Researcher James Blue examines the new cyclotron at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. Researchers at NACA Lewis began postulating about the use of atomic power for propulsion immediately after World War II. The NACA concentrated its efforts on the study of high temperature materials and heat transfer since it did not have access to the top secret fission information. The military studied the plausibility of nuclear propulsion for aircraft in the late 1940s. The military program was cancelled after four years without any breakthroughs, but the Atomic Energy Commission took on the effort in 1951.
The NACA Lewis laboratory was expanding its nuclear-related research during this period. In 1948, Lewis engineers were assigned to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to obtain expertise in high temperature heat transfer and advanced materials technology. The following year a new 80-person Nuclear Reactor Division was created, and an in-house nuclear school was established to train these researchers. The cyclotron was built behind the Materials and Structures Laboratory to support thermodynamic and materials research for both nuclear aircraft and nuclear rockets.
The original NACA Lewis cyclotron was used to accelerate two kinds of particles. To better match the space radiation environment, the cyclotron was later modified to accelerate particles of the newly-discovered Van Allen radiation belts.