development of the Messerschmitt Me 262, England would have been in big trouble. I know you can reference earlier jet platforms but none more significant.

Back to the nuclear power being behind the occupants, have you considered how you will slow down to achieve orbit of a body? That slowing down thing is also why the ion thruster is not a viable manned spacecraft propulsion means, it has very little g-force, and has to actually be in flight half the time speeding up and half the time slowing down, lengthening the trip with little cruse time.

I believe some kind of nuclear reactor can be created to provide a consistent power thrust, instead of using pulse bursts, (how would that feel?). Our liquid fueled rockets used today provide great g-force propulsion, and if we could carry enough fuel could reach incredible velocities in space, but we use up all the fuel to get into space to begin with, and can't afford a big surplus cargo.

The rocket propulsion right now is the biggest bang for the buck! But oh what a cost.

Back to the idea of a thorium powered ion thruster is a complex subject, and I have 'scanned' a bit of the thorium nuclear power claims, What I have briefly found out is that thorium (a very common and plentiful element on earth, thrown away in notable copper mines like the one in Utah), is basically an accelerator in normal Uranium 235 reactors, and was demonstrated at a PA nuclear plant back in the 60's, (not 3-mile Island, close to Pittsburgh). I received resistance in the notion of a thorium based nuclear reactor regardless of the news floating around, and the prototypes sited in Germany and France.

So without any source siting, (because the particulars are very involved), I just want to say it–(something better) is not in use for very good reasons.

You can go to the NASA site and search for the precautions and concerns on blasting off space probes with plutonium power sources, Cassini uses one, you can start there, and I also mentioned Horizon, which needs to use one. They carry actually quite a bit of unstable plutonium, around 10 kgs, you can explore how they work and why.

posted on Aug, 7 2011 @ 12:18 AM
that is amazing we need to start colonizing planets anyway "Just in case" and a nuclear rocket would pretty be the stepping stone to better things. well that's my opinion

posted on Aug, 7 2011 @ 03:12 AM
There are several kinds of nuclear propulsion systems that are possible for use in space.

1. Nuclear thermal rocket. Using heat from a nuclear reactor to expand a propellant and push it out the back. Example: NERVA.
2. Nuclear electric propulsion. Using a radioactive decay or a reactor to generate electricity which then powers ion thrusters. Example: JIMO.
3. Nuclear explosion propulsion. Using explosions as thrust. Example: Project Orion.

They are all possible with technology that could be developed today. The first and third approaches would likely cause significant fallout if used within the earths atmosphere - hence they would only be used once launched into orbit via a conventional chemical rocket. The second approach does not produce enough thrust to put something directly into earth orbit so they would need to be launched into space via a conventional rocket also.

Using radioactive decay to generate power in a RTG requires something like Plutonium-238 - which is very toxic - but it has already been done many times before. A RTG would only spread contamination if the chemical rocket explodes during launch or breaks apart during re-entry (IF we decide to bring the RTG back - doubtful!). The lowest risk approach for nuclear propulsion is using a chemical rocket to fire a nuclear rocket using uranium, into space, then using that to go further and not bringing the reactor back to earth. Fresh uranium fuel is relatively harmless and if it's a one way trip we wouldn't need to worry about the waste since it will likely never reach earth or another planet for a very, very long time. A different approach might be needed if we plan to land on say, mars.

It is not possible to run a reactor directly from thorium. A "thorium reactor" in reality converts thorium into usable uranium, which it then burns. It has tons of advantages on earth or maybe on the moon, but to get those advantages reprocessing is required. I cannot think of any advantages in using it on a bunch of space probes, but would be heavier and more complex.

We will likely see approach number two in our lifetimes.

reply to post by Illustronic

As far as I know no sapcecraft use Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators to power electric ion propulsion systems. Plutonium-238 powered RTGs and solar panels are really not powerful enough to effectively power ion propulsion systems at the far reaches of the solar systems, the only way to realistically do it is with a nuclear reactor which can provide several times the electric power. Sending up a nuclear reactor containing highly enriched Uranium-235 is also far less risky than sending up a RTG containing Plutonium-238 (which we've already done several times).

Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter

JIMO was to have a large number of revolutionary features. Throughout its main voyage to the Jupiter moons, it was to be propelled by an ion propulsion system via either the HiPEP or NEXIS engine, and powered by a small fission reactor. A Brayton power conversion system would convert reactor heat into electricity. Providing a thousand times the electrical output of conventional solar or RTG based power system, the reactor was expected to open up opportunities like flying a full scale ice-penetrating radar system and providing a strong, high-bandwidth data transmitter.

Using electric propulsion (8 ion engines, plus Hall thrusters of varying sizes) would make it possible to go into and leave orbits around the moons of Jupiter, creating more thorough observation and mapping windows than exist for current spacecraft, which must make short fly-by maneuvers because of limited fuel for maneuvering.

The design called for the reactor to be positioned in the tip of the spacecraft behind a strong radiation shield protecting sensitive spacecraft equipment. The reactor would only be powered up once the probe was well out of Earth orbit, so that the amount of radionuclides that must be launched into orbit is minimized. This configuration is thought to be less risky than the radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) used on previous missions to the outer solar system.

Northrop Grumman was selected on September 20, 2004 for a $400 million preliminary design contract, beating Lockheed Martin and Boeing IDS. The contract was to have run through to 2008. Separate contracts, covering construction and individual instruments, were to be awarded at a later date.

Wish they went ahead with this program - and brayton turbines will have huge implications back on earth when they are made viable.
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posted on Aug, 7 2011 @ 10:32 AM
reply to post by C0bzz

Excellent post. Blows the mind.

Thank you for your efforts to educate us/show us/ to teach us.

Flag if I could.

posted on Aug, 7 2011 @ 10:42 AM
S&F Excellent thread, thanks for posting! I'm not sure, but I think that this type of propulsion system is similar to the one described by David Adair in this video where he tells what seems to be a very credible story about his experience with magnetically contained fusion rocket engines and the U.S. Military.

I know this video has been posted before but if you haven't seen it, it's well worth the time to watch.

posted on Aug, 7 2011 @ 11:21 AM
I'm not quite sure how to post a post, but with the recent confirmation of antiproton flux in the Van Allen belt doughnut hole by spacecraft PAMELA, there have been studies of developing antiproton propulsion at least as far back as 2006. The antimatter around earth has been speculated to exist since the 1950's.

So I will just simply paste the post and links.

Originally posted by Hypernova86

A fairly new BBC article discussing Pamelas findings.

I was going to post as a new thread, but search turned this one up.
Can I just ask, since I'm questioning it myself... Where does this leave us with the moon landings? Surely if the Van Allen belt was previously held as the biggest cause for doubt upon the moon landings, then the discovery of antiprotons would only make it all the more unlikely for astronauts to have casually glided on through? I may be wrong but I'm sure one of you kind folk will swiftly boot it in to touch if I'm wide of the mark.


Saw this very article linked elsewhere, and if you noticed the link after the article, the antiproton flux was suspected to exist a long time ago, and a NASA funded study proposes the antiprotons could be collected for a space based fuel depot for antiproton propulsion in the future.

The study was submitted in April 2006 by a team headed by;

Jim Bickford would like to acknowledge the numerous contributions from the people and
organizations that enabled or directly contributed to the success of the phase I program. Funding
was provided by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) under a contract administered
by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA).

The PDF link;

a report for Nasa's Institute for Advanced Concepts.

Here are some illustrations from the report.
Artist's concept.

posted on Aug, 7 2011 @ 11:35 AM
Well nuclear propulsion might have a use on some type missions but this Vasimr is proven and able to get us there and back in 90 days.

check it out. It suppose to be tested soonish if it can find a flight up to the ISS. It can be scaled up easily to increase speeds and wont cause radiation.


posted on Aug, 7 2011 @ 11:40 AM
reply to post by Xeven

Stated earlier;

As for electrical power, just like all other electric rockets, VASIMR® needs electricity, so questions related to the power source naturally rise to the top. While Ad Astra is not in the business of developing space power sources, the company follows carefully the progress in both of the leading space electric power options: solar and nuclear. What follows is a brief discussion of both.

Scaling up the VASMIR requires a nuclear power source.

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