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Spaceplanes vs. lunar footprints

Often here, such as with this post from earlier this week, the comments evolve (or, perhaps, devolve) into a discussion about whether the US will be perceived as falling behind other countries, China in particular, should they send humans to the Moon before the US returns there. In that theme I offer the following comments on the topic by Charles Miller in his opening remarks at the “Commercial-Military Spaceplane Day” during the NewSpace 2007 conference in Arlington, Virginia on Thursday:

I hear politicians on the Hill, and even some of the space industry’s lobbyists, talk up the possibility that China will beat us back to the Moon. I can only hope they try, because, in my mind, the technology to put a few humans on the Moon in a race is a strategic dead end that delivers little benefit to national security or economic wealth. I am much more fearful that China will make a national decision to develop totally-reusable spaceplanes. That would be a Chinese capability with major commercial and national security consequences.

It should be noted that, in this context, “spaceplane” refers to any launch vehicle with aircraft-like characteristics (reusability, high flight rate, low cost per flight, high reliability), regardless of whether the vehicle is winged or not.

41 comments to Spaceplanes vs. lunar footprints

  • MarkWhittington

    The problem is that “the technology to put a few humans on the Moon” would just be the beginning. Absent something like the total collapse of the current regime, I do not see the Chinese stopping once they reached the Moon as we did.

    On the other hand, if the Chinese declared that they were starting a program to “build space planes”, I would not be as worried. The free market system in the West is already at work on space access technology and will certainly beat a Chinese version of the X-33 or OSP.

  • …..in my mind, the technology to put a few humans on the Moon in a race is a strategic dead end that delivers little benefit to national security or economic wealth…..

    This statement demonstrates that Mr. Miller does not fundamentally understand the meaning and purpose of lunar return in the Vision.

    We are not going to the Moon to “put a few humans there” — Apollo did that already. We are going to the Moon to learn how to use the material and energy resources of there to create new spacefaring capabilities. We will use the experience gained on, the technologies developed by and the materials of the Moon to build a cislunar transportation infrastructure, capable of routinely accessing all of our assets in cislunar space. Such a capability has important consequences for both our security and our economy. And once we have this transportation system, we can venture to the planets beyond.

  • Unless we’re trying to spend ourselves to death, it seems that the only purpose of a national space policy, whether ours or anybody else’s, is to reduce cost-to-orbit. Drop costs to a hundreth, and watch space exploration take off.

    Now you can do that in a flashy, man-capable rocket or spaceplane, you can do it with space elevators, heck you might be able to do it with blimps. Beats me. If I had the answers, I wouldn’t be spending my time pontificating!

    Throwing more money at some clear mission, like a permanent manned lunar station, will get us there, simply because it has to hurt to keep stubbing your toe over and over again — sooner or later you’re bound to try something different. If you have a clear mission, at least you can evaluate it from time to time to see if it is working.

    So in a strategic sense, the question is whether China is beating us in the “space race” is more about whether they can keep a clear goal and develop cost-saving technologies to achieve it. The goal of lunar exploration is halfway there, but the other part is still missing.

  • Paul, the problem, and Charles’ point (not to speak for him) is that regardless of the goal, the technology being developed is only capable of putting a few people on the moon.

  • Paul Dietz

    The problem is that “the technology to put a few humans on the Moon” would just be the beginning.

    This argument by assertion doesn’t seem to be backed up by the historical evidence. Apollo was just the beginning of … what? And if the technology for a future manned visit is similarly limited in its extensibility and economics, it will also be a dead end.

  • Thomas Matula

    Hi All,

    There are two implied assumptions here. The first is that the U.S. is only able to afford a single human space flight system and the second is that only NASA should be tasked with developing it.

    What is needed is to recognize that NASA’s function is pushing the frontiers. Pursuing a return to the Moon, and the creation of a lunar base should be NASA’s prime mission until its accomplished and it is what VSE is about. And the Moon is not a funding dead end, its the key to opening the space frontier in the 21st Century which is why both China and India are pursuing it.

    Meanwhile the government agency with the most need for rapid, economical, responsive space access, the USAF. should work with industry, (and yes alt.space) to develop the “spaceplane” needed for reducing the cost of space access to allow commerce to follow NASA to the moon. Remember the entire SSTO RLV boom in the 1990′s started with the DC-X, a BMD/USAF project. It was only after NASA took over, and tried to run it like a NASA program (pure R&D) that it failed. A lesson we should learn from perhaps?

    Rather then forcing NASA to expand COTS, which has apparently already brought one of its “winners” to the brink (Kistler-Rocketplane) the USAF funding for responsive space access should be greatly increased and the focus expanded to manned systems. The USAF funding of Xcor’s project should be seen as the model for developing a spaceplane, not COTS nor NASA. And yes the U.S. is wealthy enough to do both so its a false choice based on the false assumptions that only NASA should be responsible for human spaceflight systems.

  • I think Mr. Miller is quite right. Besides which, I do not foresee China sending people to the Moon before 2020, at least. Just my 2 cents.

    Americans in particular love a boogyman, and China is the “boogyman du jour”.

  • Paul Dietz

    And the Moon is not a funding dead end, its the key to opening the space frontier in the 21st Century which is why both China and India are pursuing it.

    This again seems to be an unjustified assertion. If the cost of reaching the moon is sufficiently high, then of course the expensive program will be a dead end, just as Apollo was. ESAS appears to be very expensive indeed.

    The assumption that progress to the rest of the solar system will proceed through the moon does not imply that any attempt, regardless of its cost or narrowness, to return to the moon will be a useful step toward that goal.

  • Adrasteia

    The problem is that “the technology to put a few humans on the Moon” would just be the beginning. Absent something like the total collapse of the current regime, I do not see the Chinese stopping once they reached the Moon as we did.

    Yes, but the technology to put people on the surface of mars in a oneshot mission also has limited strategic or economic value.

  • Brian Swiderski

    This lunar naysaying is horribly myopic. To build something more than a stunt platform, you have to learn how to live there in the first place, and the technologies derived from those experiences will be highly valuable both on the Moon, on Mars, and in space generally. There are basic systems issues to work out that apply to anywhere we could go, and if China works them out first US companies will be paying to license Chinese technology and facilities–not to mention accepting the political “compromises” that come with it a la Google.

    Newspace is largely based on government research that NASA was too rigid to implement itself, and the private sector has merely enabled the application, but when the same occurs with Chinese programs you can expect a few things to be different: (a)The technology will be far more advanced, since they’re just starting while NASA has effectively left the research game; (b)unlike NASA, the Chinese government will probably want a cut of the proceeds from ventures that license its technology, and will therefore have some interest in seeing them succeed; and (c)they won’t be as fickle a partner as the US government, because they aren’t subject to electoral tides. If there is a Chinese lunar base sitting alone on the Moon, and they call up Space Adventures and welcome tourists at $800 mil a pop, nobody with the money and desire is going to say “Nah, I don’t think the Moon is a strategically sound space policy at this point. I would rather have an armed porta-john in LEO.”

    Furthermore, commenters who think the Chinese lunar program will be a hideous waste are just assuming they’ll refuse to exploit commercial services, which runs counter to their current behavior in more developed industries. This is a government that enlists Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft to help control its people, and acts according to a cynical pragmatism in direct response to their enormous bureaucracy and corruption. They will either buy or steal the designs for the cheapest and most reliable rockets around, space habitats, everything, and will send them *en masse* after a couple of initial scouting missions.

    The PRC is a state that endangers its relationship with the world’s most powerful country and its largest trading partner just to cling to an island with little physical value that was once part of its territory–so they will not be held back from exploiting the Moon just because there’s no MBA “business case” over the next quarter, nor will they be bankrupted by it no matter how much they spend. They could easily end up spending more than us in LEO on these “strategic issues” and still build lunar colonies. We’ll have their cheap plasma TVs, and they’ll have bases on the Moon we’d pay them anything to let us visit–the money and prestige both going in one direction.

  • Dennis Wingo

    …..in my mind, the technology to put a few humans on the Moon in a race is a strategic dead end that delivers little benefit to national security or economic wealth…..

    ***********

    I have to go with Paul here, with a caveat that I know that Paul would agree with. If the goal is to only put a few humans on the Moon to pick up a few more rocks and write a bunch of scientific papers on the origin of the Moon, then indeed the Moon would be a strategic dead end. However, that is not what the President talked about (in the VSE speech he specifically addressed lunar oxygen production and even the production of the spacecraft that would go to Mars) nor is it what the head of OSTP, Dr. John Marburger has talked about as well.

    What we are talking about is the incorporation of the resources of the solar system into our economic sphere as Dr. Marburger discussed in his Goddard Symposium speech in 2006. This has been expanded upon in the work by the National Security Space Office and the National Defense University’s New Space Power theory.

    There has been a fallacy at the root of a majority of the NewSpace community that in order to have any space commerce that we have to have reusable launch vehicles and a price to orbit of “one hundredth” of what we have today. This is not going to happen within the next ten and probably even twenty years so it is time to just get over it and see what we can do today.

    The Moon is critical to our future no matter how cheap launch is. Energetically, GEO orbit is closer to the Moon than to the Earth and we continue to launch useless metal into orbit on every launch. With an industrialized Moon we will have the ability to actually grow into a solar system wide economy, something that will be far more difficult to achieve if we have to wait for that glorious day of the RLV, even with that RLV. Interestingly, RLV’s and the Moon are symbotic with each other. This plays to the second fallacy of the New Space world is that there is some bottomless pit of interest in space tourism. Space tourism is fine and will be a great market segment, but it will not stand of its own accord, especially when economic times get rough, which at some point is inevitable. As lunar industrialize ramps up, the cargo mix from the earth will no longer be systems, but high value components and subystems that will be ideal RLV cargos.

    Therefore, the Moon is the key, not only to our economic and security interests, but also to the realization of RLV’s.

  • Thomas Matula

    Dennis,

    I agree 100 percent. Its time to focus on the prize (the space economy) and stop waiting for miracles like a huge drop in launch cost or a robust space tourism industry to occur first. Or to “leap frog” the Moon like Apollo ‘leap frogged” over a LEO station and all the infrastructure that Wernher von Braun wanted to build in favor of a few quickie human “science” missions.

    What we need to be planning for VSE is not systems like ESAS but how to create infrastructure to expand the Earth’s economy.

  • Donald F. Robertson

    Dennis: Amen. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

    While I am a little more optimistic about the economic potential of space tourism than you appear to be, I fully agree with the implication of your argument, that no one industry or technology is going to get us to a inner Solar System wide economy. Any way you look at it, it is likely to be a long, hard slog — like most frontiers, only more so.

    Donald

  • D. Messier

    Well, I don’t know about all this. But, the latest I’m hearing is that Orion/Ares is negative mass to orbit (to heavy to even get into LEO). There’s little or no money for the lunar lander. And three of Griffin’s top people are bailing out.

  • Adrasteia

    brian: To build something more than a stunt platform, you have to learn how to live there in the first place

    I completely agree. We should be developing long duration ECLSS, non-chemical propulsion, nuclear power, etc. Unfortunately, NASA killed all that development to pay for a $230B program whose main goal is to send just 56 americans to bring back a small pile of largely worthless moonrocks using an architecture with absolutely ludicrous development, fixed and marginal costs.

    dennis: we continue to launch useless metal into orbit on every launch. blah blah blah, moon is the key

    The metal isn’t what is expensive, it’s the high fixed costs and low volume of production. Command and control architectures like the one you advocate aren’t going to fix this problem. Until the customer stops meddling and simply demands quantity w of item x in orbit y of quality z and lets the market solve the problem, no progress will be made.

    The moon itself is not critical to anything. If a resource is more economic when launched from earth or mined from NEO’s, or brought in via warp drive from alpha centauri, that’s the way it should be procured.

  • Dennis Wingo

    The moon itself is not critical to anything. If a resource is more economic when launched from earth or mined from NEO’s, or brought in via warp drive from alpha centauri, that’s the way it should be procured

    There is some truth to this, but not ultimate truth. The government does have a role in the development of space infrastructure. It is the same role that was played in the development of the Erie Canal, Transcontinental Railroad, Panama Canal, and the Interstate Highway System. I would add the Airmail act to this. All of these efforts (which were implemented in different ways) were the acts of government to spur the development of a transportation means that fostered commerce. The question that is before us today in this little debate is; How best to foster the development of the transportation means (infrastructure) to foster the greatest increase in commerce ever, that is commerce across the inner solar system?

    The system that Mike Griffin wants to build clearly would not meet the commerce enabling test. It is really exactly what he said that it would be “Apollo on steroids”. Unforunately what will be needed to change things from a steroids based approach to a commerce enabling approach is something that would require leadership from Mike that he has been unwilling to provide. He has made the unfortunate decision that it is not his job to worry about what actually happens on the Moon but to only worry about his version of the transportation system. It would be hoped that the next president and the next administrator changes this emphasis to one that is commerce enabling.

    The Moon, NEO’s Comets, and Mars are critical in the same way that California and the western United States was critical to our development as a nation, that is in terms of resources. It is absolutely clear, that the level of resources that are physically present on these bodies far surpasses these resources available on our little mudball. It is also clear that the resources of our little mudball are insufficient to enable a prosperous planetary civilization of 9.1 billion people, which we will have in 43 years. Therefore it is incumbent on our government to help support the development of a solar system wide transportation system, for the good of our people as well as the rest of the world.

    It is our role, as space advocates to build this argument in a compelling enough manner to enlighten our leaders in such a way as to make what is obvious to us, obvious to them.

    RLV’s and space tourism alone is not going to do this. Marburger placed a stake in the ground with the right language to support solar system economic development and it is up to us to figure out how to make it happen both technically and politically.

    To close, to make the statement that the Moon itself is not critical to anything is incorrect. The Moon is critical as a resource base for off planet development, so are the NEO’s, Comets, and Mars. Without them there would be no justification for the economic development of the solar system. With them, it is up to us to make it happen.

  • kert

    Just something to clarify: China, the “bogeyman du jour”, is not in this for the footprints, and they have repeatedly stated that. In other words, their game is not “exploration” but “exploitation”.
    So the “footprints race” discussion is null and void, because at least one side is not in it for footprints.

  • Space planes and lunar footprints . . . I agree with Mr. Miller’s remarks spaceplanes (USAF projects) are more relevant to current space development than NASA or China’s foot prints on the moon programs. I firmly believe that the Apollo program funding requirements stymied the further develop the X-15 and lifting body programs in the early seventies. Had those programs been continued we would have had a robust and permanent CATS infrastructure and lunar program already under way. However in the long-run China’s ability to sustain a focused and logical incremental space exploration program maybe the greatest threat to US dominance.

  • Dennis Wingo

    I firmly believe that the Apollo program funding requirements stymied the further develop the X-15 and lifting body programs in the early seventies.

    Then what you firmly believe is at variance with historical fact. If you read the book “The Heavens & The Earth” you will see that the X-programs, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory were killed by McNamaria as part of the MAD doctrine. The MAD doctrine had as a central premise that any military uses of space beyond recon and communications were destabilizing and thus were to be curtailed. There was no lack of funding when these programs were ended, it was a command decision, and one that the military space program still suffers from, at least in a limited way.

  • kert

    NASA or China’s foot prints on the moon programs
    Once again: chinese efforts are not about footprints, nor some undefined “exploration”.

  • Sounds like a good read and perhaps I’ve been mislead on the funding issue. Regardless I often wonder now fifty some years later did space exploration really benefit from the creation of NASA and the Mercury through Apollo and ultimately the shuttle programs. Or would even more advances (long-term) have been achieved from the lower budget incrementally progressive NACA X-plane programs. Had they been allowed to continue onward would we have spaceplanes today? Did the threat of USSR achievements in space sidetrack our manned program into a knee-jerk fast-track capsule and missile oriented dead-end? Or was it as you suggested the MAD doctrine that sidelined the space plane development? Will the Chinese follow down the same costly single-use booster dead-end path?

  • Dennis Wingo

    Doug

    It is my understanding that MacNamara directly ordered the termination of both the X-programs and the MOL program. I do think that if the effort that existed at the time could have continued forward and we would have a far different access to space system than what we have now. The problem is that the capability that existed then had been grown over a two decade timespan and there was an incredibly capable cadre of engineers who understood how to cut hardware and build things, something that is woefully in short supply today. The USSR achievements in space had nothing to do with it. The key factor was the Cuban missile crisis and the development of MAD. Again, MacNamara personally made decisions that took the U.S. military out of the space race and turned everything over to NASA as a way to help defuse tensions between us and the Russians in the 60′s while competing for empty “prestige” things like the Moon landing.

    It is an extremely difficult question to second guess how things turned out. I do think that both Eisenhower, Medaris, and the fellow who was the CEO of General Electric was right in that the way that the military industrial complex was built up in the 60′s was disastrous for the long term health of the aerospace industry. The boom to bust cycle that played out in the 70′s did help to provide the manpower and brainpower that gave us silicon valley in the 70′s and 80′s so it is very very diffcult to truely second guess what we should have done. I would much rather focus on what we can do now to enable a solar system spanning economy and in that vein, I think that one of the worst mistakes that we can make today is to demand that before any progress is made that we have to have RLV’s. There is a huge amount of progress that can be made through tax incentives, R&D credits, and direct spending toward enabling a space economy. That will bring us the RLV’s.

  • anonymous

    “The Moon, NEO’s Comets, and Mars are critical in the same way that California and the western United States was critical to our development as a nation, that is in terms of resources. It is absolutely clear, that the level of resources that are physically present on these bodies far surpasses these resources available on our little mudball. It is also clear that the resources of our little mudball are insufficient to enable a prosperous planetary civilization of 9.1 billion people, which we will have in 43 years. Therefore it is incumbent on our government to help support the development of a solar system wide transportation system, for the good of our people as well as the rest of the world.”

    With all due respect to Mr. Wingo, the argument is circular. If we’re ever going to do more in commercial space than take pictures and send data, that means extraterrestrial resources and people on extraterrestrial bodies. But to access those extraterrestrial resources and send people to extraterrestrial sites, we need an economically efficient space transportation system. And the first element in that system is the Earth-to-orbit segment.

    I’m not saying that the ETO segment is synonymous with RLVs. (Let’s just be agnostic on that issue for a moment.) But I am saying it all comes back to lowering the cost per mass to orbit, and arguably, attempts to do anything more on the Moon (or any other solar system target) than flags and footprints will continue to fail until that ETO problem is resolved.

    Put another way, there appears to be general consensus in this thread that “Apollo on steroids” ain’t cutting it for a sustainable and economically useful human lunar effort. But if it ain’t “Apollo on steroids”, then what is it? What is the “magic” space transportation technology, system, or architecture that is going to make sifting through dozens of kilometers of regolith for a little water ice (or some other extraterrestrial resource/activity) economically viable?

    Not trying to be combative — just playing devil’s advocate and genuinely trying to get at the underlying issues.

    FWIW…

  • then what is it?

    LEO quick turn-around low maintenance RLV high flight rate aircraft type operations. That is why the current USAF AFRL and DARPA RBCC airbreather space plane programs are more significant than NASA or China’s Lunar programs. The USAF is making gradual incremental progress in this area remenisant of our early NACA X-plane programs.

    The Chinese can build old school expendable rockets cheaply, however one or two flights per year will never open the space frontier. Getting up and out of the gravity well and into LEO cheaply and efficiently is the key. And at the current time USAF appears to leading in development and research in this area. Hopefully some of the “new space’ companies will grasp this technology and put it to practical civilian entrapenual use.

  • Not to speak for my friend Charles Miller, but I don’t think he said or meant that *NASA* should focus its R&D budget entirely on commercial spaceplanes, nor did he say NASA should not go to the Moon.

    What he said was that if China follows the path that NASA *appears* to be walking — and I fervently hope that Paul Spudis is right and that they change direction to implement what Dennis quotes from the White House — then that would be a lucky outcome.

    In the real world of limited budgets NASA *can* still afford to effectively participate in stimulating the development of commercial & military spaceplanes AND pursue a frontier-enabling strategy to the Moon.

    But so far all the talk is about replacing the Shuttle and minimizing the gap in servicing an ISS whose research program they have euthanized.
    In *this* world NASA is unlikely to be able to afford to conduct significant “operational experience-building” lunar development activities. Which means NASA’s lunar efforts will not pay off as greatly as they could.

  • Dennis Wingo

    With all due respect to Mr. Wingo, the argument is circular. If we’re ever going to do more in commercial space than take pictures and send data, that means extraterrestrial resources and people on extraterrestrial bodies. But to access those extraterrestrial resources and send people to extraterrestrial sites, we need an economically efficient space transportation system. And the first element in that system is the Earth-to-orbit segment.

    The flaw in your circle is that it requires that we develop RLV’s before we start at the Moon. We have a fleet of vehicles (EELV), that bought in bulk, are not much more expensive than the proposed price of the Falcon 9 from SpaceX. It is my contention that with the space station in orbit, and EELV’s to aggregate payloads at station for transfer to the Moon, that we have the critical elements now for the beginnings of a lunar idustrial infrastructure. It is not expected that the current administrator will take this path, but by taking this path, the nation could save billions of dollars and shave several years off the critical path operations necessary to begin the lunar buildup.

    As far as RLV’s are concerned, absolutely a low cost RLV will make the numbers look better, but since we don’t have them today and since making the LEO to the lunar surface transportation systems reusable is actually easier, I would posit that this is where the limited DDT&E money be spent. That is along with an very robust ISRU development program. RLV’s are just one segement and even with RLV’s you still need the station.

    Jim Muncy so what you are saying is that Jeff got the comments wrong?

    I do question whether NASA has either the budget or the personnel to develop RLV’s today while doing the Moon at the same time. They are already stretched to the limit just doing what they are doing.

    Jeff?

  • I believe we in the USA currently have the ideal situation.

    NASA is focused on developing the Bush Lunar and Mars space exploration initiative. Finally NASA has a mission to go out and explore the universe. Whether NASA can succeed at this mission or stay ahead of foreign development in this area is debatable.

    USAF is developing CATS, quick response, RLV space plane technologies, including hypersonic RBCC air breathing propulsion. They already have actual hardware flying and have taken over at least one X-plane program, which NASA had as usual given up on. DARPA and the AFRL seemed to be making progress in these areas where NASA had languished for years.

    An array of private sector commercial, sub orbital, LEO CATS and RLV development taking place. Some of these companies may profit should NASA fail at some or all of its objectives and mission.

    Meanwhile China appears poised to follow the flag waving “foot prints” scenario that may provide national prestige but ultimately does little to open the space frontier. While they seem to have put forth plans to develop an infrastructure to support manned exploration. I can not see how that infrastructure will open the space frontier unless they open it up to entrapernal development. Which would benefit and provide opportunities to the USA private sector.

  • Jeff Foust

    so what you are saying is that Jeff got the comments wrong?

    The excerpt I posted came directly from a recording of that speech. Notice that in the excerpt he says nothing about what the US should do or not do, only his concern that China would focus its space development capabilities in an area he feels is more important than lunar exploration. That many people appear to have interpreted it otherwise speaks volumes about their points of view, as well as the nature of commentary in the blogosphere in general.

  • anonymous.space

    “The flaw in your circle is that it requires that we develop RLV’s before we start at the Moon.”

    I think we’re talking past each other. I’m setting aside the question of reusability — let’s be agnostic on that issue for the moment. I’m also asking about the COMMERCIAL development of lunar (or other extraterrastrial) resources — not a government-sponsored, flags-and-footprints effort.

    In that context, do we come full circle back to the problem of economically efficient ETO access?

    I understand and agree that NASA could initiate a government-sponsored human lunar return effort using today’s EELV fleet (and at much less cost and time than the current Ares architecture). The question I’m asking is whether such a fleet is adequate for actually making economic use of lunar resources. Even after a few NASA astronauts are wandering around the lunar surface, does someone still have to dramatically/substantially reduce the cost of ETO access before it makes economic or business sense to start extracting resources from the lunar surface?

    My gut says “yes”, which is why I said that the argument becomes circular when we’re talking about actual resource exploitation — it still comes down to the cost of ETO access. But I’m obviously i interested in what your analysis, thinking, and gut say.

    FWIW…

  • Dennis Wingo

    In that context, do we come full circle back to the problem of economically efficient ETO access?

    I don’t thinkt that your gut is right.

    Everything depends on the definition of economically efficient ETO access. Today, for the comsat business, launch is only ~19% of the total system cost. It is already economically efficient. For an EELV, I can get about 1600 kg to the lunar surface for $70M dollars (launch cost). If you buy a lot of them then the cost drops by about 20-40%. If you couple that with a profitable business in GEO, then there is every chance tha today’s launch costs allow for the operation of a lunar business. If you then design the lunar side of the equation to be reusable (Even NASA’s LSAM, if refueld is an SSTO with 25 tons of payload to LLO and back to the surface).

    Again, we keep tying to work on the hardest part of the equation, when far more progress can be made by using what we have today and making the other end reusable and functional.

  • anonymous.space

    “For an EELV, I can get about 1600 kg to the lunar surface for $70M dollars (launch cost). If you buy a lot of them then the cost drops by about 20-40%.”

    I’m sorry to keep pressing, but for every 1,600kg of mining equipment/supplies delivered to the lunar surface, how much product (water, oxygen, aluminum, etc.) do you assume is produced before the mining equipment goes kerplunkt or runs out of supplies and another ~$50 million (30% bulk discounted) EELV launch is required?

    The reason I ask is that to a very rough order, it would appear that we could use the 1,600kg figure as a potential proxy for breakeven lunar resource production. Assuming there is a consumer on the lunar surface (so no transport costs back to orbit or Earth) and assuming the cost of the mining equipment/supplies is zero (not true but let’s assume), then it makes more sense to mine the product locally than to launch it from Earth, as long as we can mine more than 1,600kg of the product locally before requiring another launch of mining equipment/supplies from Earth.

    In reality, of course, the monetary value of the mining equipment/supplies will be worth something like several EELVs (juding from the ratio of satellite-to-launch costs). So each EELV-worth of mining equipment/supplies delivered to the lunar surface is going to have to produce something like 8,000kg of product (equivalent to five EELVs’-worth of mass delivered to the lunar surface).

    Is that a realistic assumption for commercial lunar mining equipment and operations? Could we really get something on the order of 8,000kg worth of water, oxygen, aluminum, etc. out of 1,600kg worth of mining equipment/supplies delivered to the lunar surface?

    On Earth, I’d say “of course” — we have mining equipment that far exceeds such production efficiencies every day. On the Moon, again my gut (wrong though it may be) says “maybe someday, but not for a some time — probably a minimum of a decade or two of experimentation and development on the lunar surface before lunar mining equipment and processes reach those levels of production efficiency.”

    And that’s just breakeven assuming a local consumer on the lunar surface. Substantially to much greater efficiencies would have to be obtained before competing with Earth-produced materials that are consumed in orbit or back on Earth. And that’s when I begin to wonder whether ETO costs have to come down dramatically to make it work. (The old saw about even if we were bringing back gold from LEO, today’s launch costs would kill the business, etc.)

    Again, I’m not trying to start a debate. I’m just trying to get a feel for the numbers, difficulties, and levels of realism involved in closing a lunar business case.

    “If you couple that with a profitable business in GEO, then there is every chance tha today’s launch costs allow for the operation of a lunar business.”

    We can always subsidize one business with resources from another business (whether the product is in GEO or back on Earth). The key question (at least in my mind) is what is required to get a lunar business to break even on its own.

    “If you then design the lunar side of the equation to be reusable (Even NASA’s LSAM, if refueld is an SSTO with 25 tons of payload to LLO and back to the surface). Again, we keep tying to work on the hardest part of the equation, when far more progress can be made by using what we have today and making the other end reusable and functional.”

    No argument there. Regardless of whether it’s a commercial business or a government base, a reusable lunar lander makes a lot of sense and would be easier to achieve (except maybe for the IV&V monitoring/maintenance) than a launch vehicle that has to repeatedly escape 1G and return through a 1 bar atmosphere.

    Thanks for putting up with these questions, Mr. Wingo.

  • Dennis Wingo


    I’m sorry to keep pressing, but for every 1,600kg of mining equipment/supplies delivered to the lunar surface, how much product (water, oxygen, aluminum, etc.) do you assume is produced before the mining equipment goes kerplunkt or runs out of supplies and another ~$50 million (30% bulk discounted) EELV launch is required?

    Good question. There are a lot of caveats here but the general principle is that the commercial development is is parallel and in concert with NASA’s lunar efforts. As soon as this begins then even with the ESAS architecture’s limitations the beginnings of lunar commerce can happen. If you like I can provide a link to a contract paper I did for NASA Langley on this subject.

  • Dennis Wingo

    In terms of ISRU there are several processes that can work and can work in that size package. A friend of mine who does this work advocates magma electrolsys as this gives both oxygen as well as metals. ISRU must cover both oxygen and metals production to be able to make the maximum contribution to the lunar outpost.

    A ME system can produce hundreds of pounds of materials per day for that size package. Of course it requires service and it will be designed for it.

  • Dennis Wingo

    We can always subsidize one business with resources from another business (whether the product is in GEO or back on Earth). The key question (at least in my mind) is what is required to get a lunar business to break even on its own.

    Well in business often one segement often subsidizes the startup costs of a follow on venture. The principal that allows something like I am describing starts at ISS and expands outwards from there. That is if we pretend that NASA does not exist in its exploration program. The nice thing is that we do have ISS and we do know what it is capable of (when the international modules and the power systems are finalized then ISS is going to be an awesome platform for orbital assembly operations) and how to leverage it. The problem is that it is such a divergence from today’s way of doing business that it is difficult to convince financiers of its merits. it is it’s own form of circular argument. If it was soo good to do this why hasen’t anyone done it? The answer is that ISS is still new, acccess is anything but assured. That is why the COTS guys are important beyond the Russians. Unfortunately the success of COTS is far from assured. I may be getting involved to help with that but if we can send payloads there, then we can move forward. My European business (Orbital Satellite Services Limited) is moving forward with GEO satellite serivces which is another link in the chain.

    The ultimate goal is what I call Ubiquitious Space Operations (USO), which opens space beyond LEO to development. We have to start thinking different about space, it is not all getting to orbit and there is much that can be accomplished to build markets that will enable the financial markets to see that the risk inherent in building a reusable system (market risk not technical) are being retired. It has been the market risk that has done the most to impede the development of RLV’s. This continues with COTS as the difficulty that Kistler has today in obtaining their matching funds is directly tied to market risk.

    Until these things penetrates the bone marrow of those who want RLV’s, we will never have RLV’s.

  • Paul Dietz

    The reason I ask is that to a very rough order, it would appear that we could use the 1,600kg figure as a potential proxy for breakeven lunar resource production.

    Assuming that 1600 lb mining machine works the first time, of course. I would expect there to be a string of not-quite-working machines before all the bugs are worked out.

  • al Fansome

    This is an odd discussion, in which many people are talking past each other, and appear to be ignoring each others points.

    I assert that you can have the best parts of all these strategic thrusts, and create a “win, win” outcome for everybody here, if you set up the plan and approach correctly.

    You can have an aggressive NASA “human lunar base development” program, and utilize existing EELVs now, and plug in RLVs later (when they come on line, and after they have PROVEN they are effective and low cost). You could call this “spiral development”, which is what Admiral Steidle proposed.

    The architecture, of course, is to develop an Earth-Moon transportation system that explicitly designs in “LEO and L1 propellant depots”, and lunar ISRU. You start with EELVs (and the existing launch vehicles of other nations … so the architecuture inherently designs in international participation … this is win-win-win), and then you develop RLVs in parallel.

    When RLVs show up, you get a large and almost immediate benefit to the lunar base. Yet, you are not dependent on them to start development of the lunar base, or to establish the initial lunar base (which appears to be Mr. Wingo’s primary concern).

    In addition, by designing a depot-based architecture, you are designing your system to expand the market demand for commercial space transportation (which appears to be Donald Robertson’s issue.) You also built in competition to your approach, creating market-based incentives to lower space transportation costs. You have NOT locked yourself into any one system (e.g., Ares 1/5), and eliminated competition for this part of the market demand. (The moment that the Ares 1/5 come into existence, the people who work on them, and their politicians will fight against any competing approach.)

    The LEO propellant delivery business becomes the next big market beyond ISS, and the customer for the LEO propellant business is the lunar base.

    This appears to be a “win, win, win” to me (national security benefits, commercial benefits, and a more economically sustainable lunar architecture). If you add the ability to easily plug in international partners into the system, at an early date, you could argue this a “win, win, win, win”.

    If you add in the savings you get — early in the program — from using EELVs instead of building the Ares 1/5, that can be applied to developing the LSAM (and other lunar systems) — which is one thing our friend Anonymous cares about — you could call this a “win, win, win, win, win”.

    If then add in that it lowers the barriers to lunar ISRU (because you are building propellant depots) and that it frees up early funding that can be used to develop ISRU lunar systems … you get my point.

    I am not sure why we everybody is arguing about this.

    - Al

  • vanilla

    The architecture, of course, is to develop an Earth-Moon transportation system that explicitly designs in “LEO and L1 propellant depots”, and lunar ISRU

    …I am not sure why we everybody is arguing about this.

    Well, I would argue that lunar L2 is a better location for this propellant depot, but I agree overall that if we aren’t working towards reducing the costs of lunar activities, we’re wasting our time.

  • al Fansome

    VANILLA: Well, I would argue that lunar L2 is a better location for this propellant depot, but I agree overall that if we aren’t working towards reducing the costs of lunar activities, we’re wasting our time.

    Vanilla,

    I stand corrected. I understand that there are advantages & disadvantages to the various Earth-Moon lagrange points, and I believe it is an open question about which one is best.

    I meant to say “LEO and Earth-Moon lagrange point depots”.

    That said, I am open to being shown that L2, or any other lagrange point, is optimal under certain conditions.

    - Al

  • Donald F. Robertson

    You’re right, Al, that we are all talking past each other. I am NOT opposed to RLV development (and don’t forget that Kistler’s vehicle is an RLV and SpaceX’s is partially reusable). Also, note, that you depot strategy (which I like, though I think it should start very small) is not dependent on RLVs. In fact, the more expensive your launch prices, the more depots make sense.

    If NASA can afford to do RLV work while also establishing a lunar base with what we have, that is fine and good. But, if you have to choose, choose the base first as the market that justifies an RLV, then invest in your RLV.

    Actually, I am rather happy with the current situation. COTS and the Air Force are developing new launch vehicles, some of which are RLVs, while NASA should be using EELVs to establish the most rudimentary lunar base (or asteroid base) as the market these new vehicles will need. Where we’ve gone wrong — as just about everyone here seems to agree with greater or lessor fervor — is in NASA wasting their money on a new launch vehicle that is in no way a step forward and (if Anonymous is right) won’t even get us to the moon.

    I think we agree, though obviously, our emphasis is quite different. I want to start as small as possible without trying to simultaneously execute too many projects. NASA can’t even develop the Ares-1 by itself, let alone develop a lunar base, uprated EELVs, RLVs, depots, deep space stages, and all the rest. Better to let NASA concentrate on the end market, like they’ve done with the Space Station (as Dennis describes above), and let the commercial people develop the second generation transportation, and the Air Force invest in the long-range RLV technology.

    – Donald

  • vanilla

    I stand corrected. I understand that there are advantages & disadvantages to the various Earth-Moon lagrange points, and I believe it is an open question about which one is best. I meant to say “LEO and Earth-Moon lagrange point depots”. That said, I am open to being shown that L2, or any other lagrange point, is optimal under certain conditions.

    It takes about half the delta-V and twice the amount of trip time to get to EML2, via a powered lunar swingby, as it takes to get to EML1, because LEO-EML1 trajectories can’t take advantage of powered lunar swingbys.

    8 days vs. 4 days for half the DV. For propellant resupply of an L-point “Gateway” it would seem to argue for EML2 in my opinion.

    The other collinear L-point (L3) is completely opposite from the Moon and no use at all, for what I can tell.

    The equilateral L-points (L4 and L5) are quasi-stable, but require larger DVs to get there than L1, and large DVs to leave from there and go to the Moon along with long trip times.

  • Donald, Al, et al.,
    Just a couple of thoughts. First, I like Al’s basic proposal of using a depot-centric architecture that is not launcher-specific. Once you have propellant depots, and at least some government provided customers for those fueling services, I think that RLVs will sort themselves out without much more in the way of government “help”. Between propellant deliveries and orbital tourism (followed by cislunar and eventually lunar tourism), that would create plenty of economic incentives for investment into RLVs.

    I definitely think that lunar markets can play a role in making RLVs feasible, but those lunar markets will only be feasible as the transportation architecture becomes sufficiently affordable. I think it can reach that point of economic feasibility before RLVs are here, but only barely. And there’s no chance in heck that it will reach the point of economic feasibility using a closed, government-developed architecture like Ares.

    ~Jon

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