Dark Fission founders Fred Kennedy, Michael Jacox, and Gregory Loboda

WASHINGTON — Fred Kennedy, a former Pentagon official and veteran space executive, announced March 22 he is leading a new startup to commercialize nuclear thermal rocket propulsion. 

The startup, named Dark Fission Space Systems, “aims to accelerate the expansion of the space economy beyond low Earth orbit through the development and deployment of the first commercially available nuclear thermal rocket engine,” he said.

Kennedy said advances in the space and manufacturing industries make it possible to “produce a safe and reliable in-space propulsion capability with performance characteristics exceeding anything available today.”

For space activities beyond Earth’s orbit, because of the immense distances involved, current propulsion solutions are typically either inefficient or very slow, said Kennedy. Nuclear thermal rockets could provide short transit times and high fuel economy.

Kennedy was previously president of the space services company Momentus and vice president of launch services provider Astra. Before that, he was director of the Defense Department’s Space Development Agency and director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Tactical Technology Office. 

While at DARPA from 2017 to 2019, Kennedy said, he started the agency’s nuclear space propulsion program known as DRACO, short for Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations.

Dark Fission will seek government and industry partners to pursue the on-orbit demonstration of an operational nuclear thermal rocket engine within the next five years, said Kennedy. “We’re focused on providing a commercial capability first and foremost, but we won’t rule out work on behalf of the federal government.”

He believes the technology could be used for orbital transfer and lunar access services or by “anyone with an interest in deploying their gear quickly and efficiently to geosynchronous orbit or beyond.”

Dark Fission co-founders are former vice president of Space Micro Michael Jacox and space entrepreneur Gregory Loboda.

“We have prospective investors and we are working now to secure funds,” Kennedy told SpaceNews.

A commercial entrant into the nuclear propulsion rocket arena “may well be the stabilizing element that has long been missing,” he said. “We need a strong, sustained push to get this capability to orbit, and enlisting the support of the private sector is what I believe will finally bring a nuclear thermal rocket to market.”

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...