August 07, 2004
Nuclear Spinoffs

I'm reading the last few chapters (the technical appendices, really) of To the End of the Solar System, James A. Dewar's political and technical history of the nuclear-thermal rocket programs of the 1950s-1970s. The primary focus of the book is on the political maneuverings which brought the projects (Rover, NERVA, etc.) into being, sustained them against political opposition from various quarters, and finally killed them off even though they had achieved successes beyond even the most optimistic predictions. The book is worth reading as a parallel history to the continuing story of the ISS and Shuttle programs, as well as for insights into the political origins of the failures of other Big Science projects over the years.

Chapter 16, however, deserves special attention for what it says about the unintended consequences of the NTR projects, and what they suggest may come of the Vision for Space Exploration should it actually bear fruit.

Chapter 16 is titled "Assessment of Scientific and Economic Benefits", and explores the result of spending $1.4 billion (in ~1970 dollars, I assume) over nineteen years on research and development on nuclear rockets of various types, primarily solid-core nuclear-thermal rockets.

Dewar begins by dispelling the conventional wisdom that "pent-up consumer demand, the automobile and housing industries, [or] public work spending drove the economic boom in the decades following World War II. They certainly played a major role, but it was the development of increasingly more sophisticated nuclear weapons by the AEC's large nuclear weapons and laboratory complex, then the application of that complex to civilian purposes... that pushed the economy to greater prosperity and its scientific community to greater achievement."

It led to a comprehensive range of products and servies that touched nearly [every] aspect of U.S. economic an d non-economic life: nuclear power plants, satellites, APollo, nuclear medicine, computers, machine tools, and this begins the list. Here one technology leads to another or enables better ones to come into being, and it continues today. For example, the trillion-dollar Internet is yet in its infancy; it originated in the upper atmosphere/space nuclear weapons tests and the Pentagon's subsequent concern over its communications in a nuclear exchange.
Dewar focuses not on discrete spinoffs like the oft-mentioned Tang and Teflon, predating but erroneously credited to the space program, but on fundamental scientific and industrial capacities whose development was dramatically accelerated or entirely brought about by the nuclear rocket projects.
Westinghouse, for example, identified 150 organizations that had increased capabilities, new products, or new processes because of contracting for NERVA commodities. Even those who did not win a Westinghouse contract benefitted. In becoming qualified to bid, many companies who had never contracted with aerospace or nuclear industries identified areas where they had to improve to stay competetive, and Westinghouse often assisted them to reach that level. The same process happened for Aerojet, Rocketdyne and even Lockheed during the brief RIFT period, creating a ripple effect through many U.S. industries.
What sorts of processes and products resulted/benefitted from the nuclear rocket programs?
...[T]he program contributed to the development of computer codes and robotics; the cryogenics industry was small in 1950, but a decade later it was becoming an international giant because of government funding to produce LOX, LH2, and other cryogenics inexpensively. Rover did not play a role in initiating this...but it did play a role in developing knowledge of pumping and handling LH2, and much of that knowledge is currently in use with the space shuttle...After meeting government needs, the firms had idle capacity, but that did not last long because other industries (steel, chemical, petrochemical, food processing) quickly bought the low-cost, super-cold liquids and found new ways to be competetive with better products. Scientists also now had low-cost cryogenics available for their experiments, such as superconducting [sic].
What is surprising, perhaps, is the direct effects on industries one might not immediately associate with aerospace or defense:
As noted, graphite in 1955 was strong when compressed but weak and brittle when pulled or twisted. Gradually, better pitches and cokes developed, graphite's basic ingredients, but they varied from batch to batch; gradually, reliable production processes emerged. Many varieties now became available for high temperature and strength applications, not only in compression but also in tension. New products emerged, from high-technology rocket nozzles/nosecones, aircraft brakes, crucible linings, medical instruments, and pollution control components, to the more commonplace tennis rackets, fishing rods, and golf clubs.
Thank Rover/NERVA for your Calloways.

Composites aren't the only materials which owe a debt to the nuclear rockets, however. Properties of metals such as Hastelloy, tungsten, titanium, aluminum, and nickel and stainless-steel alloys were better understood as a result of Rover/NERVA, particularly in extreme temperature and radiation environments, and new fabrication techniques (welding, brazing, bi-metal welds) were developed for these metals. Sensors and instruments were improved to handle the extremes of temperature, radiation, and fluid flow involved in the rocket tests, and the prohibitive costs of the type of test series used to verify the reliability of chemical engines led to the development of sophisticated analysis and non-destructive evaluation methods and quality control techniques, which were adopted throughout the primary contractors (Westinghouse and Aerojet) and spread from there to other, uninvolved industries.

After nearly fifty years, the public appears to be inured to space advocates' promises of spinoffs that will result from spending on space exploration, thinking only of the aforementioned Tang and Teflon. What needs to get more publicity, if the public and its representatives are to be persuaded to provide additional funds for a more ambitious civil space exploration program, are these more subtle but much more powerful ripple-effects on the economy from the innovations required to reach the newly-established goals.

Posted by T.L. James on August 7, 2004 10:25 PM