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Science in Flux: NASA’s Nuclear Program at Plum Brook Station, 1955-2005
By Mark D. Bowles
Published 2006

Science in Flux traces the history of one of the most powerful nuclear test reactors in the United States and the only nuclear facility ever built by NASA. IN the late 1950s NASA constructed Plum Brook Station on a vast tract of undeveloped land near Sandusky, Ohio. Once fully operational in 1963, it supported basic research for NASA’s nuclear rocket program (NERVA).

Plum Brook represents a significant, if largely forgotten, story of nuclear research, political change, and the professional culture of the scientists and engineers who devoted their lives to construct and operate the facility. In 1973, after only a decade of research, the government shut Plum Brook down before many of its experiments could be completed. Even the valiant attempt to redefine the reactor as an environmental analysis tool failed, and the facility went silent. The reactors lay in costly, but quiet standby for nearly a quarter-century before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided to decommission the reactors and clean up the site.

The history of Plum Brook reveals the perils and potentials of that nuclear technology. As NASA, Congress, and space enthusiasts all begin looking once again at the nuclear option for sending humans to Mars, the echoes of Plum Brook’s past will resonate with current policy and space enthusiasts.

    Published Reviews: "Connecting Plum Brook’s story to the growing body of work on engineering practice, twentieth-century technoscience, and nuclear history, Bowles deserves a great deal of credit for demonstrating such admirable fidelity to a challenging subject."
    --Matthew H. Hersch, Technology and Culture (January 2008).
    “Bowles is a talented historian…Science in Flux is a mature and well-crafted historical work…a highly readable history that contextualized a heretofore unexamined topic within broader historical themes… readers will find Bowles’s discussion and methods revealing.”
    --Lt. Col. Steven A. Pomeroy, Air Power History (Winter 2007).
    Award Winner: Science in Flux won the prestigious 2005 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics History Manuscript Award. This is presented each year for the best historical manuscript dealing with the science, technology, and/or impact of aeronautics and astronautics on society.