WASHINGTON — DARPA and NASA have jointly awarded Lockheed Martin a $499 million deal to design and build an experimental rocket using a nuclear thermal propulsion engine under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, aimed at future deep space operations.
Funding for DRACO is split about evenly between the two agencies, Anthony Calomino, NASA’s space nuclear technologies portfolio manager, said during a briefing today.
The goal is to launch the demonstration sometime in “late 2025 or early 2026,” Kirk Shireman, Lockheed Martin vice president, Lunar Exploration Campaigns, said at the same briefing.
A nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) uses fission, the splitting of atoms, for power just like terrestrial nuclear reactors for generating electricity. Thus, nuclear propulsion “offers a high thrust-to-weight ratio around 10,000 [times] greater than electric propulsion and with two-to-five times greater efficiency than in-space chemical propulsion,” according to DARPA’s website.
NASA has primary responsibility for the development of the NTR engine, which it hopes to be ready for primetime for its planned Mars missions circa the mid-2030s, Calomino explained. DARPA, meanwhile, is managing the process of getting DRACO’s rocket through environmental safety reviews, as well as launch vehicle requirements, development and integration onto a booster that will lift the experimental rocket into orbit.
As DARPA is a military organization, the secretary of defense, Calomino added, would therefore be the one to “have launch authority.”
To get the test engine into space, Tabitha Dodson, DRACO program manager at DARPA, said during the briefing that the Space Force will provide the launch vehicle, most likely a SpaceX Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy, under the National Security Space Launch program.
In an interview with Breaking Defense back in January, Dodson said the Space Force has signed a “letter of commitment” to seek funding from…