VASIMR Drive Gaining Speed
The first practical VASIMR drive is almost a reality. The Ad Astra Rocket Company is developing the VASIMR drive in the hopes that it will one day propel the manned mission to Mars in just under 40 days, vastly increasing the chances for mission success, but that isn’t all that is in their sights.
The current problems with the VASIMR drive being a useful technology for manned missions are the power requirements. In the opinion of many, nuclear power is the only method we have to generate the power density a manned interplanetary vessel will require to make the VASIMR drive practical. Traditional spacecraft do not have the power needed to run the engine efficiently. This problem will have to be solved before it can be used for manned missions. However, the technology scales fairly well and small, unmanned spacecraft can easily utilize the technology, at least in theory. NASA has been reluctant to use nuclear power even for unmanned spacecraft, never mind spacecraft with people aboard. Considering NASA’s current budget troubles, it is uncertain if the money will be available to make a manned mission to Mars possible, regardless of the kind of engine or power plant it will be using.
The current status of VASIMR is so far this. VF-200-1 is being developed for deployment on ISS as a boost engine to keep the station in orbit. The NASA contract with Ad Astra is for deployment to begin before 2014. VF-200-2 will be developed for the as yet unnamed spacecraft sent to an asteroid in 2014. This spacecraft will use VF-200-2 as a backup flight engine.
Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin refused to pledge support for any alternate propulsion technology. However, NASA had already signed a contract with Ad Astra to deploy VASIMR on ISS as a booster and after the success of their ground test of the prototype VX-200, everyone became keenly interested in the technology. The current administrator Charles Bolden has said that projects like VASIMR are essential to any manned mission beyond LEO and the Moon, such as a mission to Mars or the asteroid belt, but so far he has been unwilling to discuss nuclear power as a possible solution to the necessary power requirements of the technology. However, the power problem would seem to be political and not technical even assuming NASA has the money when the time comes. All indications are that the technology works. The proof of that will be it’s performance on the ISS.And if VASIMR does work for the ISS, everyone who is thinking about putting up a space probe or even another satellite will want to slap a VASIMR on it and since Ad Astra is a private company who owns the technology, there will be nothing to stop them from becoming filthy rich in a decade or less, regardless of whether NASA decides to go to Mars or not. NASA may be left behind by other more conventional interests in the exploration and exploitation of space. It is technologies like this that ease my conscience about the troubled future of space exploration. While I still wonder if NASA will be around in twenty years, I have no trouble believing we will still be sending spacecraft (and most likely people) into orbit and beyond.
Watch the test demonstration video