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Thursday, April 07, 2011


   This is on The Register (H/T Pournelle):

Russia, NASA to hold talks on nuclear-powered spacecraft

 Muscovites have the balls but not the money
Russia, the US and other nations are to discuss cooperation on building a nuclear-powered spacecraft, according to the head of Roscosmos – the Russian space agency.

Anatoly Perminov, Roscosmos chief, tells state-owned newswire RIA Novosti that nuclear spacecraft plans are to be discussed with NASA on April 15. Perminov added that "countries with a high level of reactor manufacturing technology" are to take part in the talks. The report mentions China, France, Germany and Japan: technically the UK can also make reactors but its capability is weak compared to the main nuclear players and its space presence even more so.

Perminov went on to add that Russia intends to complete its design of a "nuclear engine" for use in space by 2012, and that in order to actually build this, funding of 17 billion roubles ($600m) {£370 million] will be required. He envisages this funding coming primarily from Rosatom, the state nuclear agency, rather than Roscosmos. The international discussions suggest that funding or at any rate cooperation will also be sought from overseas.
It's widely acknowledged in the space community that propulsion more powerful than chemical rockets and power generation more capable than solar panels will be necessary if travel beyond Earth orbit is to become a serious activity. From the earliest days of spaceflight and before, in fact, it was assumed that nuclear power would provide both – and that space travel, mining, industry and so forth would soon spread through most of the solar system.
In the real world, humanity's deep-seated fear of nuclear power has meant that very few reactors have ever flown in space....
The Russians are showing every sign of being willing to finally break through the barriers of fear and deploy a powerful nuclear spaceship of the sort which might one day move the space operations of humanity beyond Earth orbit: what the Russians are not showing much sign of is having the money to do so.

The necessary $600m isn't a lot of money to NASA: but in fact NASA has plenty of nuclear space engine designs of its own on file if it wanted to build one. It's hard to see the discussions later this month bearing much fruit, much though space enthusiasts might hope for such.

     I have previously said how Britain could get a commercial orbital craft simply by putting up an X-Prize of £300 million, just above what we already annually give to the European Space Agency with no prospect of getting anything similar from them this century and at current rates not next either. The Russians do have the world's cheapest launch system - Soyuz. They have been producing Soyuz craft for 45 years and have it on a production line with all development costs long paid off. Not exactly state of the art but it works.

    Robert Heinlein said "When you are in Earth orbit you are half way to anywhere in the solar system" An orbital craft is needed for that. A nuclear spaceship is what will get the other half. If the Russians are preparing for the second half they are sure the first half is fixed.

   The £370 million being asked for is not a big sum - well not compared to what is on offer. It is only a bit above what we already spend in space (well ESA HQ in Paris) annually for virtually nothing; les than the £450 million spent by NERC annually (only 1 of many quangos existing to promote warming and other environmental alarms); 1/6th of a new Forth crossing; 50% more than the MP's office block Portcullis House; or I would guesstimate about 19 days worth of Britain's share in the war to promote Libyan democracy and our Al Quaeda friends lately from the "Balkans, Afghanistan & Iraq".

    On offer is, among others - easy trips to the Moon, feasible ones to Mars and the ability to get to the asteroid belt where one asteroid of 5km radius can hold 5 billion tons of metals which is roughly 5 times what the world uses annually. There are at least 40,000 asteroids that size or larger. The development of space will make everybody on Earth richer than almost anybody on Earth is now and the first countries involved will get in on the ground floor. Is that not worth it?

    According to the article Britain is an also ran in competition for partnership here. Partly because the last Labour government used regulations to bankrupt Britain' nuclear industry and sell of its technical capacity (eg Westinghouse which now makes probably the best mass production nuclear reactor in the world) at fires sale prices. Partly because no British government has shown any vision in space development. Even when we launched a satellite it was done in the teeth of government, who were cancelling the project and who made sure we never heard of it!

   So why should Russia choose us as a partner. Germany has gone to some lengths to be their main EU ally with things like the gas pipeline. China is their main political ally in the Shanghai organisation.

   Well firstly we would have to work at convincing them If we just go through the motions we will get nowhere. However if we actually try there are some things going for us. However friendly the germans may be being they aren't exactly lovable, least of all to the Russians. China is now the big and growing partner in anything involving the 2 countries and the Russians don't really want to see their future as a Chinese satellite if there is an alternative. Politically any such ship is going to drive the eco-fascist movement out of their tiny minds - it would be best to have the support of other Security Council permanent members to stop any Luddite resolutions, which excludes Japan and Germany. The US won't be involved because, as the article points out, they only do studies they don't ad actually doing things any more. So it is, or can be if want it, France or Britain. France has a fine nuclear industry while we have driven most of our experts to the USA and Canada. On the other hand if we don't have much of a nuclear industry we do have the English language. We could relatively easily hire nuclear scientists and engineers from the USA and Canada and rebuild our industry. To hire the very best people requires more than money and the chance to work on atomic space ships would attract a lot of the best.

      Going for this would not just get Britain in on the ground floor of the greatest expansion of the human horizon since we left Africa, arguably since we left the trees. It would also rebuild an industry in which we were once the world leader.
 From  the Warren Ellis graphic novel Ministry of Space

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