The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced on 2 August that it had awarded BWXT Nuclear Energy (a subsidiary of BWX Technologies) a three-year $18.8m contract to begin conceptual designs for a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) reactor in support of a possible future manned mission to Mars. Researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, say nuclear thermal propulsion technologies are more promising than ever, and BWXT Nuclear Energy has been contracted “to further advance and refine those concepts”.

NASA said its NTP project could “significantly change space travel, largely due to its ability to accelerate a large amount of propellant out of the back of a rocket at very high speeds, resulting in a highly efficient, high-thrust engine”. A nuclear thermal rocket has double the propulsion efficiency of the Space Shuttle main engine, which is one of the hardest-working standard chemical engines of the past 40 years. “That capability makes nuclear thermal propulsion ideal for delivering large, automated payloads to distant worlds.”

An NTP system should be able to cut the voyage time to Mars from six months to four and safely deliver human explorers by reducing their exposure to radiation. It also could reduce the vehicle mass, enabling deep space missions to haul more payload.

BWXT will aid in the design and testing of a promising, low-enriched uranium-based nuclear thermal engine concept and "Cermet" (ceramic metallic) fuel element technology. Under the contract, BWXT will manufacture and test prototype fuel elements and also help NASA properly address and resolve nuclear licensing and regulatory requirements. In late September, the NTP project will determine the feasibility of using LEU fuel. The project then will spend a year testing and refine its ability to manufacture the necessary Cermet fuel elements. Testing of full-length fuel rods will be conducted using a "unique" Marshall test facility.

“BWXT will aid NASA in refining the feasibility and affordability of developing a nuclear thermal propulsion engine, delivering the technical and programmatic data needed to determine how to implement this promising technology in years to come,” NASA said. The Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project is managed by NASA's Game Changing Development Programme, part of the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate.