Okay, so the president didn't announce the new space nuclear power initiative in the State of the Union address.
He didn't mention space at all, except in the national-security context of missile defense, and even then it was only implied--the word itself wasn't used.
Of course, I covered my bases--I didn't say he would, just that he might. It's not surprising, because having heard the speech, I'm not sure that such an announcement would have fit in politically. There's not a major constituency for such things in the country, and after pleasing some of the environmental community with the hydrogen-car initiative, he probably didn't want to alienate the significant segment of it that's vehemently and irrationally anti-nuclear power in any form.
That doesn't mean that the space nuclear power program isn't happening, of course. It's now expected (and I've got much higher confidence in this prediction than the State of the Union address) that it will be announced on Feb. 3, if not by the president, then by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, with the unveiling of the proposed federal budget.
So what does it mean for our future in space?
I've become famous (or notorious) in the space community for declaring that the emperor at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center has no clothes--that we don't need new space technology. To the degree that I proclaim that, it is with regard to earth-to-orbit transportation. I stand by that position, with the proviso that new technology can help, but it's enhancing, not enabling, when it comes to dramatically reducing the costs of getting into space.
But as the late great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein famously wrote, once you're in orbit, you're halfway to anywhere. And getting the rest of the distance, sans new technology, is indeed a challenge.
Yes, the moon is just a few days away with chemical propulsion, and we can similarly get to Mars and the asteroids by combining oxidizer with fuel. But the scheduled opportunities to get there are driven by the implacable rule of orbital mechanics, and always involve many months, and the outer planets are always years away, for man or machine. To get around these constraints, we do indeed need new technology.
On most parts of the earth's moon, night is not just a little longer than the duration of a human sleep period. It lasts for over two weeks. Solar power is not an option, unless you can store the energy to get through the long absence of the sun. It can be done, but it involves other technologies --batteries or capacitors or the pumping of currently non-existent water in non-existent reservoirs--that are even more unattainable than nuclear power, with which we have decades of experience.
Or imagine an asteroid on a course intersecting with the earth--one that could devastate human civilization when it hits in a few years. It is still far away, and too far from the sun to use solar power to do anything useful to change its course.
Space nuclear power can solve all of these problems.
It is compact, it is well understood (by the relevant technologists), it can be employed with safety, and it is more than ample for the requirements. That NASA hasn't been investing in it over the past couple decades was due not to the lack of need for it, but because of politics and bureaucratic fear of objections by the ignorant but noisy purveyors of hysteria.
There are (at least) two types of nuclear power for space applications. One has been used for years, and is the cause of NASA's previous hesitance to advance the technology, due to uninformed protests against it in the past. This is called radioisotope thermal generation (RTG), in which a decaying amount of radioactive material (generally plutonium) emits heat to create a small amount of electricity via a thermocouple. This is the means by which we've powered all of our spacecraft to the outer planets (i.e., Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus). Without it, we wouldn't have gathered the spectacular pictures and knowledge we have over the past three decades, despite the technofantasies of the anti-nuke crowd.
But the limited capabilities of RTGs, while useful to provide electrical power for the electronics of our previous limited space endeavors, will not be adequate for the applications described above. For those, we will need robust, high-power systems: to melt the frigid ice of the moon and comets into life-giving water; to take that same water and convert it to steam for propulsion and power; to power the plasma ships that will make trips to other planets and planetary bodies a matter of weeks, rather than months or years, at schedules of our choosing; to break the chemical bonds of lunar silicates and stony iron asteroids to build a new industrial age off our home planet.
Such systems mean actual nuclear reactors in space, something that the Russians have had, but we have not. Unfortunately, when the Russians did it, it was as the Soviet Union, a totalitarian dictatorship whose consideration for things like safety was...imperfect.
Even without ignorant anti-nuclear hysteria, entries of working nuclear reactors into the atmosphere and on the heads of unsuspecting earthly inhabitants hasn't aided the cause of nuclear space systems. Nonetheless, this technology is absolutely necessary. It can be done safely, and NASA's biggest challenge will not be in developing it, or even in developing it safely (though this is obviously essential as well) but in proving to the skeptics (at least the ones that matter) that they can, will and have done so.
Regardless of their frustrating lack of progress on the earth-to-orbit front, this is a critical technology that must be developed in parallel with efforts, both public and private, to make it more affordable to get off the planet where it will be useful. If they start now, perhaps by the time it's ready for use, we'll be ready to use it.
In addition to Tuesday's anniversary of the Challenger disaster 17 years ago, Monday saw the 36th anniversary of the loss of the crew of Apollo 1. Take a moment and remember the pioneers who died to expand life into the universe.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.