MadSci Network: Physics

Re: Is it possible to build a nuclear starship?

Date: Fri Jul 8 15:47:51 2005
Posted By: Adrian E. Popa, Retired Laboratory Director
Area of science: Physics
ID: 1108743087.Ph

Greetings Thomas:


1. JPL News Release: 2005-084, May 24, 2005
Voyager Spacecraft Enters Solar System's Final Frontier

2. Robert L. Forward, Obituary.

3. Antimatter and nuclear propulsion
htt p://

4. Warp drive when? Ideas on what we know.
http:/ /

5. Nuclear Space Propulsion Interactive web site

The recent news release (Reference 1.) that after 27 years of travel
Voyager 1 is now 8.7 billion miles from the sun and has crossed over from
the sun's environment to that of interstellar space speaks well for the
nuclear thermoelectric power source used on the spacecraft. The recent flap
over theUS launching a spy satellite containing a nuclear thermoelectric
power source, which might fall into Canadian territory if the launch fails,
illustrates the difficulties encountered in placing anything "nuclear" in

Because of the problems encountered by any space project with nuclear
content, the type of information you are seeking is very difficult to find
for it resides in very old reports, papers and proposals. If you had asked
your question 3 years ago I would have contacted my late friend and coworker
Dr. Robert (Bob) L. Forward (1932 - 2002) for an answer (Reference 2.). He
was one of the world's leading experts in futuristic propulsion systems.
During the 1960s our laboratory was building ion engines for Government
spacecraft propulsion systems in near earth space and Bob decided to propose
a mission to the planet Pluto using ion propulsion! Many science fiction
writers picked up on that work and ion propulsion was later used in many
science fiction stories and television science fiction series.

Bob had spent 40 years thinking about futuristic propulsion systems and he
was the author of more than 150 technical papers, had numerous patents and
wrote 11 noted science fiction books starting with Dragon's Egg
(1980) and ending with Saturn Rukh(1997). His book Time
discusses several propulsion techniques. Bob also wrote a column
in the science fiction magazine Omni for several years. Bob studied
futuristic propulsion systems for the Government throughout most of his
Taking an early retirement from our laboratory to work on his science
fiction/fact books Bob formed a consulting company, Forward Unlimited, that
continued to conduct advanced propulsion studies for the U.S. Air Force.
Later he was studying antimatter propulsion systems. Bob often joked
saying that he wrote very advanced scientific proposals to obtain Government
contracts and if they were not funded he would write them as science fiction
stories! While Bob was alive he had placed many of his papers and studies on
the server at his personal web site Forward Unlimited. Unfortunately when I
tried to access his web site to help answer your questions I found that it
no longer exists.

Finding Forward Unlimited is off of the internet I then used search engines
to find references to Bob's work and came up with hundreds of listings. Some
of the listings that would be of interest to you are on the NASA web sites
in References 3 and 4. These web sites have links to other web sites and you
will have to sift through them to see if any of the old nuclear propulsion
concepts have the answers to your questions. Bob's solar and laser sail
propulsion is described in Reference 4. which includes the type of
information that you are seeking, although, it is for a different propulsion
system. Reference 5 is an interactive web site for nuclear-space technology
and may be a source for finding some of the old nuclear propulsion reports
and papers that might interest you.

Good hunting.

Best regards, Your Mad Scientist
Adrian Popa

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