Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Flying Reactors

Score: Science 1, Hippies 0

The successful launch of the New Horizons Pluto probe warrants a hearty congrats to Lockheed Martin, Johns Hopkins, NASA, and everybody else who made the mission happen. The probe will be our first chance to learn in-depth about our enigmatic ninth planet and the outlying Kuiper belt.

Of course, there were plenty of dirty hippies on hand to protest the 24 pounds of Plutonium that will power the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators of New Horizons. The press has mentioned that the number of protestors is greatly reduced versus the number on hand for the launch of Cassini in 1997. Still, it's too early to say if this is a sign that nuclear power is gaining more acceptance in the general public.

For an excellent treatise on the topic, I recommend Flying Reactors by LtCol James Downey, Wing Cdr Anthony Forestier, and LtCol David Miller. It examines the political and public policy challenges facing the use of nuclear power for space applications. I was fortunate enough to snag a copy while I was at Maxwell AFB; it's readily available from Air University Press.

Over the next hundred years, we will have to harness the power of the atom if we wish to do anything worthwhile or exciting in space. Engineers must always strive to reduce the risk of an accident, and to minimize the danger in the event of one. And the public must always believe that the science returns enabled by space nuclear power outweigh the risks involved.