SpaceX advances JFK’s dream of using an atomic rocket engine to land humans on Mars

Space Science

The original story above aired on Sept. 28, 2013 on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.


MYSTERY WIRE — In a little over three years, Elon Musk hopes humans will set foot on the surface of Mars. It is the vision and challenge Musk has taken on and is using to build, test, and fly his SpaceX Starship.

Setting a timeframe challenge to land on Mars can be compared to another space travel challenge given by President John F. Kennedy while speaking to Congress in May of 1961, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Kennedy, in September of 1962 during a speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, proclaimed not only America would land a man on the moon, but also “do the other things.”

America did land humans on the moon, but one of the other things, sending humans to Mars using an atomic rocket engine developed in the Nevada desert, never happened.

A couple months after Kennedy made his 1962 moon speech he visited Las Vegas and spent time at the Nevada Test Site in the desert about 80 miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip.

“Most of us didn’t even know in advance that he was coming,” said Dick Mingus, who was working as a security sergeant at Mercury on the test site when Kennedy came.

JFK-visit-Dick-Mingus
Dick Mingus remembers his duties to escort the president’s entourage on a visit to Area 25, also known as “Jackass Flats,” in December of 1962. (KLAS-TV)

Mingus was assigned to help escort the presidential party on a trip to Area 25, also known as Jackass Flats. “I was told to meet Air Force One at Indian Springs,” Mingus said. According to the itinerary from the day, Kennedy took an hour-long helicopter flight from Indian Springs over the test site to see for himself what atomic bombs had wrought. And then onto Area 25, which had been set aside for a different kind of atomic research.

Darwin Morgan, spokesman for the Department of Energy, said, “The whole purpose of this was to find new, peaceful uses for nuclear power. So, this side of the site was set aside, no nuclear weapons testing.”

The focal point of the JFK visit was this still glimmering facility known as ETS1 which in its day witnessed spectacular bursts of nuclear fire. The program to build the world’s first nuclear rocket engine had begun in the ‘50s.

JFK-visit-ETS1-NERVA
President John F. Kennedy visited the ETS1 tower on his trip to Nevada to check on the NERVA program — which had been working on a nuclear rocket since the 1950s. (KLAS-TV)

But Kennedy became its champion, and his visit was a chance to check on its progress. The NERVA program had already achieved remarkable successes. The first nuclear rocket engine called Kiwi would be moved by rail car from the assembly building over to the testing facility. Gigantic egg-shaped doors would roll in behind it, a tank of hydrogen fed the reaction and then, boom.

Mingus used to watch the tests from a rooftop nearby and he went on to work for the National Atomic Testing Museum, where the NERVA engines are on display.

“This is a real thing, and it actually has been used,” Mingus said. “It’s the most powerful rocket engine ever built or tested.”

Equipment used on the nuclear rocket program was moved to the National Atomic Testing Museum. (KLAS-TV)

Morgan described the engine: “When you pushed that button, you had a nuclear reaction going on that was heating up that hydrogen and giving a thrust. To an end state of that, it’s just amazing to think of the engineering.”

Photos from the Kennedy trip show the president inspecting the facilities and the engines themselves like a touring rock star. He didn’t see an actual test that day, but he met the enthralled test site employees working on the program. A half-century later, memories of his visit remain vivid.

“It’s the bed that George Washington slept in. You’re walking the same grounds that President Kennedy walked around,” Morgan said.

“I guess it would be a high point in my life,” Mingus said.

John F. Kennedy meets workers at the Nevada Test Site during his visit. (KLAS-TV)

When Kennedy returned to Las Vegas, less than a year later in September 1963, he was excited about the ultimate potential of the NERVA project. Tests proved it worked, which meant travel to Mars or beyond was feasible.

JFK speech: 9/28/63 Las Vegas, NV

During this visit, President Kennedy spoke about the threat of nuclear weapons; the kind also being tested in the Nevada desert. “Science being developed in this state, which will allow us to go beyond the moon.”

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The timing of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Las Vegas in 1963 was significant in several ways. The U.S. Senate had just ratified the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which had huge implications for jobs at the Nevada Test Site. President Kennedy was also in Las Vegas to smooth over some bad feelings after his brother, the attorney general, authorized wiretaps of Las Vegas casinos earlier in the year.

Two months after this Las Vegas trip, JFK went to Dallas where he was assassinated.

Darwin Morgan, spokesman for the Department of Energy, talks about JFK’s visit in 1962. (KLAS-TV)

Those who worked at the former test site still think of what could have been. “It could have happened. You could have had nuclear-powered rockets taking people to Mars by now. Could have been the reality of this,” Morgan said.

“I really believe if this program would have continued, we would be there,” Mingus said. “Mars or beyond, because this program was … gave the power that we’ve never had before.”

The NERVA program did not end when the president was killed. By 1969, the year we landed on the moon, NASA had already drawn up plans to send 12 astronauts to Mars via nuclear rocket because they saw that it worked.

Work on NERVA continued for another two years until the budget was eliminated in 1972.

The National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas has an exhibit, including the original NERVA engines. The test site, now called the Nevada National Security Site, still arranges group tours once a month, but seats on the tour usually book months in advance.

Jump ahead to today, and it’s Elon Musk picking up the challenge to land humans on Mars. Musk’s timeframe is much tighter, challenging SpaceX to have humans set foot on Mars by the end of 2024.

SpaceX is currently building Starship in Boca Chica, TX. It will not be powered by the NERVA atomic engine. Starship is using the Raptor rocket engine. A reusable methalox staged-combustion engine.

SpaceX says during engine testing it became the first full-flow staged combustion rocket engine ever flown.

“Starship will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, with the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tonnes to Earth orbit. Drawing on an extensive history of launch vehicle and engine development programs, SpaceX has been rapidly iterating on the design of Starship with orbital-flight targeted for 2020.”

spacex.com

Musk has set an aggressive schedule to build, test, and launch humans to Mars. Plans are to launch a cargo Starship to Mars in 2022 and then a manned mission in 2024. There are nine periods of time between now and 2037 when SpaceX could launch to Mars.

SpaceX is also answering the question of why: “At an average distance of 140 million miles, Mars is one of Earth’s closest habitable neighbors. Mars is about half again as far from the Sun as Earth is, so it still has decent sunlight. It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. Its atmosphere is primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, which means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere. Gravity on Mars is about 38% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around. Furthermore, the day is remarkably close to that of Earth.”

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