Nuclear Rocket Development Station tested nuclear rocket for Mars mission
NERVA reactor experimental engine
A prototype NERVA reactor experimental engine at Cell A. The engine underwent start up, full power and shutdown test in 1962.
In the mid-1950s, the United States initiated a nuclear rocket program called "Project Rover."

The Nevada Test Site (NTS) was selected to test nuclear reactors and engines, and perform various ground tests. The tests, performed in the southwest corner of NTS (Area 25), ended in 1972.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Nuclear Propulsion Office jointly administered the test area --subsequently designated as the Nuclear Rocket Development Station (NRDS).

During the life of its operation, more than $100 million was spent on facility construction and equipment. The NRDS consisted of test cells, "A," "C," and ETS-1 Engine Test Stand; R-MAD and E-MAD (Reactor and Engine Maintenance Assembly and Disassembly facilities; a Control Point/Technical Operations complex; an administrative area; and a radioactive material storage area.

The three test cell areas were connected by road and railroad to the R-MAD and E-MAD buildings.

The Rover Program successfully demonstrated that a nuclear reactor could be used to heat liquid hydrogen for spacecraft propulsion.

The 'Kiwi', 'Phoebus', 'Peewee' and ' Nuclear Furnace' series were developed and tested to understand the basics of nuclear rocket reactor technology. The reactors, designed to study high-temperature fuels and long-life fuel elements, were operated with increasingly greater specific impulses, power levels, and power densities.

Rover also included the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program, a technology demonstration effort to determine the characteristics of the NERVA Reactor Experiment and Ground Experiment Engines (an outgrowth of the 'Kiwi' reactor series) during start up, full power, and shutdown conditions.

Based on results of those demonstrations, scientists began designing a nuclear rocket using a high-power, high-thrust NERVA engine and a low-power, low-thrust, small engine. These designs were for the in-flight test program.

In 1969, the United States abandoned plans for human exploration of Mars. The Rover Program was subsequently canceled in 1972. Today there are indications of renewed interest in development of a nuclear rocket engine for deep space missions.

Related photos

Work progresses in 1962 on the Engine Maintenance Assembly and Disassembly (E-MAD) facility at Jackass Flats.
DOE photo.
Close-up view of an engine and reactor in Engine Test Stand One. The two technicians on the right provide scale.
Los Alamos National Laboratory photo.
President John F. Kennedy departs from the Nuclear Rocket Development Station, after a brief inspection visit on December 8, 1962. At the President's left are: Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; Senator Howard Cannon, (D-NV); Harold B. Finger, Manager of the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office; and Dr. Alvin C. Graves, Director of test activities for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.
LASL photo.
The manned-control railcar which was linked to the engine test car was started and stopped remotely. The round shaped pod in the background is a "Dresil." It was used to maintain nitrogen gases in liquid form. The structure on the right is the Engine Test Stand.
Johnson Controls photo.

Last Updated November 01, 1999
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