In US: “The Russians are overtaking us, give us more money – and quickly”

Vasily Zaitsev

The United States is lagging behind Russia and China in nuclear space technologies, according to American experts who spoke to members of Congress. In their opinion, due to the slow pace of development in this industry, Washington will not be able to fulfill its plans to send people to Mars in 2033.

American experts expressed concern that Russia and China are overtaking the United States in nuclear space technology. In their opinion, the United States is making insufficient efforts to develop nuclear space engines, and this will not allow sending people to Mars in the near future. Concerns were expressed at a meeting of the Science Committee of the US House of Repres-entatives, according to the Washington Examiner.

“If you take a look at the big picture, what technologies are required and what we still have to do to send people to Mars, you will understand that this task is practically impossible at the moment. By 2033, certainly not, “said Roger Myers, co-chair of the US National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Nuclear Propulsion in Space. The goal of sending humans to Mars in 2033 was last announced by NASA in 2019 by agency chief (at the time) Jim Bridenstine.

Speaking to Congress, the experts also expressed concern over the US lagging behind other countries. “Our strategic competitors, including China, are actively investing in a wide range of space technologies, including nuclear power and nuclear propulsion. This should help them realize their ambitious plans for a long-term presence on the moon, on Mars, as well as for deep space exploration, Bhavya Lal, senior adviser to the NASA chief, told congressmen. “The United States has a responsibility to grow at a fast pace to maintain competitiveness and leadership in the space sector.”

At the moment, the Chinese authorities also expect to send people to Mars in 2033, during the first missions it is planned to build a permanent base on this planet.

An expert from NASA noted that detailed information about China’s research is “difficult to obtain”, but assured that “their development program in the space sector is incredibly vigorous.” When it came to Russia, Lal was more specific:

“Russia has a large-scale program for the development of nuclear electric propulsion systems.

I can’t say how far they have gone, I don’t have such data. But it seems to me that at the moment their program is more advanced than ours. “

Further, the experts spoke no longer about a space nuclear power plant, but about a nuclear rocket engine, which creates thrust, heating hydrogen from the heat of the reactor. Regarding this technology, Roger Myers said that at the moment “there is no fuel for a nuclear reactor that would provide temperatures suitable for generating enough energy and that would allow the reactor to operate for a long time.” Also, he said, there is no technology for storing liquid hydrogen in space, and that NASA needs serious expansion of capabilities to even test a nuclear engine.

Vitaly Egorov, an expert in the field of cosmonautics, founder of the Open Space community, agrees that Russia is ahead of the United States in certain space technologies. “In terms of nuclear space technologies, Russia can really be considered a leader. NASA ignored the development of this topic for a very long time, projects of nuclear power plants were opened and closed. Now they have the Kilopower project, a small space nuclear reactor, but in terms of power it is inferior to our Nuclon and is at an earlier stage of development. In this regard, the feelings of American engineers and those responsible for the space program are quite understandable. But one must understand that we are talking about a specific narrow area, about nuclear technologies, “he told Gazeta.Ru.

However, Yegorov calls for a restrained reaction to the words of American exp-erts. In his opinion, such st-atements rather serve to att-ract funding to the industry:

“This is common lobbying. They hint to the state: look, the Russians are overtaking us, give us more money as soon as possible, so that we, too, develop this direction in our country and keep up with the Russians. This is a traditional tactic, in Russia they say exactly the same: look, the Americans will now launch artists into space, let’s launch them faster. This is the essence of the space race, to overtake a competitor, and if there is none, then at least invent it. “

As for the electric motors themselves for space flight, ion or plasma, the expert believes that there is parity between the countries. The VASIMR engine, which has both high thrust and efficient fuel consumption that would allow the United States to get ahead, cannot be completed for many years, although it was originally planned to be sent for testing to the ISS in 2013. The ion engines existing in the two countries, according to the expert, are approximately comparable in parameters.

In addition, according to Egorov, the Russian project of a nuclear power propulsion plant is distinguished by a more comprehensive approach:

“The Americans are making their own Kilop-ower, but they have not decided where to use it.”

Despite reports that it can be used both to power engines and to generate el-ectricity at a planetary base, there are no clear plans for practical use yet, the expert noted. In turn, Russia, as Y-egorov says, has a program: “In cosmonautics, everyth-ing is determined by progr-ams. There is a program – we work on schedule. The-re is no program – we do so-me things that may not lead to a result. In this regard, t-he American expert is right that the presence of a pres-cribed program is one of t-he indicators of superiority.”

Earlier, Russia presented a mock-up of the Zeus orbital complex, a nuclear tug being developed on the basis of Nuclon’s research and development work. According to the public procurement website, its development should be completed in July 2024. It is planned to be sent into orbit in 2030.

Kilopower is an experimental ten-kilowatt nuclear reactor for operation in space and on other planets, characterized by low weight and high efficiency. In 2018, it was tested on Earth, running at full capacity.

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