Snyder: Even Though It Never Flew, Project Rover Changed History

Raemer Schreiber explaining a detail of Project Rover in 1959. Courtesy/AHF

By SHARON SYNDER
Los Alamos Historical Society

“Nuclear power not only will enhance space exploration; its use, both for propulsion and for auxiliary power, is the key to extensive outer space exploration.” —Leland Hayworth, AEC Commissioner 1961-1963 and director of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Rover Boulevard in White Rock gets its name from Project Rover, an ambitious and controversial program to use nuclear power for space rockets.

Doomed financially by the escalating costs of the Vietnam War and NASA’s desire to reach the moon before the Soviets, the project folded in January 1973 but not before having a huge impact on the development of small nuclear reactors and on Los Alamos.

Laboratory Director Norris Bradbury tapped Manhattan Project veteran Raemer Schrieber to head the Rover Project in 1955.

New Mexico’s U.S. Senator Clinton P. Anderson, powerful chairman of Congress’ Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, provided years of funding for the project. Politics in the country at that time proved ripe.

“Sputnik went up. That started the whole change because … chemical rockets weren’t doing very well,” Schrieber told author Richard Rhodes in a 1993 interview. He explained that Nobel Prize-winning physicist John von Neumann recommended that the military look into nuclear rockets because chemical rockets at the time could not produce enough thrust to create intercontinental ballistic missiles. “That gave us the green light to spend a little money, like a couple million dollars, to study the thing,” Schrieber said.

In addition, according to a 1987 report by the U.S. Department of Energy, “From 1962 to 1965, the antinuclear movement was not yet vociferous, the future of nuclear power and its widespread uses looked promising, and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was a scientist, who believed strongly in nuclear power and its wedding to space ventures.”

The scientist was Nobel Prize winner Glen Seaborg, and the report added, “Moreover, Seaborg inspired loyalties and a sense of common purpose in the people of the AEC.”

Rover’s purpose was to develop light, fast rockets that could propel astronauts to other planets. Los Alamos scientists and technicians developed three series of rockets—the Kiwi, the Phoebus, and the Pewee.

They used a nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen gas, which was sent through a nozzle to create thrust.

According to a LANL YouTube video on the project, the Phoebus became the most powerful individual reactor of any type ever built and tested.

“We know how to make a nuclear reactor that will produce up to 500,000 pounds of thrust, but nobody wants it,” Schreiber said in an interview for Manhattan Project Voices. “And I don’t blame them, because it’s messy, and it would take an enormous stage to carry it off hydrogen, to make it worthwhile.”

When Schreiber was speaking in 1993, the anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s were abating, but many still had concerns about sending nuclear materials into space, fearing a launchpad or atmospheric disaster would spread radioactive contamination.

While the scientific and engineering work of Project Rover proved successful over the years, financial and political considerations doomed it.

A press release from the AEC in January 1973 reported: “Following a determination by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that its research and technology programs should focus on near-term developments, the AEC has taken parallel action in related programs. Programs to be terminated include nuclear rocket propulsion work at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and at the Nuclear Rocket Development Station in Nevada.”

Numerous lessons learned resulted from Project Rover and other nuclear and space related programs.

They included solutions to significant technical problems as well as safety related issues. Nuclear-powered space probes, an off-shoot of the project, continue today, and the idea of nuclear-powered space flight is still alive with enthusiasts who peruse scientific articles and share them through online and other social media forums.

With the renewed interest in human travel to Mars by Elon Musk and other billionaires, perhaps someday the vision of Hayworth, Seaborg, Schreiber, and others to see nuclear-powered rockets with astronaut crews head to Mars—and beyond—will be a reality.

You can learn more about Project Rover in this film from Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=866C4qKgzeg

To learn more about Schrieber, check out the documentary, Half-Life of Genius: Physicist Raemer Schreiber at https://www.amazon.com/Half-Life-Genius-Physicist-Schreiber-Blu-ray/dp/B07CXZ9DM2. You can also see and hear his entire interview with Rhodes at https://www.manhattanprojectvoices.org/oral-histories/raemer-schreibers-interview-1993.

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