Nuclear power does not have a very good reputation on planet Earth, as an explosion or leak can have dire repercussions when it comes to fission (we are still a long way from being able to get a fusion engine). Still, it is a source of energy that cannot be ignored, and in the world of Space Technology it is being shuffled for a spacecraft construction project.
DARPA (United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has asked Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos’s first time working on projects of this type) to start thinking about the issue to work with General Atomics to design a gil rocket for cislunar missions (between the moon and Earth).
It is clear that nuclear thermal propulsion systems could be the key to manned missions to deep space, and the issue has been put on the table again when it comes to getting humans to Mars or other closer missions. The system works by transferring heat from a nuclear reactor to a liquid propellant to generate thrust, generating twice the propellant efficiency of chemical rockets.
To accelerate the pace of development of the necessary technology, DARPA asked the aforementioned companies to build and demonstrate a nuclear-based propulsion system on a spacecraft above low-Earth orbit by 2025.
Over the next 18 months, Phase 1 of the DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) program will begin designing a spacecraft that has the ability to maneuver rapidly in cislunar space.
The Bezos company and Lockheed Martin received $ 2.5 million and $ 2.9 million respectively, and will create independent designs. DARPA awarded General Atomics much more, $ 22 million, to develop the nuclear reactor.