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Last Updated: 10/7/2009


BRIEF HISTORY OF ASTRONUCLEAR - By Fred Henning





Below is a Brief Astronuclear Laboratory History, written by Fred Henning and read by Jerry Feret at the Reunion Banquet on September 29, 2001.


In October 1957 the Russians launched the Sputnik orbiter. This caused some of the scientists and engineers at Bettis to think how their successes in applying nuclear power to underseas could be applied to space. In February 1958 Walt Esselman made a presentation in a Westinghouse symposium showing the potential for nuclear rockets. In 1959 John Simpson was asked by the Westinghouse CEO to leave Bettis and lead a project to get Westinghouse into the nuclear space business. John Simpson took five people from Bettis, Frank Cotter, Walt Esselman, Walt Roman, Sid Krasik, and Lloyd Kramer. Shortly after, Dick Cunningham and Don Thomas joined the group.


The group faced tramendous challenges. First they had to convince the government that a nuclear rocket program should be pursued. Then they had to get Westinghouse involved in the program. Failure would probably damage their careers. There was opposition from Admiral Rickover. He not only promised to do all in his power to see that Westinghouse would never receive a contract in the nuclear space business, he threatened to take the Bettis operation away from Westinghouse.


The Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory was officially named as a division July 26, 1959 with John Simpson as the General Manager. Sid Krasik was the Technical Director. In retaliation Rickover transferred several nuclear projects from Westinghouse to GE.


The first order of business was to obtain highly qualified people to assist the original group. Many were hired from other Westinghouse organizations. One important source of people was the Westinghouse Aviation Gas Turbine Division in Kansas City. These people, with jet engine experience, brought aerospace expertise which complemented the nuclear and materials expertise from Bettis and other organizations. By the end of 1959 Astro had expanded to 22 people. By June 1960 it had 44. It had nearly 100 by February 1961 when NASA issued a request for proposal for a nuclear rocket engine named NERVA. The proposal was due April 1961.


In the proposal Westinghouse had to compete with General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, North American Aviation, Aerojet General and Thiokol, all heavyweights in aerospace. The proposal was to include the entire engine, not just the nuclear system. For the proposal the team of about 100 people developed design concepts for each part of the engine and they designed a comprehensive plan for the development and management of a NERVA engine.


An intensive proposal review process was conducted by a NASA and AEC review board. The competition was close. In June 1961 the review board awarded the prime contract to Aerojet with Westinghouse directed to be the nuclear system subcontractor.


At the time of winning the NERVA contract, Astronuclear was located in office space above a grocery supermarket in Mt. Lebanon. Much expanded space and facilities were necessary to implement the contract. Astronuclear was able to acquire a facility at Large, PA. The faciity itself had a interesting history. Henry Large, Jr. built a still on the site in 1795. It was then frontier country and farmers found it easier to convert their grain to whiskey rather than transport the bulky grain over the mountains to the east. The site eventually became the Old Overholt distillery. Bettis had used the site in the 1950s. Astronuclear moved to the site in November 1961 with about 150 people. Considerable modification and upgrade of the site began.


Recruiting of additional qualified people became a major task. Most of the new people were hired from outside Westinghouse. By late 1963 employment grew to nearly 2000. This included people at other Astro sites such as Nevada Test Site, Astrofuel and Waltz Mill. In addition to NERVA an increasing number of the people were working on non-NERVA projects involving other energy and materials technology. The Astronuclear Laboratory became one of the best technical and management organizations in Westinghouse history.


The NERVA program was highly successful. By 1969 Westinghouse and Aerojet had demonstrated all performance and structural objectives through the NRXA tests of the reactor system and the XE test of the total engine. Congressional support for NERVA began to fall off because NASA program objectives had changed. There was no longer a mission requiring a nuclear rocket engine leading to cancellation of the NERVA program in 1972.


Many Astronuclear personnel transferred to other Westinghouse divisions where their Astro experience was of great help to the corporation. Astronuclear itself later became the Advanced Energy Systems Division (AESD) from which several new businesses were spun off.