NASA and DARPA Pick Lockheed Martin and BWXT for DRACO

NASA and DARPA Pick Lockheed Martin and BWXT for DRACO

NASA and DARPA announced today that Lockheed Martin and BWXT will build a nuclear thermal propulsion demonstration vehicle called DRACO. NASA and DARPA joined forces earlier this year to develop a prototype NTP system that both NASA and DOD expect to revolutionize space propulsion.

DARPA has been working on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, project for several years and in January signed a non-reimbursable agreement with NASA for the two agencies to work together. Launch is planned for 2027.

NASA will design, develop and fabricate a Nuclear Thermal Rocket (NTR) engine. DARPA is responsible for the experimental NTR (X-NTRV) spacecraft, integrating the engine with the spacecraft, procuring a launch service through the U.S. Space Force, obtaining necessary launch approvals, and managing the project.

DARPA’s DRACO project manager Tabitha Dodson told reporters today the total cost is $499 million that will be split equally between the two agencies.

Dodson and Anthony Calomino from NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate held a media briefing to announce the selection of Lockheed Martin and BWX Technologies (BWXT) to build the DRACO spacecraft and engine. DARPA manages the program and a Lockheed Martin spokesperson told that the $499 million contract is between DARPA and Lockheed Martin, with BWXT as a subcontractor.

Illustration of the DRACO Nuclear Thermal Propulsion demonstration mission. Credit: DARPA

The engine will use High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) as fuel, which is safer than the highly enriched uranium used in traditional fission reactors. The HALEU will convert Liquid Hydrogen (LH2) into gas that is expelled through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. This demonstration will take place in Earth orbit, but the applications for NTP extend far beyond Earth. As its name implies, DOD plans to use it in cislunar space — the area between the Earth and the Moon — and NASA wants to use it to send astronauts to Mars.

Kirk Shireman, Lockheed Martin’s Vice President of Lunar Exploration Campaigns, said nuclear propulsion “can provide faster transit times between destinations” which is “vital for human missions to Mars to limit a crew’s exposure to radiation.” It also can “revolutionize cislunar operations” providing “more speed, agility and maneuverability” with “many national security applications for cislunar space.”

Joe Miller, President of BWXT Advanced Technologies LLC, said his company has been maturing NTP fuel and design at its Lynchburg, VA facilities and “we are excited to further expand into space.”

Dodson explained that the duration of the DRACO demonstration is limited by the amount of LH2, so although the spacecraft will remain in orbit for at least 300 years, the demo itself will last only a couple of months.

That’s unless it becomes possible to refuel it. Transferring cryogenic propellants like LH2 in weightlessness has not been demonstrated yet, but the idea of building fuel depots in orbit is being seriously discussed these days. SpaceX is counting on it for Starship.

Dodson, Calomino and Shireman all expressed enthuasism at the prospect. Dodson said they are talking with the U.S. Space Force about putting a port on DRACO to allow for refueling in case it becomes a possibility.


This article has been updated.

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