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The path to Mars could run through Lynchburg, NASA chief says

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 travel time for a 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.

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