September 26, 2023

An artist’s impression of a DRACO spacecraft.


The Pentagon’s research and development division on Monday hired three companies to build and demonstrate a nuclear propulsion system on a spacecraft in orbit by 2025.

General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin received the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) award under the Agency for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) Demonstration Missile Program.

The goal of the program is deceptively simple: use a thermal core propulsion system to propel a spacecraft beyond orbit.

The Pentagon Research and Development Agency says a nuclear powered spacecraft has the potential to achieve both the high performance of a chemical-based propulsion system and the high efficiency of an electrically powered system.

“This combination would give a DRACO spacecraft more flexibility in implementing the Department of Defense’s core sentence for rapid maneuvers in cislunar space (between the earth and the moon),” the agency said.

The contracts awarded to the companies are for the first 18-month phase of the two-title program.

In Track A, General Atomics will undertake the preliminary design of a thermal nuclear reactor and the concept for a propulsion subsystem with a contract value of $ 22.2 million.

In Track B, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin – awarded USD 2.5 million and USD 2.9 million respectively – will each develop concept designs for space vehicles.

“Nuclear thermal propulsion is a transformative technology that is dramatically changing the way spacecraft works, increasing maneuverability and enabling more efficient travel to Mars and beyond in far less time than traditional propulsion systems,” said Bill Pratt, manager of Human Exploration Advanced at Lockheed Martin Space Program said in a statement to CNBC. “There has been a lot of work on nuclear propulsion in the past few decades and we will leverage this expertise by combining it with modern digital technology, modern design and spacecraft creativity to drive this new capability.”

While the defense giant often focuses on this type of Pentagon work, this award marks a new national security treaty for Bezos’ company that focuses on a variety of space projects, including the New Shepard tourism rocket, a giant reusable rocket called the New Glenn, and an astronaut lunar lander for NASA.

“Blue Origin is excited to help DARPA mature spacecraft concepts for this important technology area,” said Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs for the company, in a statement to CNBC.

DARPA assumes that the first phase of the DRACO work will be completed by the end of 2022. The following phases are still pending.