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National Space Council meeting highlights moon and Mars plan – plus nuclear power

Alan Boyle
Vice President Mike Pence delivers opening remarks during the sixth meeting of the National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The space shuttle Discovery towers over him. (NASA Photo / Aubrey Gemignani)

The latest meeting of the National Space Council provided a forum to build support for NASA’s twin-focus plan to send astronauts to the moon in preparation for trips to Mars – and for the idea of using nuclear-powered rockets to get there.

In contrast to some of the council’s past meetings, today’s session at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia produced no Space Policy Directives with capital letters. Instead, administration officials – led by Vice President Mike Pence – summarily approved a set of recommendations aimed at fostering cooperation with commercial ventures and international partners on NASA’s moon-to-Mars initiative.

The recommendations give NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine a 60-day timeline for designating an office and submitting a plan for sustainable lunar surface exploration and the development of technologies and capabilities for crewed missions to Mars. At the next National Space Council meeting, Bridenstine is tasked with presenting a plan “to stabilize the Space Launch System and Orion programs and prevent future cost and schedule overruns.”

Bridenstine pointed out that NASA is already working on elements of Project Artemis, which aims to send the “next man and the first woman” to the moon by 2024.

He referred to last week’s announcement that NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama would be in charge of developing a crew-capable lunar lander – one of the pieces in the Artemis puzzle that still has to be identified. Bridenstine also obliquely addressed the rivalry between Marshall and Johnson Space Center in Texas, promising that JSC “is going to be very involved” in lander development.

Pence said Bridenstine told him that with Congress’ support, “we can actually start ‘bending metal’ on the lander in the next year … whatever that means.” For what it’s worth, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is among several companies proposing lander concepts for moon missions.

NASA’s first heavy-lift Space Launch System “will be fully assembled by the end of this year,” Pence said, in preparation for an uncrewed test flight around the moon and back that’s set for next year. That mission, known as Artemis 1, is to be followed by a crewed circumlunar mission scheduled for as early as 2022 (Artemis 2) and then the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo (Artemis 3).

Today’s recommendations call on Bridenstine to specify the “current projected launch windows” for Artemis 1 and Artemis 2 at the next council meeting.

Looking further ahead, the vice president said the moon would serve as a “training ground for the infinite frontier of space,” with a multi-month expedition at the lunar south pole serving as a highlight.

Other officials on the council provided updates on initiatives to streamline the regulatory process for space operations – and to address the national security challenges posed by China and Russia.

The acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, said that the intelligence community, the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Department have agreed upon a “unified defense concept of operations” in the event of an attack on space assets.

“Should conflict extend to space, the NRO will take direction from the commander of U.S. Space Command and execute defensive space operations based on a jointly developed playbook and informed by a series of exercises and war games,” he said.

The newly reorganized U.S. Space Command is due to swing into operation on Aug. 29 under the command of Air Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond. During today’s meeting, Maguire and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both called for the speedy creation of a Space Force, which is currently being considered in Congress.

Space nuclear power figured prominently in today’s discussion: White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier announced that a working group organized by the Office of Science and Technology Policy has completed a set of guidelines for the safe use of nuclear power sources in space – ranging from the radioisotope thermoelectric generators that have long been a part of missions beyond Earth orbit to specially built nuclear reactors for spacecraft.

Hours later, the White House issued the guidelines in the form of a presidential memorandum to federal agencies. The memo lays out radiation safety standards for space nuclear systems, and states that presidential approval would be required to launch a system that makes use of nuclear fission. Federal officials have been given a year to draw up a report identifying additional guidelines for nuclear systems.

Nuclear fission reactors have never been flown in space, although at one time such a system was proposed for a NASA mission called the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. Researchers at NASA and other federal labs are studying a concept that could lead to nuclear reactors being placed on the moon and Mars.

Bridenstine said nuclear-powered propulsion systems would be “absolutely a game-changer”:for space travel. Rex Geveden, CEO of BWX Technologies, said nuclear propulsion could reduce the travel time for a Mars-bound crew from six or seven months to three or four months. That would reduce the radiation risk for astronauts heading to Mars – and Bridenstine noted other benefits as well.

“It’s not just for reducing the radiation dose for humans flying through deep space, but also national security implications,” he said.  “How do we maneuver within low Earth orbit, or cislunar orbits, so that ultimately we can move quickly to various spots based on the threats that we heard about today?”

Bridenstine and Geveden agreed that nuclear power could facilitate applications ranging from off-grid power for combat operations, to directed-energy weapons, to planetary defense against asteroids, to the removal of orbital debris.

Update for 4:50 p.m. PT Aug. 20: This report has been updated with details and links relating to the National Space Council’s recommendations and the presidential memorandum on space nuclear systems.

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