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Nuclear Rocket: Making Our Planet Green, Peaceful and Prosperous (Apogee Books Space) (Apogee Books Space Series) Paperback – 1 Jul 2009
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About the Author
James Dewar has worked exclusively on nuclear policy issues in the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies, the Energy Research and Development Administration, and the Atomic Energy Commission. He is the author of To the End of the Solar System. He lives in Oxford, Maryland.
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I really enjoyed reading this book and re-read it's rocketry chapters every couple of years, just for the gee whiz impact. I originally bought it back when was watching reruns of Joss Wheden's "Firefly" TV series, wanting to learn more about nuclear rocketry. Whedon fans probably have deduced that the fictional Firefly class space ship "Serenity" was in all probability a nuclear lightbulb gaseous core reactor ship with engineering achievable today if nuclear rocket engineering had not been stymied by political expedients. The book barely mentions (6 pages) gas core reactors, which is a sad commentary on the real-world politics of the matter and not on the the writer. And until America changes its collective will to succeed in space this will probably remain fiction.
On the other hand solid core reactors are entirely real. Reflecting on both the rocketry chapters and the chapters explaining the politics I also came to the conclusion that Robert Heinlein was right back in the 1950's. We could have colonized the solar system using simple solid core reactors of the type essentially perfected in that era and which now drive our Navy ships.
My grandfather was a stationary steam engineer with the timber industry a hundred years ago and he could have operated and maintained the type nuclear propulsion which could have put colonies around Saturn in the 70's. We have men and women today who have retired from the Navy after full careers of standing watch over reactors which were much more advanced than the ones Heinlein proposed. One can conclude after reading this book that the reasons these reactors aren't in our manned space ships have nothing to do with the engineering.
Let me summarize what I should have included.
The Mark-6 was the reentry vehicle (RV) for the W-53, a 9.2MT warhead, and it sat atop a Titan II ICBM. In September 1980, while performing maintenance, a worker dropped a wrench socket that fell 70-feet and punched a hole in a fuel tank. Efforts to prevent the accident proved futile and the Titan II blew up in its launch silo. An extraordinarily violent explosion, it blasted a 740-ton launch pad door 200-feet in the air and it landed 600-feet from the silo. The Mark-6 followed the 740-ton door skyward, ricocheted off it and bounced along the ground before coming to rest several hundred feet from the silo.
One Air Force crewman died of injuries incurred and another suffered a broken leg after being blown 150-feet from the silo. Though unclassified photos do not exist, the Mark-6 reportedly remained intact and contained the W-53, which obviously did not explode. You would know if a 9.2MT bomb goes off. Its high explosives also did not detonate; this would have shredded the RV. So no radioactive materials were dispersed to the environment; in other words, the plutonium and uranium remained either in the weapon casing itself or within the RV.
This summary was obtained from unclassified sources. Classified reports on the accident exist, but those involving the Mark-6 and W-53 will probably remain classified. Still, I have no reason to doubt the unclassified reports: neither the W-53 nor its high explosives detonated and no radioactive materials were dispersed to the environment. The latter would have involved special cleanup crews that would have been quite visible to the general public and therefore impossible to keep secret.
If the Mark-6 can withstand such an extraordinarily violent explosion and not release any radioactive materials - it clearly was not designed to be blasted out of a silo - I firmly hold we have the know-how and expertise to build a cocoon (wrapper, enclosure or whatever you call it) that can withstand all accident scenarios of using a nuclear rocket engine to reach and return from LEO and not release any radioactive materials. If I am right, and I think I am, then we drop our launch costs dramatically, perhaps to $100/pound and then even lower. In summary, I strongly believe it's time to stop doubting and lambasting our technological muscle and get our country moving into Space, taking the world with us. But you have to read this book for that part of the argument.
James A. Dewar