Nozette and Nuclear Rocketry

Stewart D. Nozette, who was arrested and charged this week under the Espionage Act, is an unusually gifted and accomplished technologist.  The allegation that he provided classified information to an FBI agent posing as an Israeli intelligence officer in exchange for cash is distressing on several levels.

Among other things, Nozette had exceptionally broad access to a range of classified programs in defense, space and nuclear technology.  According to an FBI affidavit (pdf), Nozette stated that he “held a DOE Q clearance from 1990-2000, which involved insight into all aspects of nuclear weapons programs.  Held TS/SI/TK/B/G clearance 1998-2006,… Held at least 20+ SAP [special access program clearances]… from 1998-2004.”

In fact, however, Nozette’s participation in Department of Defense special access programs dates back even earlier, to 1990 or so.  At that time he was read into an unacknowledged special access program called Timber Wind (pdf), which was an effort by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization to develop a rocket engine powered by a nuclear reactor.  Dr. Nozette’s name appears on a Timber Wind master access list we obtained which identified the several hundred persons who were authorized to be briefed on that nuclear rocket program.

The discovery of the hyper-classified Timber Wind program was an inspiration for the FAS Project on Government Secrecy, since we considered it a compelling instance of classification abuse.  On a number of occasions I asked Dr. Nozette about the program, but he was always quite scrupulous about rebuffing my inquiries.

Timber Wind was canceled shortly after it became public, and other nuclear rocket initiatives likewise faded away in the 1990s, as the effort to develop nuclear rocketry for military or civilian applications surged and then collapsed, leaving behind only a bunch of good stories.

An idiosyncratic new memoir (pdf) by Tony Zuppero, one of the would-be nuclear rocketeers, tells those stories as he recalls them, with sometimes alarming candor, humor, and disappointment.  Dr. Zuppero had his own concept of a nuclear rocket that would open a path for human expansion into the solar system.  But, he laments, “after all the effort, all the visions, I got old instead of making it happen.”

Dr. Nozette, myself and the Federation of American Scientists make a few cameo appearances in Dr. Zuppero’s new memoir, entitled “To Inhabit the Solar System”.