As it currently stands in the US, only 1 rocket has the proper certification to carry a nuclear payload to space, and that is Atlas 5. (At least, this was my last knowledge). Atlas is nearing end of life, are there any other rockets that are in the process of being certified?

  • $\begingroup$ similar to space.stackexchange.com/q/17518/40489 "What does it take for a launcher to be nuclear-certified?" - oh wait, you answered that one $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2023 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ LOL, I was reading my answer to that. The question I'm wondering is if there has been work to doing that extra piece, there are 4 rockets that are category 3 certified, but to my knowledge only one of them is actually certified for nuclear payloads to this date. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Jul 19, 2023 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ Presumably with the renewed interest in NPS's, and Vulcan Centaur's perceived replacing of the aforementioned launchers, that would be the next to be certified. I cannot find any information on SpaceX being interested in this for their FH. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2023 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ More of a guess, but probably the late-stage development of SLS, with the payload capacity for a nuclear payload and it's related shielding and complications, and the NASA administration would probably be the first in the US to be able to certify the nuclear payload itself. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2023 at 4:51
  • $\begingroup$ What about all nuclear ballistic missiles? $\endgroup$
    – Nightrider
    Jul 21, 2023 at 15:55

2 Answers 2


If the below is so, I wonder where they are at the moment on this.

Not sure how valid this is, but came across this document from July 2021:



  • SLS has engaged the RPS Office on the topic of Nuclear Certification.
  • Nuclear Certification, which satisfies NSPM-20, is the responsibility of the payload
  • Work begins 6 years before the mission
  • Payload cooling is critical
  • DDT&E may be required for the fairing
  • SLS RTG Assessment (Underway)
  • Assessed Numerous permutations given input from the science study teams.
  • No major disconnects identified.
  • Participation from GRC/LaRC/KSC/MSFC/IN

enter image description here

Which hopefully supersedes this note:

launch vehicles must be certified specifically for launching nuclear material, which is expensive. The SLS rocket, for example, has not been certified to launch nuclear material.



Launch Approval Processes for the Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion Enterprise


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    $\begingroup$ Just aside, 'work beginning 6 years before mission' matches NASAs current plan to launch dragonfly in 2027. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2023 at 7:17

I am not aware of any public announcement for any launch vehicle to pursue NASA's nuclear certification, however, whatever launch vehicle is selected for NASA's Dragonfly mission to Titan (launch in 2027) will necessarily have to be nuclear certified to launch the RTG.

I would speculate that ULA's Vulcan is very likely to pursue NASA's nuclear certification. There is no reason to think that Blue Origin's New Glenn or SpaceX's Starship would not do so as well.

Note that NASA's Category 3 certification is a prerequisite for a nuclear payload certification. This requires at least 3 (or as many as 14) consecutive successful launches by the launch vehicle, so none of those three is eligible to start doing that yet.

Note: The SpaceX Falcon 9 is Category 3 certified, but the Falcon Heavy is not.

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. $\endgroup$
    – Community Bot
    Jul 25, 2023 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ Falcon Heavy is Category 3 certified. Psyche requires it, among other missions. Also, some of the DoD launches are equivalent. The path to getting a second similar rocket Category 3 certified is much easier than the first one. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Jul 26, 2023 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ Falcon Heavy has been certified for NSSL (National Security Space Launch) launches but not yet, to my knowledge, for NASA Category 3 launches. There was a fairly big deal made of Falcon 9 being certified to Category 3 by NASA LSP (Launch Services Program) back in 2018 and I would expect similar when the Falcon Heavy gets certified. NASA requires a minimum of 3 successful launches of the common configuration of a launch vehicle, that happened for Falcon Heavy in November 2022. They should currently be undergoing Category 3 certification for the Psyche launch. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2023 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ Europa Clipper is 100% a Category 3 mission. Psyche is as well. Both will launch on Falcon Heavy. They didn't make as big of a deal, but it is certified for 3 missions, or at least close enough to win contracts. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Jul 27, 2023 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ It is possible to compete for missions they are not yet certified for, so long as they will be certified by the time that mission launches. I'm reasonably sure that's the case here, given I cannot find any source that says the Falcon Heavy is Category 3 certified. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 20:40

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