Ep 399: Bhavya Lal - Associate Admin for Technology, Policy & Strategy, NASA
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:00:59] Welcome to Titans of Nuclear. Today, we have Bhavya Lal with us. She's the Associate Administrator for Technology, Policy, and Strategy at NASA. Bhavya, it is so exciting to have you on the podcast to talk about space nuclear. Welcome to the show.
Bhavya Lal [00:01:15] I'm so excited to be here, Michelle. Great talking to you. And again, we just found out that we know each other from way back when, so that's even better.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:01:22] We do. Yeah, lots of history. But I'm actually really keen to start even before you and I met, I guess, about eight years ago now. If you could tell me, where did you grow up? What's your educational background? How did you get into science?
Bhavya Lal [00:01:41] Great question, Michelle. I was born in a small town called Mathura, which is near the Taj Mahal in India. I grew up in a pretty STEM-heavy family. My father was an electrical engineer. My mom studied math in college, but she got married at 19 and didn't ever have a chance to have a career, so her dream got channeled into me. My father traveled a lot setting up power plants and manufacturing units all over India. Until I was in high school, my mom and I traveled with him, sometimes for weeks and months. My mom would get the curriculum from my teachers and we would study, so I got a lot of home schooling until I was in high school.
Bhavya Lal [00:02:20] I arrived in the US as an 18 year old. Two suitcases full of books... It didn't occur to me to pack any clothes, just to study nuclear physics and get a Nobel Prize, so you can imagine coming to MIT was a rude awakening. Just to round out the question, I was part of the MIT five-year Bachelor's-Master's program, in which I studied nuclear engineering. So, full circle.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:02:49] What sparked that interest in nuclear? I mean, you said that you traveled around to see power plants in India with your dad as a child. Was that the interest in energy? And why nuclear? How did you hear about it?
Bhavya Lal [00:03:02] I think at the time, climate change was something we had only started to hear about. You know, you read about it in textbooks. So, when I came to MIT, thinking about the different options, it seemed like nuclear power was a good way to think about the future. And then, that's where I started. Although over time, I think one thing I learned was the reason we weren't getting things done, building more nuclear power plants, for example, wasn't because technology was lacking, but because there was a lack of policy and policy is hard.
Bhavya Lal [00:03:41] You know, I have a friend, Adam Russell, who always says, "If you think physics is hard, imagine if electrons can think and can be irrational. Now that's policy." And again, I mean, climate change as a representative example, our challenges aren't engineering, but policy ones. And I think, over time I felt that doing things in space solves so many problems that we have on Earth, climate change, again sticking with that theme, being one. So, I decided to focus on space and that's where I am now, at NASA.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:04:14] Fantastic. I mean, you definitely took on the challenge of thinking not just about the science, but communicating that science and scientific understanding to the people who are trying to make those very tough decisions moving into policy. I know before you started at NASA, you worked really closely across multiple administrations at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, informing science policy with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where you really were quite a rock star in the space policy world. Helping bridge that gap between the technology, the cutting edge science, and then what do we actually do with that and how do we ensure that we have policies that enable new science, but also think about how we can actually use the existing technology that we have to meet large, governmental and American, country-wide goals and ambitions, but also planetary, which is really what your focus has been. So after STPI, you're now at NASA. Tell me about what it's been like to start out your career and to be at NASA for the past few years. What are you focusing on?
Bhavya Lal [00:05:28] My training is in policy analysis methods. I found that these methods that I applied so well in the realm of science policy, R&D policy, where we worked together... I found that the space sector hasn't really been as policy savvy because it was so strategic for geopolitical reasons. Analysis wasn't as core to space activities as it had been in other parts of the science community. So, one of the things that happened when I switched to the space sector was all these methods that I've learned both in school and in my career were highly applicable. So for example, I initially did an analysis of whether a private space station would be profitable. And how you set up the model, how you do that analysis is something I felt very comfortable with, but it was a new way of thinking in the space sector.
Bhavya Lal [00:06:23] So, since analysis was my jam, it was an easy switch to come from science policy to space policy. And today, I am the Associate Administrator for Technology, Policy, and Strategy at NASA. I report to a Deputy Administrator, and I kind of think about holistic things, big picture things, the direction in which NASA should move, areas where NASA should get involved where it may or may not have been in the past. Policy issues... When we get to the moon... There are 20 missions planned. There would be Chinese missions, commercial missions. How do we work together on the moon where there's no rules at all? So, those are some of the things we think about in this new office that I lead.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:07:09] Okay, great. It's a new office. I'd love to get to better understand that exact office function, but maybe... You are on Titans of Nuclear. The majority of our audience thinks about nuclear when it comes to big, commercial reactors, or SMRs, terrestrial applications. Can you talk to me about maybe a history of NASA and how nuclear has fit into NASA's remit throughout the past few years so we can really understand what you were just getting at?
Bhavya Lal [00:07:38] Absolutely. So, NASA actually has been part of nuclear efforts since its inception. And when we talk about nuclear, we are not just talking about fission reactors, which is something we see terrestrially, but also what are called radioisotopic systems, which is basically a battery, essentially, which is powered by plutonium-238. And it can also be powered by other isotopes, but mostly it has been plutonium-238. So, those are the two systems that NASA has been part of since its very creation. In fact, this month, nearly 60 years ago, the Atomic Energy Commission supervised the actual launch of a nuclear reactor, I think in 1965. It produced about 500 watts of power; it was called SNAP-10A. And after working for a few weeks, it was shut down. So, reactors have been part of our DNA from the beginning, although after that launch, we haven't had one again, and we should get into that a little bit.
Bhavya Lal [00:08:44] Mostly what NASA has done is flown these radioisotope systems. I think we've flown more than three or four dozen. Plutonium-238 has been used in nearly every NASA mission that required power. So, Apollo flights, Viking 1 and 2, the Mars landers, Voyager, the New Horizons Mission to Pluto, and most recently the Mars Perseverance Rover. Next up, we will launch a Dragonfly mission in 2027 to explore Saturn's largest moon, for which we arrive in 2034. So today, NASA's investing in all nuclear technologies across the board. We are looking at new ideas in radioisotope systems, systems that convert heat to power more efficiently. We are investing in power systems, basically, just like on Earth. We have reactors. We would like to have power reactors in space, and we can talk about why. And then, also nuclear power for what's called propulsion, to travel across space. So, it's been an exciting time.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:09:57] It's actually really fascinating, because you're getting at the main uses of nuclear on land. So, for electrification purposes and then the very small scale, the thought of kind of a nuclear battery makes a lot of sense. For larger-scale applications, you think about larger SMRs or gigawatt-scale plants that power cities, power communities, power factories. And then for propulsion, really just the equivalent of a car or any other form of transportation, except here, we're talking about traveling to Mars or to Saturn, which is on a completely different scale. So, that's really fascinating that all aspects have been not only part of NASA's history, but are also having such focus on these new innovations within your office.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:10:40] I'd love to dig in around the types of technologies that you're using. You mentioned plutonium-238 for traditional radioisotope battery packs, as you define them. What other types of radioisotope power systems or other power systems are you all looking at? And then, maybe you'd also like to explain a little bit more about how nuclear thermal propulsion technology works and what that really means.
Bhavya Lal [00:11:10] Right. So, plutonium-238 is the power source of radioisotope systems. This is basically a hot rock, right? Once it's there, there are alpha particles that are emitted. They are converted into electricity, easy peasy. Well, I'm obviously exaggerating. It's actually very complicated, and we take safety very, very seriously at NASA. But that's just one piece. The investments we are making now... And we have made them in the past as well, but there have been a lot of starts and stops.
Bhavya Lal [00:11:45] You mentioned nuclear thermal propulsion, NTP, or nuclear thermal rockets, NTR. What nuclear power propulsion systems do is they utilize the heat from fissioning nuclear reactor, basically the chain reaction, to heat and pressurize the liquid rocket propellant, of which an example is hydrogen, from a liquid to a gas phase. And then, the gaseous propellant is accelerated out a nozzle in the exact same way a conventional chemical rocket engine does. And basically, the main difference is that chemical rockets have a combustion chamber where heat is generated via chemical reactions, whereas in nuclear you just heat the propellant directly. So, it just in some ways simplifies things.
Bhavya Lal [00:12:30] There is another approach to nuclear propulsion in space, which is called nuclear electric propulsion, or NEP, which is actually very similar to a terrestrial reactor in that it basically converts thermal energy from that fission reactor chamber into electrical energy. And that electrical energy then powers electric thrusters that propel the spacecraft forward. So in all cases, it is Newton's Third Law, action and reaction, that's in action, but it's just slightly different approaches. And currently, NASA is investing mostly in NTP, nuclear thermal propulsion, but we are investing a little bit in NEP, as well.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:13:15] And so, for both NTP and NEP, what is the base radioisotope that you're using? Is it still plutonium, or are you using uranium or using something like strontium? What's the base?
Bhavya Lal [00:13:29] Great question. We actually use uranium. In the olden days... So as I said... Remember I said in 1965 we had launched a nuclear reactor. At the time, we had used highly-enriched, basically what might be considered weapons-grade enriched uranium-235. Today, what we are trying to do is we are using low-enriched uranium, or to be more precise, High-Assay, Low-Enriched Uranium, HALEU, it's called, which is about 19-ish percent enrichment. So, we have reduced enrichment levels. And the reason for that is we want to address the issue of proliferation in space. We don't want the nuclear fuel that would be in a reactor to, for example, get stolen and turned into a weapon. So, we are trying to make our reactors more secure. And again, I'm making a distinction here between safety and security. The low-enriched uranium isn't about safety and making it more safe, it's about making it more secure.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:14:36] Yeah, absolutely for nonproliferation reasons. So, that's for the propulsion ones. And then, in terms of fuel sources, are you also exploring alternative radioisotopes for the battery pack version or the terrestrial... I guess, maybe you might also be exploring HALEU for "moon terrestrial" applications. I don't really know what you call that, if there is a term for moon base applications.
Bhavya Lal [00:15:05] Again, great questions, Michelle. So far, our radioisotope systems... Government systems have always used or mostly used plutonium-238, at least for space applications, but there is this emerging private sector that is proposing the use of isotopes other than plutonium-238. One reason is plutonium-238 is susceptible to proliferation. It is also very expensive to produce; it is only produced in government labs. So, we really do have a limited supply of radioisotope systems. So, these commercial companies like USNC or Zeno Power are coming up with a variety of other isotopes that they believe can be useful. And of course, a lot of these things are emerging, right? We don't know if they will work, but we are super excited. And again, I'm a huge supporter of commercial activities in space, so I'm highly supportive of us very carefully looking at what these companies are doing and seeing how we can integrate them into our plans. So, that's RPS.
Bhavya Lal [00:16:08] On nuclear power on the moon, that's just a reactor on Earth. Again, we are looking at HALEU, High-Assay LEU systems, similar to the propulsion system. So, no difference between fission power and fission propulsion with respect to the fuel source.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:16:29] Fantastic. So, it sounds like there's a lot of innovation happening, obviously both within government and the policy space, but also even in the commercial space. So, how is all of that innovation around these new technologies changing how you guys are thinking about future travel and missions that NASA's conducting?
Bhavya Lal [00:16:49] So again, a really excellent question, Michelle. So, let's split up power and propulsion separately. What nuclear does is it helps when there's enough solar flux available. So for example, on Mars or in a lunar crater. Or when the environment is so chemically or, from a radiation perspective, corrosive that it may corrode solar panels. Or, when we need power for an extended length of time. Getting to Pluto with New Horizons took nine years. So, you can't have batteries running in that kind of time. So, that's kind of the sweet spot of nuclear power.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:17:32] That reliability, longevity.
Bhavya Lal [00:17:34] Right. So again, just giving the example of Mars. Mars is 1.6 times farther away from the sun than we are, which means there is 50 to 60% less solar flux on the surface of Mars then in Earth orbit. So just from that perspective, solar power is simply not a realistic option on Mars, especially if you need reliable sources of power to support humans who are there and that doesn't shut off because a dust storm covered the solar panels. I don't know if you saw that movie Good Night Oppy which talked about the Opportunity rover, which basically once it was covered with dust, it was unable to function. And as you know, Mars has these month-long dust storms and the day and night cycle also makes solar power less reliable.
Bhavya Lal [00:18:23] And then, there's a challenge of size because of the lower flux. So, the solar panels on the space station, which your listeners might know about, span a football field. To produce that same level of power would require solar panels that are two football fields on Mars under the best of conditions and maybe five football fields if we account for dust storms. And given that we need, basically, seven kilograms of propellant to transport one kilogram of usable payload to Mars, imagine the cost of that transportation. This will be a nearly impossible feat. So, nuclear power is essential for any kind of sustainable presence, whether human or robotic, on Mars.
Bhavya Lal [00:19:05] So, that's just on the power front. There is the propulsion front as well, right? Mars is so far away; the journey is fraught with peril. There's radiation, there's lack of gravity, there's loneliness. We want to get there fast. So, if we just use chemical propulsion, it'll take 1,100 days, about half of which is travel time. With nuclear propulsion, the travel times could be cut by 30% or more. So, it is just really important for us to look at these alternative sources of both power and propulsion as we go deeper into space.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:19:43] It all makes complete sense, and it's really fascinating. I think that the payload restrictions and requirements and also thinking about these harsh environments is something that... We see the same sorts of challenges when we're thinking about decarbonizing places that might not have great natural resources for geothermal, for hydropower, or for solar and wind, and nuclear always seems to be that one key technology that just doesn't really have those same challenges based on geography or resource constraint. But then of course, I think the scale, as you described it, is also so critical because as you said, in an ideal world, sure, we could just put whatever we want on Mars, but you have to get there. You have to really plan out, I mean, quite literally, every single aspect of all of these missions, and nuclear seems like a really critical piece of enabling that next generation of more advanced missions and more advanced planning.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:20:42] So that's all great, but I'm sure there are so many challenges that you think about on a daily basis, not just with meeting all of those objectives, but also with the nuclear technology itself. I mean, it's a technology that's primarily been developed for terrestrial applications. It's been used in certain systems like Voyager and some of the others that you mentioned, in the past. But we haven't really fully relied on it to the point where some of those space cowboy movies that we all watch are actually true. So, what are some of the challenges that you foresee and that NASA forsees in really relying more on nuclear technology to help enable our goals in space?
Bhavya Lal [00:21:26] There are obviously technical challenges, both nuclear thermal propulsion and nuclear electric propulsion have challenges. So for example, for NTP, the reactor system must heat the propellant to at least 2,700 Kelvin. Reactor materials must be protected against hot hydrogen attack. We need to store liquid hydrogen in, basically, a zero degree, absolute zero space with minimal losses in deep space. We need to be trusting. I mean, so there's a huge list of technical issues both with NEP and NTP. There was a National Academy of Science report written in 2021 that really laid the challenges out.
Bhavya Lal [00:22:07] But in my view... And again, I have the NASA Technology, Policy, and Strategy hat on right now... The main impediment is not technological, it's that there is no demand pull, and therefore it is underfunded. The lack of demand basically inhibits investments. And if you have no investment, users are worried about saying, "This is something that we want." So, I think one of the ways to stop this vicious cycle is for either our Exploration Systems Directorate, or even outside of NASA, a user saying, "I want this," right?
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:22:53] Yeah, absolutely. I'd love to unpack some of that. I mean, now you're tickling the part of my brain that really lights up. So obviously, NASA is the premier space agency that everyone thinks of. They think of the US government in space, they think of NASA. But it's not just NASA that operates assets and has missions and objectives in space. I mean, there's NOAA, there's even USGS. I think there are 17 different agencies that have some role in something that I'm sure NASA supports. And so, can you talk to me though about how funding works? Because NASA really is kind of the critical agency in all of our space applications. So, what other agencies are working in space nuclear or is it only NASA? And then, within NASA's budget, I'd love to unpack how much of that actually goes to your office, but really more to enable the nuclear technology within NASA's budget.
Bhavya Lal [00:23:50] So, NASA is not the only organization, government agency, investing in space, which is just wonderful. DARPA, which is part of the Department of Defense, has a program called DRACO. It stand for, I think, Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations. And so, the DRACO program is a collaboration. They're collaborating with NASA to build a nuclear thermal rocket, NTP system, that is of use to both of our agencies. And their goal is to test a nuclear thermal rocket-enabled spacecraft in Earth orbit during the 2027 fiscal year. So, that's just DARPA.
Bhavya Lal [00:24:27] AFRL, the Air Force Research Laboratory, is investing in a program called JETSON, which is, I think, short for Joint Energy Supplying On-Orbit Nuclear Power. And again, their focus is on producing power in space. There's another DoD entity called Defense Innovation Unit, DIU. They are looking at chargeable, encapsulated radioisotope batteries for both propulsion and power. So, there's really good investment across the board.
Bhavya Lal [00:24:57] With respect to funding, I am not sure I should speak to funding in other agencies, but Congress appropriates NASA about $210 million, annually, to focus on nuclear thermal propulsion, NTP systems. That funding goes to our Space Technology Mission Directorate, STMD. In fact, all of the nuclear work happens within STMD and a set of NASA centers. So, we have a center in Alabama called the Marshall Space Flight Center, where a lot of the work gets done. And obviously, we have contractors who are all over the country who work in this area. So, the work isn't just happening within NASA, but it's happening in industry as well. And companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne, BWXT, General Atomics, USNC and Blue Origin and others are getting this government funding across the board to do some of this work. It's a very exciting time to be in the space nuclear community.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:26:05] Yeah, that's fantastic. I'm sure a lot of people think about SpaceX as kind of a premier example of how public-private partnerships with NASA in space have worked out, but could you unpack some of the other types of private sector investments that we see in this space? There's obviously funding coming from government, but how is the private sector really being involved in terms of helping to either, sure, provide investment and funding, but also in terms of helping to create that demand that you're talking about?
Bhavya Lal [00:26:39] So, I just want to clarify that the private sector has always supported government investment in space nuclear, but exclusively in a contracting role. So for example, for the Perseverance rover that landed on Mars in 2021, the Department of Energy procured the system, the RTG radioisotope system from Aerojet Rocketdyne, and a company called Teledyne Energy Systems. NASA contracted with a company called ULA, United Launch Alliance, to provide launch services. So, the private sector has always been there, however, in recent years we have seen private investment in space.
Bhavya Lal [00:27:22] I mentioned some of these companies, right? USNC, there's a new company called Dark Fission. You mentioned Zeno Power earlier. And there's venture funding in this area. Many of these companies are interested in doing things on the moon. They understand that if you want to extract resources from the moon, for example, there is need for power that goes beyond solar and chemical batteries. And they're actually hoping that they would have customers that aren't just NASA or the government, but also other private companies that want to, for example, do some of this extraction. So, there's a lot of excitement about creating a cislunar economy and creating this infrastructure. Whether it's power, it's propulsion, it's communications, it's sort of this backbone we need to build in space so we can start to... And again, using the parlance of the internet, build out on top of the infrastructure.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:28:24] That's great.
Bhavya Lal [00:28:25] And there's a lot of excitement in the community. We have tried for many years to create a private space sector, but I think, finally, we are starting to get one. And you mentioned some of the companies that are putting some of those pieces together. And again, these companies like USNC and Dark Fission hopefully will be able to provide the power that both the government and the private sector can purchase.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:28:49] That's fantastic. You also earlier mentioned it's not just NASA and American companies thinking about space, it's other countries. It's essentially the whole world. And so, that means from the policy standpoint, from the regulatory standpoint, from the diplomatic standpoint, this is a pretty tricky thing to really think through and ensure that we have all the right agreements and processes in place to ensure that worries of this space becoming a free for all... I mentioned the cowboys earlier, but some of those aren't too hard to imagine if we don't have really good, solid policy and understanding and cooperation among nations who are active in space and are looking at the moon, Mars, beyond, but also in terms of, as you said, resource extraction, powering potential human or robot civilizations on those places. So, how do you think about these regulatory and international cooperation challenges?
Bhavya Lal [00:30:05] On a regulation perspective, there is actually a national policy. It just came out in 2020. There's a memorandum called the National Security Presidential Memorandum 20. You know, government bureaucracy. It specifically provides guidance on how to make sure that nuclear systems are safe to launch. And it has a three-tiered system, and each of them has a different approach or a different level of controls. And those depend on the system, the level of hazard, and national security considerations. There is a NEPA implementation to this policy. There is a very rigorous, risk-informed safety analysis that needs to be done and it needs to be reviewed by the Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Board. So, a lot of guard rails, you could say, that are in place to make sure that we will launch nuclear systems safely.
Bhavya Lal [00:31:08] There's still a lot more to be done. I mean, we haven't launched one in almost 60 years, at least a fission system, right? So, there has been some concern about what's called regulatory uncertainty. Which is why I'm really excited about the DRACO test, because that will be the first time, I think, we will be testing some of these new policies that we've put in place. And I think having regulatory clarity would actually help even more private investment.
Bhavya Lal [00:31:41] On the international front, you asked. There are a lot of international treaties the United States is party to. And most of them have some reference to space nuclear systems. So for example, the United States is liable for any damage caused by space objects that they launch. If there's any damage that we cause to another asset in space, that's something we need to be thinking about. The United States is required to authorize and supervise nongovernment activities in space and maintain what's called "control and jurisdiction" over that object. This is something, actually, that we don't have and we are working on. And it's really important for the government to have legal authority over the private sector working in space. The only United Nations principle or guidance is this thing called UN Resolution 4768, which basically lays out 11 principles related to safely operating nuclear systems in space. So, not a whole lot of guidance, but all the important ones are in place.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:32:49] I mean, it really is so critical, right? What's so interesting is that we have what sounds like at least a clear pathway. I think that's okay language, right? Towards how we think about regulation, ensuring safety, ensuring nonproliferation of American assets and American private sector and American public sector activities in space. And we're getting there, it sounds like, on the international front. But it definitely to me, and correct me if I'm wrong, sounds like NASA and the United States government is really leading the way, in many ways, in terms of how we set the initial ground rules for what activities nations should be liable for and in what areas nations should cooperate to ensure peaceful uses of space, but also peaceful uses of nuclear power in space. And that's incredibly critical. Is your office directly involved at kind of the UN level, those international working groups or talks?
Bhavya Lal [00:34:00] My office is about providing advice to our leadership. So, to the extent that our leaders speak at the UN, we get to make a contribution to that. So, yes. Actually, last week I was giving a keynote, not in nuclear, but in a different area, planetary defense, which actually does have some nuclear implications, which was a UN conference. And in the past, we've presented inside the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs. So yes, we get to participate in some of these discussions, and it is very clear that the whole world is looking for leadership from the United States, whether it's just pushing the frontiers of technology or laying out guidelines for safety. Or in general, creating inspiration for spreading out into the solar system, which is something that all of us at NASA are so excited about.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:34:56] Yeah, that's fantastic. I mean, I think that is a good segway into a question that I always love to ask people on this podcast, which is... You personally... It sounds like your career has just been absolutely leading up to this point, and now you're really a central figure in terms of thinking through how we as a civilization will act in space and how we utilize this type of technology in space. When you think about the future of nuclear power as it applies to space, what is your vision?
Bhavya Lal [00:35:30] So, let me give you a high-level vision and then go specifically to nuclear. So, the highest level... I like to quote Carl Sagan. He basically said, "Every planetary civilization is obliged to become spacefaring, not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable, staying alive." We have a basic responsibility to our species to venture to other worlds. So, that is a big picture vision, which is an elephant-sized vision. And you know, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. And so, my bite is to work with space nuclear power, because in the long term, we have no alternative. As we get farther away from the sun, as we need to travel faster, we need nuclear power.
Bhavya Lal [00:36:22] And one thing that is very exciting to me, and we've touched on it a little bit is, it used to be that the government was the only game in town, but with a growing commercial sector, I think there's just going to be more players. A growing international sector, I think there will be more of us working towards it, which is very exciting. And we have to take a lot of lessons from terrestrial systems. Terrestrial power in the United States is entirely commercial. Terrestrial power in the United States is an international supply chain, and there is no reason why space nuclear shouldn't also be the same. So, that's kind of my vision for the future of space nuclear.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:37:00] I love that. As you think about the outlooks, the missions that you're supporting, the projects you're supporting, what is particularly intriguing to you that's coming down the pipeline that you're looking forward to being a part of?
Bhavya Lal [00:37:17] I pointed to it before, Michelle, but I think it's worth underscoring that our challenges aren't new, emerging technologies. Our challenges really are strategic, and they are about growing the pie. And I think that's where we need to put our effort. We need to have an end goal. We need to say, "This is when we want to go to Mars. This is how long we want to take to get to Mars," because that will help define which specific nuclear technology we focus on, whether it's NTP or NEP or a combination of NEP and chemical, or chemical alone. So, that will help us with direction.
Bhavya Lal [00:37:56] Again on the strategic piece, making sure that we collaborate with our international partners. There is growing interest in investing in space nuclear in the United Kingdom, the UK space agency and the French space agency. I think these are our traditional partners in other parts of space, for example, the International Space Station. It would be great if we work together with these partners in the domain of space nuclear, as well. So, those are some of the things where I think we are going to be focusing on, and that's where I'm putting some of my efforts in.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:38:30] Fantastic. All right. I'll ask the last question we always do, which gives you the floor. Are there any key messages that you'd like to share with our listeners about nuclear?
Bhavya Lal [00:38:44] I started by saying we launched the first reactor in 1965. Since then, we have had a dozen efforts where we started and stopped investing in nuclear power. We may have spent $20 billion in this area. But I think we finally have all the pieces in place. We have a mission. Technology is in a good place. We have a way of proceeding in a secure way with lower-enriched uranium, something that we couldn't do before. So, we have policy now in place. We have congressional interest. We have commercial interest. I think all the blocks are put together nicely, and I'm just very excited and very optimistic that this time around we are on a great, positive track and we are going to get our mission, whether it's first with DRACO for the first test of a space nuclear reactor, and after that building prototypes that go to Mars. So, that's my message for your listeners. And I hope they stay and stay connected with us to see what we are doing and how we are doing it. And we want all of us to go together.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:39:54] Fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Bhavya. It's been fantastic to have you on Titans. A real pleasure and honor for me, personally. Thank you so much.
Bhavya Lal [00:40:04] It's my pleasure. And again, remember Dragonfly's going to Titan in 2026. So, we are connected.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:40:10] Well, I'll be watching. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Bhavya.
Bhavya Lal [00:40:14] Of course.