Nuclear Powered Space Missions - Past and Future by Regina Hagen 11/8/98
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1. Introduction

"On January 16, 1959, a dramatic photograph appeared in a Washington, D.C., newspaper. The headline proclaimed »President Shows Atom Generator«. The photograph pictured President Eisenhower and a group of U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) officials in the Oval Office at the White House. They were gathered around the president’s desk, staring at a strange grapefruit-shaped object. Dubbed the world’s first atomic battery, it was actually one of the earliest models of a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), a nuclear generator specifically developed by the AEC to provide electric power during space missions." [USDOE/d, page 4]1

This text from the DoE brochure "Nuclear Power in Space" describes the early steps of what continues until today: the use of nuclear power to produce electrical energy for spacecraft instruments and experiments. Since the 1980s, when concerned U.S. citizens, scientists, and journalists protested against the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Galileo and Ulysses missions, public interest in nuclear powered space missions has increased. Just one year ago, citizens’ groups in the U.S. and in Europe attempted to prevent the launch of the joint NASA/ESA (European Space Agency) mission Cassini with its payload of 72 pounds of plutonium dioxide. (Cassini was launched in October 1997.) Most articles and reports about Cassini mentioned 63 previous nuclear powered space missions, nine of which resulted in problems and/or accidents. It proved difficult, however, to find details beyond the two or three most spectacular accidents.

Therefore, this article attempts to give basic information about the nuclear technology used for space missions, followed by a comprehensive chronology of all nuclear powered space missions launched by the U.S. and by the USSR/Russia2. An overview of future NASA plans (which involve eight nuclear powered deep space missions, four of which can be done solar according to several NASA documents), a conclusion, a list of acronyms, and a literature list complete the text.

Currently, the chronology in this article lists 71 nuclear powered space missions, ten of which encountered problems or accidents, respectively. A few more space missions leave open questions. Fully aware that some information might be missing, mis-interpreted, or even wrong, it is hoped that this article helps to come to a better understanding of past and future nuclear powered space missions. Rather than talk about speculative data, it might then be possible to discuss facts. Corrections and comments on the information presented below are expected and welcomed by the author.

Apart from several hardcopy documents, Internet search provided vast amounts of information. Huge numbers of documents from U.S. government organizations, mostly NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, were found on various homepages. Consequently, it was decided to base this article mainly on official information from government agencies and the space industry rather than to rely on books, magazines, and newspapers3. Not surprisingly, the data basis is much smaller when it comes to the Soviet/Russian missions - which is reflected by the lack of details about many Soviet space missions in Chapter 3 Past Missions – a Chronology.

For the purpose of this article, it was decided to quote (sometimes in length) the original statements from the official organizations instead of summarizing their contents in the author’s own words. This leaves room for the reader’s interpretation of the data given (although, admittedly the choice of quotes is a matter of interpretation by itself.)


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