The Atomic Space Age was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the1940s as a team of scientists and engineers raced to build the world’s first atomic bomb. America was at war, and few Americans were thinking about the mechanics of exploring our solar system. Nonetheless, when Los Alamos scientists were able, for the first time, to harness nuclear energy for a specific purpose, individuals such as Stanislaw Ulam, Ted Taylor, and Frederic de Hoffmann quickly recognized the tremendous potential of this work for future space propulsion. In fact, the success at Los Alamos ignited a chain reaction of excitement after the war with Robert Bussard, R. D. DeLauer, Freeman Dyson, John Wistar Simpson, Ernst Stuhlinger and Wernher von Braun all racing to the drawing board to map out the future of atomic space propulsion.
This excitement was not limited to nuclear scientists and aerospace engineers. Contemporary science-fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke were quick to adopt the science of the day, imagining sleek nuclear-powered rocket ships hurling through the solar system effortlessly. This was a far cry from the whimsical rocket ships of science fiction’s first golden age when Hugo Gernsback and Edward Elmer Smith relied largely on vague and mysterious forces to power their atomic spacecraft.
Chemical rockets may be adequate for the exploration of near space, but they fall dramatically short when it comes to colonization of the solar system. Just as the early Norsemen in the eleventh century explored the shores of Newfoundland with their long ships, chemical rockets have the potential to reach new frontiers. Unfortunately, long ships lacked the size and power needed to sustain permanent settlements— a fate chemical rockets are destined to share. Humans might one day visit destinations such as the moon, Venus, and Mars with chemical rockets consisting of multiple stages precariously assembled atop one another. These endeavors will be limited, however, by the modest energy available from breaking electron bonds. This modest energy is simply not sufficient to meet the demands of early colonization in a hostile environment. Establishing permanent human colonies and cities throughout the solar system will require the higher energy density that only nuclear fission and nuclear fusion can provide.
Life, as we know it, has always been dependent upon nuclear energy. The radioactive decay of uranium and thorium isotopes deep inside the crust and mantle of the earth is the source of the geothermal energy that gently warms our planet. The nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium powers the sun and stars. Just as the first aquatic life crawled out of the seas and adapted to dry land billions of years ago, man’s harnessing of nuclear processes during the middle of the twentieth century is the precursor for future space colonization and human evolution outside our home planet. Without the security and reliability inherent in nuclear power, our species will remain hopelessly tethered to mother earth, and our demise will, inevitably, mirror her own.
Nuclear fission and nuclear fusion are relatively recent discoveries. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, postwar America embarked on a series of “Atoms for Peace” initiatives. These included building America’s first commercial nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, between 1954 and 1958. Other initiatives included the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program (ANP), which replaced the Nuclear Energy for Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA); the Rover and NERVA nuclear rocket engine programs; the Project Orion nuclear pulse space propulsion program, as well as a variety of private research reactors that delivered valuable new medical isotopes, enabling isotope research studies in universities and private industry.
Eventually, America would derive more than twenty percent of its electrical power from nuclear energy. New nuclear magnetic resonance imaging technology has transformed medicine around the world. America’s nuclear navy has also transformed the nation’s military capability, and the first nuclear-powered merchant and luxury ship NS Savannah has demonstrated an outstanding ten-year safety record. As nuclear energy technology began to transform the face of the nation, the launch of Sputnik, and the subsequent orbital flight of Yuri Gagarin, prompted President John F. Kennedy to commit America to landing a man on the moon within a decade. At its peak, the NASA budget to achieve that ambitious objective exceeded 2 percent of federal spending and employed more than 400,000 people in lucrative high-tech jobs. The result was that American astronauts traveled to the moon and back nine times between 1968 and 1974. The aftermath of that enormous effort also engendered the emergence of new information technologies based upon the work of Claude Shannon, John von Neumann, and Alan Turing. These technologies continue to transform the world in which we live today.