This is how close America came to having nuclear powered rockets

In the 1950s and 60s the U.S. Air Force tested flying rockets and ramjets powered by nuclear reactors.

1072px-X-51A_Waverider

Artist rendering of a modern ramjet missile, the X-51A Waverider. Graphic: US Air Force

If it weren’t for breakthroughs in chemical propulsion that occurred at about the same time, the nuclear missiles based throughout the U.S. and Europe could well be nuclear warheads sitting atop nuclear reactors.

The idea of a nuclear-powered rocket engine actually dates back to World War II. But research didn’t begin until 1955 when teams at both Los Alamos and Livermore national laboratories were tasked with figuring out the basic engineering necessary for the project.

At its most basic level, rockets and ramjets work by superheating air and propelling it out the back of the engine. Conventional rockets and ramjets use chemical combustion to heat the air. The nuclear engines were designed to superheat the air using a heat exchanger hooked to a nuclear reactor.

The research into the rocket engines was dubbed “Project Rover,” and the ramjet research was dubbed “Project Pluto.”

Rover began tests in 1957, and a full-powered test in 1959 was a huge success. This led to an expansion of the program and the construction of new reactors, all of which underwent ground testing. The tests were largely successful, but extreme vibrations in some of the test engines caused a slowdown in progress through the 1960s.

Bradbury_in_front_of_Kiwi_B4-A_reactor_N6211910

Researchers appraise a Kiwi experimental rocket engine powered by a nuclear reactor.
Photo: Los Alamos National Library

Project Rover’s initial successes allowed NASA engineers to briefly consider nuclear power for the first manned missions to the Moon, but the vibration problems were not worked out in time. Rover’s engine then got the nod for a possible mission to Mars, but the mission was canceled. Without any immediate mission requirements, Rover was declared a technical success and shut down.

Kiwi_A_fire-up-Project-Rover-graphic-nuclear-rocket-engine

The Rover Kiwi-A engine undergoes testing. Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory

The nuclear rocket engine idea has been revived a few times since then, mostly when engineers start to seriously strategize manned missions to Mars. It was also briefly revived as a method of getting the Strategic Defense Initiative ballistic missile shield into orbit.

Project Pluto was even more successful from a technical standpoint. Each ramjet test reactor achieved every one of its major goals, and a number of the tests were declared flawless.

https://youtu.be/taOyAKpwzMM?t=3m50s

Like the Rover, all the tests were conducted on the ground. Also like Project Rover, Pluto was shut down in favor of chemical propulsion. America had found a way to strike the Soviet Union from across the world without having to fly nuclear reactors over their own land and troops.

Both concepts and their accompanying research are mothballed, waiting for a mission to potentially revive them.

TOP ARTICLES
This is the latest version of the M9 service pistol

The M9A3 offers a bigger magazine, a user-friendly grip, and a host of improvements based on lessons learned from over three decades of service.

This is what the DoD has planned for a zombie apocalypse

It does touch on many of the pop culture elements of zombie lore, but it breaks things down to become applicable to most situations that would similar to an actual outbreak.

Some dirtbags messed with an Iwo Jima memorial — and Marines caught 'em on film

Officials say an Iwo Jima memorial in Fall River was doused with the contents of a fire extinguisher last weekend. Police are investigating

Vets are going to get a new ID card, and they'll be ready for use next month

The new identification card will provide employers looking to hire veterans with an easier way to verify an employee's military service.

This is the story behind the rise and fall of the Islamic State group

The Islamic State group, responsible for some of the worst atrocities perpetrated against civilians in recent history, appears on the verge of collapse.

Now the Iraqi army is going after the Kurdish forces who helped beat ISIS

Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces exchanged fire on Oct. 20, capping a dramatic week that saw the Kurds hand over territory across Northern Iraq.

This Kurdish female militia refuses to stop its hunt for ISIS terrorists

A Kurdish female militia, after helping free the city of Raqqa, said it will continue the fight to liberate women from the extremists’ brutal rule.

The US just sent nearly 1M bombs and missiles to Guam — here's why

Hint: There's this guy a few thousand miles away who's threatening to lob a nuke in their direction.

This is what the 400 US troops in Somalia are actually up to

The US has quadrupled its military presence in Somalia after Al-Shabab killed nearly 300 civilians in two truck bombings. Half of them are special ops troops.

The war between the US Army and Magpul is heating up over ice

Magpul officials are calling foul on the Army's claim that its rifle magazines don't work in the cold — and they say they can prove it.