Early in the 1985 comedy hit Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, is dismayed to discover that his friend’s time travelling Delorean requires something more than regular unleaded gasoline to get around. Told that the time machine is actually powered by a nuclear reaction, Marty exclaims, “Doc, you don’t just walk into a store and buy plutonium!”
The rarity of plutonium is an essential plot point in the film. But it’s also a real-life problem plaguing the kind of guys likely to have most enjoyed the sci-fi flick: NASA engineers, who no doubt really would like to walk into a store and buy plutonium.
If they could do so, that would help address something that has reportedly become known around NASA simply as The Problem. The United States has nearly exhausted its reserve of Plutonum-238 (Pu-238), a radioactive isotope ideal for safely powering spacecraft…
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