NASA Orion Spacecraft rendering — NASA

Nuclear Space Propulsion Is About To Be Unlocked

The red tape around this revolutionary technology is getting cut.

Will Lockett
4 min readDec 12, 2022

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SpaceX’s Starship will revolutionise space travel and usher in a new era of space exploration, but we have yet to experience the same revolution in space propulsion. We still rely on old, inefficient, and slow chemical rockets to travel from planet to planet, severely hampering our ability to explore outer space. Admittedly, we do have a plethora of cutting-edge rocket technology ready to take over and make these distant worlds much more accessible, but using it would be illegal. Fortunately, the IAEA and the UN are endeavouring to finally unlock these revolutionary rockets. But how exactly?

This all started in 1967, when almost every country in the world signed the Outer Space Treaty. This groundbreaking international legislation ensured governments wouldn’t weaponise space or claim ownership of celestial bodies like the Moon. Without the Outer Space Treaty, projects like NASA’s Apollo and the ISS would never have happened.

But the Outer Space Treaty also banned the use of high-power nuclear devices in space. This was for a variety of reasons, including the fact that high-altitude nukes produce computer-killing EMPs, and the OST wanted to ensure the safety of space launches, given that launches go wrong and if they are carrying high-power nuclear devices, they could spread dangerous radioactive material over large areas. At the time, this ensured the space industry operated in a safe manner and didn’t impact our ability to explore space.

As a result, the only nuclear devices that can be used legally in space are RTGs (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators). These devices use a lump of plutonium that self-heats through its radioactivity and turns the heat energy into electricity. RTGs are safe to launch as they don’t contain much nuclear material and have meagre power, meaning they can only power computers, sensors, or weak electric motors. However, they emit far too much radiation to be used on a crewed mission.

But since 1967, engineers have designed nuclear-powered rockets that would turbo-charge our space exploration.

Take, for example, Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP). This uses heat from intense…

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Will Lockett

Independent journalist covering global politics, climate change and technology. Get articles early at www.planetearthandbeyond.co