Article image

Nuclear powered spacecraft will take first humans to Mars

The space race has been revived, but this time, the goal post has been shifted much further – to Mars. As recent technological advancements promise to open new horizons of exploration, NASA plans to cut the travel time to Mars with a nuclear powered spacecraft.

A trip to Mars currently takes approximately seven months, covering a staggering 300-million-mile journey. NASA, in collaboration with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), now proposes an ambitious plan that hinges on the promise of nuclear thermal propulsion technology to reduce this duration significantly.

DRACO spacecraft is nuclear powered

NASA aims to launch a nuclear-powered spacecraft, known as DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), into Earth’s orbit either by late 2025 or early 2026. The spacecraft, under construction by Lockheed Martin, a leading aerospace and defense company, will serve as a testbed for this groundbreaking technology.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson said that this technology “would allow humans to travel in deep space at record speed.” However, it remains unclear by how much the nuclear thermal propulsion technology can decrease the travel time.

DRACO is expected to provide a treasure trove of critical data that will usher in a new age of space exploration

“We’re going to put this together, we’re going to fly this demonstration, gather a bunch of great data and really, we believe, usher in a new age for the United States [and] for humankind, to support our space exploration mission,” said Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lockheed Martin Lunar Exploration Campaigns.

Nuclear powered space technology 

A nuclear thermal rocket (NTR), the underpinning technology of the DRACO, boasts a thrust-to-weight ratio approximately 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion and two-to-five times more efficiency than in-space chemical propulsion. 

The technology utilizes heat from a nuclear powered fission reactor to heat a hydrogen propellant, which then expands through a nozzle to provide thrust, propelling the spacecraft forward.

Increased safety measures needed

Apart from speeding up transit, the NTR propulsion system also promises increased safety for astronauts. Reduced travel duration translates into a decreased risk of exposure to deep-space radiation and a smaller logistical footprint due to the lesser quantity of supplies required for the trip. “If we have swifter trips for humans, they are safer trips,” said NASA deputy administrator and former astronaut Pam Melroy.

The history of NASA’s interest in nuclear propulsion dates back over six decades. The concept was first explored in the 1960s when Wernher von Braun, a pioneer of rocket technology, advocated for a Mars mission utilizing a nuclear propulsion system. Unfortunately, budgetary constraints and shifting priorities resulted in the abandonment of this vision in 1972.

But with the dawn of the new space age, NASA has rekindled its pursuit of the Red Planet. In collaboration with the US government, the space agency aims to expedite progress with the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program. 

“The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people to Mars,” commented Dr Stefanie Tompkins, director at DARPA.

High orbit strategy for nuclear-powered DRACO

Projections indicate that the DRACO spacecraft will launch into a high orbit around Earth, between 435 and 1,240 miles (700 to 2,000 kilometers). They will ignite the nuclear engine only once they have securely positioned the spacecraft in orbit.

This high orbit strategy ensures that the spacecraft spends all the nuclear fuel before it eventually re-enters the Earth, which they expect to happen in at least 300 years.

While NASA and DARPA initially set the launch goal for 2027, recent developments have encouraged them to shift the timeframe forward to as early as 2025. This ambitious undertaking underscores a new era in space travel, potentially making the concept of reaching Mars more feasible and efficient than ever before.

More about the DRACO spacecraft

The partnership revolves around the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program. The non-reimbursable agreement has been meticulously designed to align the roles, responsibilities, and processes of both agencies. The goal of both parties is to accelerate the developmental efforts.

“NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027. With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, adding, “Congratulations to both NASA and DARPA on this exciting investment, as we ignite the future, together.”

First nuclear powered rockets

The use of a nuclear thermal rocket promises reduced transit time, a crucial factor in minimizing risks for astronauts. Shorter journeys mean reduced demands for supplies and sturdier systems. Enhancing the efficiency of transportation technology plays a vital role in achieving NASA’s Moon to Mars objectives.

What makes nuclear thermal rocket engines distinct is their method of propulsion. Utilizing a fission reactor to generate extreme temperatures, the engine transfers the heat to a liquid propellant.

This propellant is expanded and exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. Remarkably, nuclear thermal rockets are expected to be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion.

“NASA has a long history of collaborating with DARPA on projects that enable our respective missions, such as in-space servicing,” remarked NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Expanding our partnership to nuclear propulsion will help drive forward NASA’s goal to send humans to Mars.”

DARPA takes leading role

The responsibility of technical development for the nuclear thermal engine will fall under NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). DARPA will oversee the entire program, including rocket systems integration, procurement, approvals, scheduling, and security.

This includes handling safety, liability, and the assembly and integration of the engine with the spacecraft. Both NASA and DARPA will collaborate on assembling the engine, planning an in-space demonstration as early as 2027.

Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, director of DARPA, acknowledged the history of successful collaboration between the agencies. She said, “The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people to Mars.”

The United States last conducted nuclear thermal rocket engine tests over 50 years ago. This was tested under NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects. But the landscape has changed dramatically.

“With this collaboration, we will leverage our expertise gained from many previous space nuclear power and propulsion projects,” explained Jim Reuter, associate administrator for STMD. “Recent aerospace materials and engineering advancements are enabling a new era for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement toward establishing a space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy.”

More advanced nuclear powered space tech coming

The collaboration with DARPA is just a part of a broader plan. NASA, along with the Department of Energy (DOE) and industry partners, is actively developing advanced space nuclear technologies.

This includes efforts to design nuclear power plant concepts for the Moon and Mars. In addition, the project will advance higher temperature fission fuels and reactor designs. Though these designs are still under development for increased engine performance, they signal a new era of innovation and won’t be used for the DRACO engine.

Overall, the collaboration between NASA and DARPA is a significant leap towards the future of space travel. The partnership will open new horizons for exploration, scientific discovery, and commercial opportunities. The world will eagerly watch as they embark on this groundbreaking journey, forging a path to the stars with cutting-edge technology.

More about Mars

Mars, often known as the Red Planet due to its rust-colored appearance, is the fourth planet from the Sun in our solar system.

Named after the Roman god of war, it has long been the object of fascination and exploration for scientists. This is due to its potential for hosting life, both in the past and possibly in the future.


Mars is about half the size of Earth but has the same amount of dry land. It is much colder than Earth. Temperatures range from -195 degrees F in winter at the poles to 70 degrees F in summer near the equator. Mars has the largest dust storms in the solar system, capable of covering the entire planet and lasting for months.


The planet’s atmosphere is very thin, composed mainly of carbon dioxide (95%), with traces of nitrogen and argon. It lacks a magnetic field, which on Earth serves to protect us from harmful solar radiation.

As a result, the surface of Mars is exposed to higher levels of radiation. This fact poses a challenge for human exploration and potential colonization.


One of the most striking features of Mars is its terrain. It includes the largest volcano and the deepest, longest canyon in the solar system.

Olympus Mons, the volcano, is three times the height of Mount Everest, the tallest peak on Earth. The canyon, Valles Marineris, extends over 3,000 kilometers, making it much larger than the Earth’s Grand Canyon.


In terms of exploration, Mars has been the target of numerous spacecraft. In recent years, rovers like Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and most recently, Perseverance, have provided invaluable data about the planet’s geology, climate, and potential for past life. The next step is to put humans on Mars in the very near future using a nuclear-powered spacecraft.


The planet’s surface is rich in iron oxide – or rust – which gives it its characteristic reddish appearance. The presence of many dry riverbeds and polar ice caps (made from water and carbon dioxide) suggests that Mars once had a much warmer and wetter climate. Long ago, it was more conducive to life as we know it.

Potential for life on Mars

The possibility of liquid water in the past, and thus the potential for life, has made Mars a prime target for future human exploration. The planned missions to Mars, such as NASA’s Artemis program and SpaceX’s Starship project, aim not only to land humans on Mars but also to establish a sustainable colony, marking a significant leap in our exploration of the cosmos.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day