As a matter of fact, as I got into researching the actual history of NERVA I was trying to choose one of the many designs they tested... And then, like the Red Sea parting before Moses I saw something that actually happened historically; something so perfect for what I needed that I actually just sat there for a full minute with my mouth open.
After a catastrophic accident destroys both his revolutionary engine and half of his flight crew, Aurora Aerospace Director Sam Graefe faces the loss of his mission, the loss of his private funding, and serious jail time. Now the only hope for a private American space program lie with an octogenarian nuclear rocket scientist, and his brilliant but erratic grandson. Working together under enormous pressure, they decide to bet the farm on a last-minute mission to the most dangerous place known to man: Jupiter.
...that engine blows up. I blew it up for story purposes. I blew it up so that they would have to go Back to the Future, and dust-off something we have already done, back in the days of the Glory of Gondor and the Kings of Numenor: Jackass Flats, Nevada in 1970.
As I mentioned, I had stumbled upon a modeler who didn't think of spacecraft as huge hunks of rusting iron and plates of steel covered with greebles, but rather as an engineer: parts that had to bear loads and stresses, and who saw form following function and knew enough about the function to be able to interpret these engineering loads and model the hardware accordingly.