The secret lab that built ‘the bomb’ now scours Mars for signs of life

In 1957, the Soviets launched the first-ever satellite into space, Sputnik. But already, two years earlier, Los Alamos had grander space designs. In 1955, it had launched Project Rover, an ambitious rocket program.

But this wasn’t like the rockets that sent men to the moon nor the rockets flying today. This was a rocket that made use of Los Alamos’ specific expertise: It was a powerful nuclear-powered rocket, for deep space exploration.

“The idea behind Rover was not to put something on the moon,” said Carr, “but to put it to the Soviets.”

For nearly two decades, until 1973, Los Alamos worked intensely on its nuclear-powered rocket.

“Close to half the lab was working just on the program,” said Carr. It was profoundly sophisticated science. “If you think rocket science is hard – try nuclear rocket science,” he said.

A variety of nuclear reactors were built and successfully tested for the rocket, culminating in a massive 1968 test of a reactor that produced enough energy to power some 800,000 homes.

But then, the money went dry. 

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