NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will collaborate to develop a nuclear-powered rocket intended for crewed missions to Mars.
The space agency announced on January 24, 2022, it would partner with the Pentagon’s research agency in a program called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO).
“NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars. Congratulations to both NASA and DARPA on this exciting investment, as we ignite the future, together.”
According to NASA, a nuclear thermal propulsion system (NTP) could be three to four times more efficient than rockets using conventional fuel. This would make a crewed mission to Mars less demanding in supplies and less straining for the astronauts.
In the United States, this concept was extensively tested as part of the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program from 1959 to 1972 but was axed when NASA was forced to revise its budget downward. No NTP rocket ever flew.