2024 USRA Symposium


How Can Space Nuclear Technology Contribute to Science, Exploration, and the Future Security Environment?

  • Frederick A. Tarantino Memorial Address: Franklin Chang-Díaz, Founder, Ad Astra Rocket Company
  • First Panel: Toward A Roadmap for Space Nuclear Technology Development: Agency Views
  • Second Panel: Technology Gaps
  • Third Panel: Infrastructure, Regulation, and Workforce Development Needs

The 2024 USRA Symposium will be held Thursday, March 21 from 1 p.m. - 5:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Washington Capitol - National Mall.


The Symposium will be streamed live on Thursday, March 21st starting at 1pm.

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Symposium Materials


Present a Symposium on



March 21, 2024 | 1 p.m – 5:30 p.m.

Holiday Inn Washington Capitol - National Mall 
550 C Street SW 
Washington DC 20024

Attendance is by invitation only.

Please contact Suraiya Farukhi, [email protected]

  • For more information, 
    please download the event flyer

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Dr. Jeffrey A. Isaacson
President and Chief Executive Officer, USRA

Dr. Jeffrey A. Isaacson became USRA’s seventh President and Chief Executive Officer in 2014. USRA operates in association with 117 leading universities to support NASA, DoD, DOE, and NSF in the areas of science, technology development, and facility management. USRA was founded in 1969 by NASA and the National Academy of Sciences.

Prior to joining USRA, Dr. Isaacson held positions of significance in various organizations. He served as Vice President, Defense Systems and Assessments, Sandia National Laboratories; Vice President and Director, Army Research Division, RAND Corporation; Chief System Engineer, Space Based Infrared System-High, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company; and Vice President and Director, National Security Research Division, RAND Corporation. Dr. Isaacson is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and a former Member and Chair of the Army Science Board. He earned degrees at Columbia University, Princeton University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his Ph.D. in physics.


Dr. Scott Pace
Director, Space Policy Institute

Dr. Scott Pace is the Director of the Space Policy Institute and a Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is also a member of the faculty of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. His research interests include civil, commercial, and national security space policy, and the management of technical innovation. Dr. Pace rejoined the faculty of the Elliott School in January 2021 after serving as Deputy Assistant to the President and Executive Secretary of the National Space Council from 2017-2020.

From 2005-2008, he served as the Associate Administrator for Program Analysis and Evaluation at NASA. Prior to NASA, Dr. Pace was the Assistant Director for Space and Aeronautics in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). From 1993-2000, Dr. Pace worked for the RAND Corporation's Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI). From 1990 to 1993, Dr. Pace served as the Deputy Director and Acting Director of the Office of Space Commerce, in the Office of the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Commerce. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from Harvey Mudd College in 1980; Master’s degrees in Aeronautics & Astronautics and Technology & Policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982; and a Doctorate in Policy Analysis from the RAND Graduate School in 1989.


Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz
Former NASA Astronaut, CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company

Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz is Chairman and CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company, a Texas based US aerospace firm developing high-power in-space electric propulsion. Ad Astra’s Costa Rica subsidiary focuses on green hydrogen and renewable energy infrastructure globally. A former NASA astronaut and veteran of 7 space missions, he logged over 1,600 hours in space, including 19 hours in three space walks, during his 25-year NASA career. In 1994, he founded and directed NASA’s Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory to develop the physics of his 1980 invention, the VASIMR rocket, and founded Ad Astra in 2005 to commercialize the technology. Inducted in the US Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2012, Dr. Chang Díaz is a four-time recipient of NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, the agency’s highest honor. He holds a Ph.D. in applied plasma physics from MIT and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Connecticut. He is Adjunct Professor of Physics at Rice University and the University of Houston.


Dr. Prasun Desai
NASA Deputy Associate Administrator, Space Technology Mission Directorate

Dr. Prasun Desai serves as the Deputy Associate Administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). In this role, Dr. Desai supports executive leadership, overall strategic planning and direction, and effective management for all elements of the Space Technology Programs executed under STMD’s $1.2 billion budget. He helps plan, direct, coordinate, and evaluate the full range of Space Technology programs and activities including budget formulation and execution, and represents the program to appropriate officials within and outside the Agency.

Dr. Desai has worked at NASA for 33 years. For the past 13 years, he has helped to establish the Space Technology Mission Directorate from inception at NASA Headquarters for development of next-generation space technologies and capabilities. Prior to that, he spent 20 years at NASA Langley Research Center as a senior systems engineer applying expertise in the fields of atmospheric flight dynamics, systems optimization, engineering of entry systems, flight operations, and design of planetary exploration mission elements for robotic and human systems. Dr. Desai has contributed to the design, development, analyses, and flight operations of many NASA missions (Mars Exploration Rover, Stardust, Genesis, Mars Phoenix Lander) pertaining to entry, descent, and landing of probes at Mars and Earth.

Dr. Desai has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Rutgers University, an M.S. in Astronautics from the George Washington University, and a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Illinois. He is an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and has authored or co-authored over 60 technical publications.


Thomas A. Lockhart
Director, J-8, U.S. Space Command, Department of Defense

Thomas A. Lockhart, a member of the Senior Executive Service, is the Director of the Capability and Resource Integration Directorate (J8), United States Space Command, Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado. He is responsible for establishing the command's requirements and advocating for the assigned missions of deterring aggression and conflict, protecting and defending U.S. interests in the space domain, delivering space combat power for joint and combined forces, and developing ready and lethal joint warfighters.

Prior to his current assignment, Mr. Lockhart was the Director of Engineering and Technical Management, Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Mr. Lockhart has also worked at the Air Force Research Laboratory as the Director for both its Plans and Programs Directorate and its Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Directorate.

Mr. Lockhart has had two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his last tour as the NATO Resolute Support Essential Function for Sustainment, Kabul, Afghanistan, he exercised oversight of Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces sustainment for 385,000 Ministry of Defense and Interior military and police forces with yearly budgets of over $3.2 billion.

Mr. Lockhart began his career in 1987 working as a Journeyman Engineer in training and simulation at Hill AFB, Utah. He has served as an Engineer, Chief Engineer, Acquisition Program Manager, Group Director, combatant command Financial Manager, Deputy Program Executive Officer and Security Cooperation Director.


Dr. Anthony M. Calomino
NASA Langley Research Center

Dr. Anthony M. Calomino has been a materials and structures research engineer at NASA Langley Research Center since 1985. Holding bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Structural and Engineering Mechanics, as well as a doctorate in Materials Science from Northwestern University, he focuses his research on durability and damage modeling for high-temperature materials. Currently, he is the NASA Materials technical lead for the Entry Systems Modeling project and the Deputy Principal Investigator for Flexible Systems Development under NASA’s Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator Programs.


Dr. Roger M. Myers
R Myers Consulting, LLC

Dr. Roger Myers is an aerospace consultant with over 35 years of experience in space propulsion and power system development, flight production and spacecraft integration, and he currently supports several government and commercial clients. From 1996-2016 he held executive positions at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond Operations, the world’s leading supplier of spacecraft propulsion systems, leading development and production for NASA, DoD and commercial missions to Earth orbit, cis-lunar and interplanetary space. Prior to Aerojet Rocketdyne, he worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center heading advanced propulsion R&D. He has published over 100 papers on electric, chemical and nuclear propulsion technology, spacecraft integration, and in-space transportation architectures.

Dr. Myers was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2022, has served on several NASEM committees, including the recent “Space Nuclear Propulsion or Human Mars Exploration”, and is the Chair of the NASEM Space Technology, Industry, Government, University Roundtable. He is an AIAA Fellow and won both the AIAA Wyld Propulsion Award and the Electric Rocket Propulsion Society (ERPS) Stuhlinger Medal. He served as ERPS President from 2012-2020, was elected to the Washington State Academy of Sciences in 2012 and was its President from 2020-2022. He serves on the Advisory Committee for the University of Washington Aeronautics and Astronautics Department and on Seattle’s Museum of Flight Board of Trustees. Dr. Myers holds a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Mechanical and Aerospace engineering from Princeton University.


Dr. Christina Back
Vice President, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems

Dr. Christina Back is Vice President of Nuclear Technologies and Materials at General Atomics. She is an internationally recognized expert in both fission and fusion energy research, with over 30 years of experience leading research for private industry, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and U.S. Department of Defense. She regularly serves on National Academy of Sciences, national laboratory, and university committees. As a technical expert, she has been invited to the 2015 White House Summit on Nuclear Energy and provided testimony to U.S. Congressional Committees. Dr. Back earned a B.S. from Yale University, and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Florida. She has over one hundred peer-reviewed publications, two patents, and was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society. At General Atomics, Dr. Back is responsible for all nuclear fission programs and related technology development. Major thrust areas include space and terrestrial advanced reactors, accident-tolerant nuclear fuel, and energy storage solutions. In today's world, space has become accessible to all. She views space nuclear power and propulsion technologies as critically important to explore and protect the space domain.


Dr. Justin Kasper
Advanced Technologies, BWX Technologies, Inc.

Justin C. Kasper is the Chief of Technology at BWXT Advanced Technologies, LLC, supporting the development and demonstration of new nuclear power and propulsion systems for terrestrial and space applications. Before coming to BWXT he was a Professor in the University of Michigan College of Engineering, and a Civil Servant at the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Kasper is an experimental physicist with 25 years of experience in the development of sensors and systems for exploring space. He received his AB in Physics from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was the project scientist for the radiation sensor on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and principal investigator on Parker Solar Probe and the SunRISE Explorer mission. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and has served on committees for the National Academy of Sciences Space Studies Board and Intelligence Community Studies Board. He is the recipient of the Copernicus Award, the Henry Russel Award, the NASA Silver Achievement Medal, and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.


Mr. Harlan Bowers
President, X-energy

Mr. Harlan Bowers is the President at X-energy, leading the development of Xe-Mobile and other corporate initiatives. With over 25 years of experience in managing substantial hardware-development and services programs, he has significantly contributed to X-energy's strategic and business development efforts, including securing government contracts for nuclear energy projects. Prior to X-energy, Bowers held senior roles at Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corporation. He holds a bachelor’s in Aerospace & Ocean Engineering from Virginia Tech and an MBA from the University of Maryland-College Park.


Dr. Tabitha Dodson
Program Manager, TTO, DARPA

Dr. Tabitha Dodson joined the Tactical Technology Office as a program manager in August 2021. Her interests are in: advanced space payloads, electric propulsion, astrodynamics, nuclear thermal and nuclear electric propulsion, overall rocket propulsion, advanced nuclear reactors, plasma physics and plasma engineering, nuclear/quantum/particle physics, and hypersonics.

Dodson is the Program Manager for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program. Prior to becoming a program manager at DARPA, Dodson was a Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance (SETA) contractor with Gryphon-Schafer Government Services, LLC, also within DARPA, where she served beginning in 2018 as the chief engineer of the DRACO program, which endeavors to build and test a nuclear thermal rocket. Upon conversion to being a government employee in 2021, she continued to serve as DRACO’s chief engineer, concurrently as its deputy program manager.

Dodson has worked an adjunct professor of aerospace engineering at the United States Naval Academy and also as an adjunct professor in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department of the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT). She was also a Graduate Student Researchers Program fellow with NASA conducting research in materials for nuclear thermal propulsion.

Dodson holds a doctorate in applied physics from the Air Force Institute of Technology, as well as a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering from the George Washington University (GWU), where she also earned a master’s in space policy, in addition to bachelor’s degrees in physics, sociology, and anthropology.


Dr. Douglas Burns
NASA Space Nuclear Propulsion Technology Development Project Manager

Dr. Doug Burns is the NASA Space Nuclear Propulsion Technology Development Project Manager stationed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. He holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and an MBA from Idaho State University, a master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, and a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering from New Mexico State University. He’s a professional engineer in the state of Idaho and holds a Project Management Professional certification. He served in various program management roles at the Idaho National Laboratory from 1993 to 2023 and has extensive experience with nuclear power research and development, development of high-performance nuclear system modeling and simulation tools, remediation of radioactive environmental contamination, and nuclear reactor operations. His current research interests include development of high temperature materials and test systems that support space nuclear reactor technology maturation.


Dr. Jeff Waksman
Program Manager, Strategic Capabilities Office

Dr. Jeff Waksman is a Program Manager at the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) where he leads Project Pele (mobile nuclear reactor) and Project TRISO (encapsulated nuclear fuel). As part of this role, in addition to direct program management, he aids coordination on nuclear energy programs and related policy development across the interagency.

Before arriving at SCO, he worked for NASA as a Senior Policy Adviser, where he advised on policy and technical issues while also serving as the first Executive Secretary/Designed Federal Officer of the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group. Prior to his federal service, he worked in the private sector for IBM, where he was a staff scientist working on advanced semiconductor technology such as reactive ion etching, III-V materials, quantum computing, and heterogeneous integration. He also performed physics research prior to this at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

Dr. Jeff Waksman holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Master of Science in Nuclear Engineering and a M.S. in Physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a bachelor’s degree in Applied Physics from Columbia University.


Alex Gilbert
Director of Space & Planetary Regulation, Zeno Power

Alex Gilbert is a complex systems researcher focusing on nuclear innovation, space resources, energy markets, and climate policy. Drawing on interdisciplinary methods, he catalyzes the development and adoption of clean energy and advanced natural resource technologies. Alex is the Director of Space & Planetary Regulation at Zeno Power, leading novel regulatory work to deploy commercial radioisotope power sources to outer space and the deep sea. Previously, Alex was Project Manager at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, accelerating regulatory reform and commercialization for advanced nuclear reactors to mitigate climate change. Alex is pursuing a Ph.D. in Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, focusing on resource governance, environmental protection, and space nuclear power. He is also Adjunct Faculty at Johns Hopkins University, co-teaching a course on nuclear power technology and regulation.


Dr. Jeffrey C. King
Professor of Engineering, Colorado School of Mines

Prof. Jeffrey King completed his Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering in 2006 as a member of the Institute for Space and Nuclear Power Studies at the University of New Mexico. Prof. King has been at the Colorado School of Mines since 2009 as a Professor of Nuclear Engineering. He has remained active in the space nuclear power and propulsion field as a charter Member and previous Chair of the American Nuclear Society’s Aerospace Nuclear Science and Technology Division. Prof. King is also the inaugural Chair of the Universities Space Research Association’s Space Nuclear Working Group. With over 25 years of involvement in the space nuclear technology field, Prof. King’s research spans a wide array of space nuclear topics including nuclear system launch safety, space nuclear reactor control, space nuclear reactor shielding, and, most recently, the design and analysis of moderated low enrichment uranium fueled space nuclear reactors. He is currently working on establishing a Space Nuclear Technologies online graduate certificate program at the Colorado School of Mines.


Dr. Robert C. O’Brien, Director
Center for Space Nuclear Research

Dr. O'Brien has led special reactor concept projects, advanced nuclear instrumentation, nuclear fuels, national and international programs, and initiatives at Idaho National Laboratory and for NASA, the DOE and the DOD. Dr. O'Brien led the development of Advanced Manufacturing capabilities for DOE including first-of-a-kind capabilities to utilize electric Field Assisted Sintering Techniques (eFAST) and was responsible as architect of capabilities at INL's Materials and Fuels Complex Advanced Fuels Facility for the first experiments and production of nuclear reactor fuels using 3D Printing techniques.

As Principal Investigator under the DOE Transient Testing program, Dr. O'Brien served as part of the TREAT Reactor Restart project (2012-2018) and led some of the first modern experiments in TREAT as Principal Investigator of the NASA SIRIUS Testing campaign (testing Space Nuclear Propulsion Program fuels under hydrogen at temperatures up to 3000 K). Prior to his work at Idaho National Laboratory, Dr. O'Brien’s early career was as a researcher at the University of Leicester Space Research Center where he and Prof. Richard Ambrosi initiated assessments for a UK - European solution for radioisotope power, and the use of 241-Am as a heat source fuel; performing early americium oxide-cermet encapsulation experiments.

Dr. O'Brien holds a master’s degree in Physics with Space Science & Technology from the University of Leicester (2006), and a Ph.D. in Physics Research from the University of Leicester (2010). He was nominated Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society 2008. Dr. O'Brien holds multiple patents and patents pending in advanced nuclear fuel, ceramic processing, ballistic materials, nuclear and non-nuclear feedstock processing, directed energy, and nuclear pumped laser technologies.


Dr. Joan Ramage Macdonald
Vice Chair, USRA Council of Institutions

Joan Ramage is an Associate Professor, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Faculty Director of the ADVANCE Center at Lehigh University. She earned her Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from Cornell University, an M.S. in Geosciences from The Pennsylvania State University, and a B.A. in Geology from Carleton College.

Ramage’s research is on remote sensing of the cryosphere. She applies microwave satellite data to snow and glacier variations and hydrology in remote high latitude and mountain environments that are vulnerable to change. Ramage’s research is funded by NASA, NSF, National Geographic, and the U.S. Army. She has been invited to share her expertise with the Canadian Government, the U.S. Department of State, as well as NASA. As part of her efforts to diversify STEM fields at Lehigh and beyond, she is a member of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. Her work as ADVANCE Center Director fosters equity and success for faculty with an emphasis on removing barriers to success for historically minoritized faculty throughout STEM disciplines and academia in general.

Ramage is an FAA-licensed unmanned aerial system (UAS) remote pilot. She is interested in UAS capabilities, limitations, and potential in the arenas of scientific and community use. Ramage brings UAS technology into the classroom and is a member of the Eagle Fire Company UAS Search and Rescue Team. She also brings environmental expertise to the public via county and township watershed programs.


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President and Chief Executive Officer

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About USRA

Founded in 1969, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the U.S. Government, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is a nonprofit corporation chartered to advance space-related science, technology and engineering. USRA operates scientific institutes and facilities, and conducts other major research and educational programs, under Federal funding. USRA engages the university community and employs in-house scientific leadership, innovative research and development, and project management expertise. More information about USRA is available at www.usra.edu.