The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency started the DRACO program in 2020. DRACO is short for demonstration rocket for agile cislunar operations. Credit: DARPA

WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency selected Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin to develop competing spacecraft concepts for a demonstration of nuclear thermal propulsion, the agency announced April 12.

Under a program called DRACO, short for demonstration rocket for agile cislunar operations, DARPA wants to demonstrate nuclear thermal propulsion technology — using a nuclear reactor to heat up rocket fuel to generate thrust.

DARPA awarded General Atomics a $22 million contract to develop the nuclear reactor. Lockheed Martin’s contract value is $2.9 million and the Blue Origin’s is $2.5 million.

The goal of the program is to launch a spacecraft driven by nuclear thermal propulsion above low Earth orbit in 2025. DARPA believes this technology will allow spacecraft to travel huge distances quickly.

“Rapid maneuver in the space domain has traditionally been challenging because current electric and chemical space propulsion systems have drawbacks in thrust-to-weight and propellent efficiency, respectively,” said Maj Nathan Greiner, DRACO program manager. 

Nuclear thermal propulsion “has the potential to achieve high thrust-to-weight ratios similar to in-space chemical propulsion and approach the high propellent efficiency of electric systems,” he said. 

The  first phase of the program will last 18 months and will focus on General Atomics’ reactor and propulsion subsystem concepts. In the second phase, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin will independently develop spacecraft concept designs.

Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin, said in a statement to SpaceNews that Blue Origin is “excited to support DARPA in maturing spacecraft concepts for this important technology area.”

Bill Pratt, manager of human exploration advanced programs at Lockheed Martin Space, said nuclear thermal propulsion is a “transformative technology that will dramatically change the way spacecraft will operate, increasing agility and allowing more efficient travel to Mars and beyond in far less time than conventional propulsion systems.”

Pratt said in a statement that the company will leverage work done on nuclear propulsion in previous decades “as we combine it with digital engineering, modern spacecraft design and creativity to advance this new capability.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...