By ANDY NYSTROM
It’s not rocket science for a boss to pursue employees who are intelligent, dedicated and stimulated about whatever important project is on the table.
In the case of MSNW President John Slough of Bellevue and his research team, rocket science is exactly what’s going on within the walls of their Redmond office and, a few blocks away, at the University of Washington Plasma Dynamics Lab.
When he arrives, Slough unleashes a hearty laugh and notes that the lab is situated next door to an outdoor adventure center business that specializes in kayaks. Some of those kayaks cruise along the water at a leisurely pace or aggressively hit the rapids.
But, Slough, 60, is focused on a journey of another kind: space travel at a blistering speed.
If all goes according to his plan, humans could someday embark on an epic trek — bolting toward Mars at about 112,000 mph thanks to the components his team is building for a nuclear-fusion-driven rocket.
“When John won this project for the fusion-driven rocket, I was not hired on yet on the team,” begins mission analyst Anthony Pancotti, 33. “So I went into John’s office and sat down with him and said, ‘You have to put me on the fusion-driven rocket. I want to be doing this project. This is extremely exciting, this can change the way humanity goes about on space travel.’”
As Pancotti finishes, his eyes are ablaze and his body emanates a slight energetic shake. Nearby, propulsion lead scientist David Kirtley grins, laughs and is in full agreement with his research partner’s reaction to the rocket project.
When in graduate school, Kirtley studied fusion-based propulsion systems — but only when writing papers and constructing computer models. He’s now in it for real.
Slough and his crew are making fusion happen, generating a plasma and thrust for the rocket, Kirtley, 33, said.
“We’re actually building hardware and we’re testing it,” Kirtley added. “So it’s very exciting to be a part of that and to be transitioning this technology at a stage where we can build thrusters with it — real thrusters — measure thrust and then eventually get them into space.”
The $500,000 rocket project is funded through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program.
In the lab
According to Slough’s project description on the NASA site, MSNW’s research focuses on the magnetically driven implosion of metal foils onto a magnetized plasma target to obtain fusion conditions. The work extends to a method that utilizes these metal shells (or liners) to not only achieve fusion conditions, but also to serve as the propellant.
Several low-mass, magnetically driven metal liners are inductively driven to converge radially and axially and form a thick blanket surrounding the target plasmoid and compress the plasmoid to fusion conditions.
Over at the Plasma Dynamics Lab, Slough describes how the fusion reaction occurs during their experiments. First, he points out the many, perfectly lined up blue high-voltage capacitors where energy is stored; they are charged up to 20,000 volts and then a single trigger from a computer in the control room sets the experiment in motion.
“All these go all at the same time, through the cables,” said Slough of the current flowing from the capacitors into the massive magnet (which includes a chamber and the plasma) in about a millisecond.
“About a million amps (of electricity) flows through this for that brief period of time.”
Mission to Mars
Seated in his MSNW office, Slough’s shaggy white hair often inches from side to side as he speaks. Behind him is a whiteboard filled with mathematical calculations scrawled in red, black, purple, green and blue.
Slough feels that Mars is the nearest and most interesting planet for human exploration. There have been robotic missions to Mars, but none with humans. Adding people to the mix makes the trip a daunting challenge because today’s chemical rockets don’t possess enough energy to transport the passengers quickly.
Slough noted it would take about 1,680 days for a round trip to Mars and would require 11 rocket launches and a roughly $12 billion price tag. With nuclear fusion, one launch of about 130 metric tons of fuel would support a 210-day round trip at less cost.
“If you really want to make a difference and get there fast and reduce the exposure of your astronauts to cosmic radiation, bone loss and many, many other hazards of space, you needed something that ejects the propellant at high velocity,” Slough said.
Slough likens it to an H-bomb, except at one-billionth of the yield. If is done fast and hard enough, a small nuclear explosion can vaporize the material, ionizing it and producing the kind of propellant velocities to get to Mars rapidly.
Lithium would be the material of choice in space; in the lab, they use aluminum.
Slough hopes that by 2020 a fusion rocket could be set for robotic space testing. By 2030, humans could be on their way to Mars. Slough estimates that their research is at a two or three on NASA’s technology readiness scale of one to nine.
Space is the place
Slough, who grew up in Cheyenne, Wyo., was in grade school when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel into space. He was fascinated while watching TV news reports of the April 12, 1961 event.
“It attracted me to physics and then astrophysics, eventually, when I went to college and graduate school. I wanted to understand everything about evolution of the galaxies and space,” said Slough, who earned his degree in astrophysics from Columbia University. He’s now a research professor at the UW and started MSNW (named after a previous company he worked for, Mathematical Sciences Northwest) in 1992 and moved it to Redmond in 2004.
“I still have an interest in astronomy, because that is sort of the ultimate goal: the idea behind all this is to go out and explore the universe, find out where we came from,” added Slough, who is married and has three grown children — two teachers and one biologist.
With another of his laughs, Slough explains that he’d enjoy watching somebody else take a fusion-driven rocket to Mars, but admits he doesn’t have the nerve to take a trip himself. Plus, by 2030, he’ll be well retired, he noted.
“If you think of Wernher von Braun, I’m sure he felt very rewarded by the fact that he contributed to the early formation of NASA and our whole rocket program, even if he didn’t get to ride on any of them in his lifetime,” Slough said.
If anything, Slough says he and his crew can at least develop a road map for future scientists to continue their journey.
“I don’t know the end of this story, which makes it fun, and at the same time we get to work on something that may work — it’s exciting,” Slough said.
Andy Nystrom is editor of the Redmond Reporter. He can be contacted at 425-867-0353 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
A concept image of a spacecraft powered by a fusion-driven rocket.
In this image, the crew would be in the forward-most chamber.
Solar panels on the sides would collect energy to initiate the process that creates fusion.
COURTESY PHOTO, University of Washington, MSNW