Lockheed Martin to give NASA, Pentagon nuclear-powered rocket for Mars by 2027

Lockheed Martin has officially been selected to oversee the design, construction, and testing of a new nuclear-powered rocket for DARPA and NASA.
Christopher McFadden
Artist's impression of the potential final design.


Lockheed Martin has officially been selected by NASA and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design, build, and test a nuclear-powered rocket demonstrator, NASA has announced. Called "The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations" (DRACO), the program will test a nuclear-powered rocket in space as soon as 2027.

Nuclear rockets for Mars

"Working with DARPA and companies across the commercial space industry will enable us to accelerate the technology development we need to send humans to Mars," said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. "This demonstration will be a crucial step in meeting our Moon to Mars objectives for crew transportation into deep space," she added.

NASA and DARPA collaborated on the DRACO initiative to improve the progress of nuclear thermal rocket technology, which aligns with the goals of both agencies. For NASA, nuclear propulsion is a significant capability required for crewed missions to Mars.

Using a nuclear-powered rocket would enable a quicker and more direct journey to Mars, which would simplify the mission and lower the risks for the crew.

Compared to traditional chemical rockets, this type of rocket can be more than twice as efficient, requiring less propellant and allowing for a greater amount of scientific equipment to be carried. Additionally, a nuclear-powered rocket would provide more power for communication systems and scientific instruments.

Under the new contract, Lockheed Martin will have overall accountability for spacecraft design, integration, and testing, and will be expected to work with other industry partners. The nuclear fission reactor powering the DRACO engine is being designed and built by BWX Technologies, a company located in Lynchburg, Virginia. The management and execution of the engine's nuclear power falls under the responsibility of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).

“Through NASA’s prior investments – in collaboration with the Department of Energy – we’ve supported the commercial sector to grow their capabilities in nuclear propulsion technology,” said Dr. Prasun Desai, acting associate administrator for STMD at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Now, those investments are coming full circle as we work with these same companies to build the first nuclear-powered rocket to fly in space," Desai added.

A $300 million commitment towards DRACO

NASA also collaborates with the Department of Energy and Industry on various initiatives related to space nuclear technology, apart from the DRACO program. These initiatives include Fission Surface Power and an exploration of potential designs for future nuclear thermal spacecraft.

NASA has announced a $300 million commitment towards the DRACO partnership. This funding includes $250 million for the design and development of the nuclear-powered engine, as well as technical oversight and expertise provided by NASA personnel. DRACO launch and launch site support will be provided by the US Space Force.

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