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NASA & DARAP Select Lockheed Martin To Develop Nuclear Rocket

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have partnered together for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program. Today they have revealed Lockheed Martin, based in Littleton, Colorado, has been selected as the prime contractor for the design, build, and testing of the revolutionary nuclear-powered rocket.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Wed Jul 26 2023Written by Zac Aubert

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have partnered together for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program. Today they have revealed Lockheed Martin, based in Littleton, Colorado, has been selected as the prime contractor for the design, build, and testing of the revolutionary nuclear-powered rocket.

The DRACO program aims to test a nuclear-powered rocket in space as early as 2027. This ambitious project brings together the expertise of NASA, DARPA, and commercial space industry players to advance the development of nuclear thermal rocket technology, supporting the objectives of both agencies. For NASA, nuclear propulsion stands as a key capability on the roadmap for crewed missions to Mars.

"Working with DARPA and companies across the commercial space industry will enable us to accelerate the technology development we need to send humans to Mars...This demonstration will be a crucial step in meeting our Moon to Mars objectives for crew transportation into deep space." - " Pam Melroy, NASA Deputy Administrator 

The potential advantages of a nuclear-powered rocket are groundbreaking as it could significantly shorten the journey to Mars, making it faster and less complicated for the crew. Compared to conventional chemical rockets, this type of propulsion can be more than twice as efficient, requiring far less propellant and allowing for more equipment to be carried for scientific missions. Additionally, a nuclear-powered rocket can provide greater power for instruments and communication systems, enhancing overall space exploration capabilities.

Lockheed Martin, under the agreement with DARPA, has taken on the responsibility of spacecraft design, integration, and testing.

BWX Technologies, headquartered in Lynchburg, Virginia, has been entrusted with the design and construction of the crucial nuclear fission reactor, which will power the engine.

The overall management and execution of the nuclear-powered DRACO engine falls under the purview of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).

“Through NASA’s prior investments – in collaboration with the Department of Energy – we’ve supported the commercial sector to grow their capabilities in nuclear propulsion technology...Now, those investments are coming full circle as we work with these same companies to build the first nuclear-powered rocket to fly in space." - Dr. Prasun Desai, Acting Associate Administrator for STMD at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “

Apart from DRACO, NASA is involved in several other space nuclear technology initiatives. Collaborating with the Department of Energy and industry partners, they are exploring projects like Fission Surface Power and undertaking efforts to design future nuclear thermal spacecraft.

To bring DRACO program to life, NASA has pledged almost $300 million towards the partnership. This funding encompasses the costs associated with designing and developing the nuclear-powered engine, as well as technical oversight and expertise provided by agency personnel.

The U.S. Space Force will play a crucial role in supporting DRACO by providing the launch and launch site support needed for this groundbreaking mission.