The head of Russia’s Keldysh Research Center, Vladimir Koshlakov, said in an interview, “Elon Musk is using the existing tech, developed a long time ago. He is a businessman: he took a solution that was already there, and applied it successfully.” He is also leading the charge to build a new type of space vehicle called the Transport and Energy Module (TEM). The vehicle features a nuclear-powered engine.
The US and the old Soviet Union spent decades to research nuclear rocket, and the new suggestion in design is a result of these research programs. The specific configuration of a nuclear-powered rocket engine can vary, however, one experimental US program features a rocket which can propel itself by setting off nuclear explosions behind it. The most common version involves the usage of a small nuclear reactor to generate immense amounts of heat. The heat generated is then transferred to some fuel. It is not clear what the TEM rocket uses to produce the thurst.
The first program to develop this type of rocket, called a nuclear thermal rocket, was Project Rover which was started by NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission in 1955. The Project Rover ran for two decades and produced a handful of test engines at Los Alamos. Rover’s first attempt was conducted with a nuclear engine called KIWI. It was focused on proving the concept. The next generation engine, called Phoebus, was designed to test how well the idea works in practice. This included simulating a space-like environment for the rocket during the experiments. By 1972, the project went as far as designing a small version of the engine called Pewee. It was intended to be used as a final stage for small satellites and spacecraft.
In 1972, the Project Rover was canceled without launching a nuclear rocket into space. At the same time, the Soviets were developing their nuclear thermal rocket, the RD-0410. The RD was significantly smaller than any of the Project Rover’s rockets. The testing on the RD-0410 didn’t begin until after Project Rover ended. The first live-fire test of the rocket occurred in 1978. However, just like the US, the Soviet project also ran out of funding before it was completed. In the early 1980s, when the engine was near the first tests in space, the Soviet Union began collapsing. The government didn’t have the time or the money to work on a rocket project, and the RD-0410 also got canceled by 1990.
The TEM Russian nuclear engine was developed as a direct successor to the RD-0410. The project relies on modern materials and construction methods and borrows from the work done by both Soviet and American scientists. The nuclear rocket engines have a history which is almost as long as any other kind of rocket. However, with this new project by Russia, one of these nuclear engine rockets will fly.