Exciting developments are underway in space exploration as DRAPA (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) announces Lockheed Martin’s selection to design, build, and test the propulsion system for a Mars mission. BWX Technologies is also involved in building a nuclear fission reactor for the engine. With NASA planning to test a nuclear rocket in space within three years, DRACO is set to revolutionize space travel and offer numerous potential benefits.

This topic of “DRACO” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is DRACO?

DRACO, or Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, is a groundbreaking $499 million program aimed at advancing space exploration and propulsion technology.

The Pros of DRACO

DRACO holds the promise of several potential benefits, including:

  • Faster Travel to Mars: The new propulsion system could cut travel time to Mars by 50%, significantly reducing mission duration.
  • Greater Fuel Efficiency: The nuclear-thermal engine offers improved fuel efficiency, resulting in reduced exposure of astronauts to the harsh deep space environment.
  • Versatile Applications: Apart from Mars missions, DRACO’s technology could be utilized for rapid maneuvers of military satellites in Earth’s orbit, enhancing space-based operations.

How DRACO Works

The DRACO engine design involves a nuclear reactor heating hydrogen for thrust. The key safety measure is that the reactor will not be activated until the spacecraft is in space. The program will culminate with a flight test of the nuclear-thermal engine, likely orbiting at an altitude between 435 and 1,240 miles. This altitude allows radioactive elements in the reactor fuel to decay to safe levels, ensuring the safety of both astronauts and the environment.

Historical Context

DRACO is not the first attempt to explore nuclear propulsion for space travel. In the 1950s and 1960s, Project Orion aimed to use atomic bomb explosions for spacecraft acceleration. Project Rover and Project NERVA were also earlier efforts to develop nuclear-thermal engines.


A significant difference between DRACO and its predecessors lies in the use of nuclear fuel. While Project NERVA used weapons-grade uranium, DRACO will use a less-enriched form of uranium, making it a safer and more controlled option.

Scheduled Launch

The exciting development is set to take off with a scheduled launch late in 2025 or early in 2026, marking a crucial step in the future of space exploration.

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