NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (right) speaks with David Nasser at Liberty University on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. 

The first astronaut to land on Mars may get there with the help of nuclear-powered rockets designed in Lynchburg.

That’s according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who spent this week meeting with representatives of the local nuclear services company BWX Technologies as part of the space agency’s ambitious goal of sending a manned mission to the red planet by the end of the next decade.

“When we plant that American flag on Mars, it is very likely that that mission is going to go through Lynchburg, Virginia, because of BWXT,” Bridenstine said during a tour of the company’s advanced technology lab Wednesday.

BWXT has cultivated a close and lucrative relationship with NASA. In 2017, the space agency awarded the company a nearly $20 million contract to begin the initial stages of designing a nuclear reactor to support future space travel.

As NASA moves forward with its plans to travel to Mars, the space agency is considering whether to award a larger contract to BWXT to help further develop what is known as “nuclear thermal propulsion.”

NASA is pinning its hopes on nuclear-powered rockets. The supercharged engines could cut the trip to Mars in half, which would make the mission easier to schedule and help limit astronauts’ exposure to harmful radiation during the trip, according to Bridenstine.

“The bottom line is the faster we go, the safer it is,” he said. “And that’s why nuclear propulsion is so important.”

As part of his three-day visit to Lynchburg, Bridenstine also spoke at Liberty University, where he outlined NASA’s current projects, including plans to use the private company SpaceX to send astronauts to the International Space Station on American-built rockets — instead of Russian rockets — for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program nearly a decade ago.

“In this year, 2020, we are again going to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” he said at the university’s convocation Friday.

Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot who served three terms representing the Tulsa area in the House of Representatives before taking the top NASA job, said the agency’s partnership with companies like SpaceX and BWXT is part of a larger goal of injecting economic competition into space exploration.

The commercialization” of space, he said, will incentivize companies to innovate and could ultimately help bring down the cost of space flight. It will also help NASA achieve the goal of returning to the moon as part of the Artemis Program.

The program aims to send the first crewed mission to the moon for the first time in more than half a century. The planned flight, which could launch as early as 2024, also will carry the first female astronaut to the lunar surface.

“Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo and she is the goddess of the moon in Greek mythology,” Bridenstine said. “So this time, when we go to the moon, we go with all of America. And in fact, we will go with the first woman.”

Those words had special meaning for Grace Wiggins, a Liberty junior so obsessed with NASA she attended Bridenstine’s appearance at convocation in a space flight suit she got “from space camp in middle school.”

Wiggins, who is pursuing a degree in social work, said the prospect of seeing a woman walk on the Moon could help inspire the nation.

“We haven’t had people on the moon for a very long time and the fact that we’re going to put a woman on the moon is really exciting,” she said. “I think it will be something that our generation really holds on to.”

Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.

Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.

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