Space Nuclear Propulsion:

History, Cost, and Status of Programs

T-NSIAD-93-2: Published: Oct 1, 1992. Publicly Released: Oct 1, 1992.

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GAO discussed the history, costs, and current status of space nuclear thermal propulsion programs being developed by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with support from the Department of Energy (DOE). GAO noted that: (1) DOD and NASA are pursuing separate approaches to develop space nuclear thermal propulsion programs; (2) the DOD program differs in the manner in which the nuclear fuel is packed in the reactor, while NASA technology involves the use of a nuclear fuel encased in rods; (3) DOD conducted its work on the nuclear thermal rocket propulsion system under a classified program called TIMBERWIND, managed by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO); (4) SDIO terminated the TIMBERWIND program in fiscal year 1991 and the Air Force assumed program management responsibilities under the Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Program (SNTP); (5) the SNTP program's purpose is to increase lift capabilities by 200 to 400 percent over current chemical rocket engines using a particle bed reactor; (6) SDIO spent $131 million on the TIMBERWIND program and the Air Force has requested about $38.9 million for FY 1993 and plans to spend the same through 1996; (7) NASA is considering SNTP for its space exploration requirements, but has not contributed funds from its budget and believes that the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) deviate systems could be available sooner; (8) NASA spent about $3.5 million in 1992, and has requested the same amount for 1993; and (9) DOE designs, produces, and delivers nuclear power sources from fuel to complete reactor assemblies.

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