Nuclear Reactors — in Space? Really?

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Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

NASA just announced the first 18 members of the Artemis team; the astronauts who may, if all goes well, go back to the moon (not all of them).

One name on the list stuck out to me. Well, several did, but in this case it was the person’s specialty that jumped out.

Her name is Kayla Barron, and she is making an unusual shift in profession…from the deeps to the void, as it were. Barron used to be a submariner. And she has a master’s degree in nuclear engineering.

This tells me that Barron’s MOS was a Nuclear Submarine Officer…a submarine Scotty tasked with keeping the nuclear reactor and related systems running.

So, why would NASA want a Nuclear Submarine Officer?

The reason may go beyond Artemis.

How Artemis Will Get to the Moon

Assuming plans don’t change, the Artemis astronauts will leave Earth on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), a very large multi-stage rocket.

They will then travel to the moon on Orion, which is very much a modernized version of the old Apollo capsule. It’s bigger, and relies on solar energy, so it can fly further.

They will make a pit stop at Gateway, which NASA is calling a spaceship, but is really a small space station, before descending to the moon.

Apollo astronauts took 76 hours to get to the moon. It’s unlikely that Orion will be a lot faster, although it is larger (it can fly up to six astronauts and carries supplies for almost a week on the surface).

This is all basically an update of Apollo.

So, no, Artemis doesn’t really need a nuclear engineer.

Well, what about…

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Gateway to the Moon

Let’s talk about Gateway. Gateway is going to be an orbiting outpost above the moon. The advantage is that Orion will not need to carry ascender and descender modules. Those can be sent to Gateway separately by robots.

Gateway will be basically a pit stop. The initial build out will have three segments: a power unit that’s a solar electric spacecraft giving Gateway the ability to maintain and change orbits, a habitation unit, and a storage unit for cargo and supplies.

Gateway’s habitation unit will be about the size of a small studio apartment (although it’s space, so you can use that size better), and it will probably seem huge after a capsule…

So, no need for a nuclear engineer there yet.

Well, maybe they picked her for her astronaut experience.

Nope.

Kayla Fannon has never been in space.

Beyond Artemis

So, we might be sending a nuclear engineer to the moon even though everything’s solar powered.

Why would we do that? No doubt, Fannon has attained excellent grades in astronaut training and is qualified.

The plan isn’t just to put people on the moon.

The plan is a sustainable presence on the moon.

And that means a power source. On the moon. Now, the problem with using solar power on the moon is that the moon’s days are twenty-eight earth days long. For fourteen days, any given point on the moon’s surface is in total darkness.

So.

You can’t use solar. Well, you can, but the battery farm you would need would be prohibitive to lift.

You can’t use wind, for obvious reasons.

With our current technology, there is only one power source light enough to fly into space and usable in all environments. (Maybe one day we’ll find some way to turn cosmic radiation into electricity, but we haven’t worked that out yet).

For a sustainable presence on the moon, we are going to need a nuclear reactor on the moon.

It’s the only thing we have that will work.

Is the long term plan for Fannon and others with similar qualifications to be the people who set it up?

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Photo by Johannes Daleng on Unsplash

Is Nuclear Power in Space Safe?

Here, of course, is where people start screaming about Chernobyl and meltdowns.

Is nuclear power safe to use in space?

Honestly?

Ask Kayla Fannon and other Nuclear Submarine Engineers. Submariners on those long-range subs sail around with a small nuclear reactor in their back pocket.

In the years since nuclear submarines were first built in the 1950s, there have been 14 reactor accidents. In the worst of them, ten sailors were killed.

But every single one of those reactor accidents were Soviet boats. Every one. We all know how well the Soviets tended to engineer their reactors. Sorry to the Russians.

Furthermore, at least in space the environment is already thoroughly irradiated. A leak from a small reactor isn’t going to make much difference. If you put your lunar reactor in its own facility a bit away from where you are living, then it’s no real added danger.

And beyond that?

Beyond that any ship that takes people to Mars is going to have a nuclear reactor. It’s going to need one.

And how are we going to build those reactors?

Using the knowledge of submariners.

So perhaps the deep to the void is a small step after wall.

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades. https://www.jenniferrpovey.com/

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