Private space advocate Dennis Wingo posted an article yesterday about how the “not shuttle-c” concept of a NASA side-mounted heavy-lift launch vehicle (SD-HLLV to the space cadets like me) and space entrepreneurs together can make the Moon a very profitable enterprise:
Dennis Wingo: In August of this year I wrote a missive concerning what happens after the Augustine report is released. Well, now that has happened, so what is next? The overall impression is that they did a good job technically in coming up with options and laying out the rational for the options. The concern is not there, the question is does this report provide to the president and NASA a viable path forward? In a curious move, the commission took a big risk and basically rejected one of the central directives from the White House (3d in the Scope and Objectives) which was:
Fitting within the current budget profile for NASA exploration activities.
Basically the Augustine Commission has thrown down the gauntlet in challenging the Obama administration and congress to put up $3 billion dollars in “real purchasing power” (which according to their graph is considerably more than a simple $3 billion increase) or without this you can basically forget exploration. While this conclusion may be debatable, it is commendable in its boldness. Will this strategy work? With a president and congress preoccupied with much larger and more contentious debates, no one knows. The president has indicated strong support technology in general and reasonable support for NASA in particular. In his instructions to Charles Bolden, the new administrator to “give us a space program to make the nation proud”, there may be the support from the Whitehouse for such an increase. Even if they get that, will the options presented by the Augustine commission lead to such a program?
There is much to be commended in this risky strategy if the goal is truly worthy. An indication of this is embodied in the statement of the ultimate goal of American space exploration that is outlined in the Executive Summary first page:
The Committee concludes that the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.
Now this is something worth working toward!
It is amazing to me as a long time space advocate that for over three decades we seemed to have forgotten this, substituting in its stead vague and uninspiring goals related to science and “inspiration”. In the 1960’s and 70’s it was simply assumed that we were on a course to make this happen. Many movies and television programs of the era all had this as either as an underlying theme or as an aside even in teen love flicks. When Gerard K. O’Neil came out with his NASA study and the book “High Frontier”, it spawned a public movement for opening the space frontier for all mankind that was the seedling for today’s “New Space” movement for commercial human space exploration. The fact that this has returned as a theme in a mainstream report to the president is a good omen that should be latched upon by NASA in going forward to “make the nation proud” in the words of the president.
How to get there is of course the question.
The Augustine Report Findings
In the end, what the Augustine report boils down to in regards to future exploration architectures, is a choice between what the report calls the Ares V Lite (which in reality is the original ESAS Ares V), and the JSC proposed Shuttle Side Mount vehicle. The current “Program of Record” as it is referred to in the report is not considered a viable path forward due to the extremely high costs involved in its development phase, something that many knowledgeable people pointed out as far back as when it was originally unveiled.
As it pertains to destinations or outcomes, the choice is really between what the Augustine Report calls “Moon First” or “Flexible Path”. Mars is out of the picture due to the extreme expense of any viable Martian exploration architecture. The Moon First architecture is further subdivided into three variants. There is the lunar base, the lunar global (extended sorties to a limited number of sites), and sorties. The committee focused on the Lunar Global and Lunar Base scenarios and curiously stated that both variants would cost about the same. Which is only true if you limit the scope of activities at the base.
The Flexible Path is an interesting concept, though some wags call it “look but don’t touch”, that has multiple destinations, including free space locations such as the Earth/Sun libration points.
The committee in developing their options for the launch architecture rightly focused on lifecycle costs in differentiating between the Ares V light and the Shuttle Side Mount launcher. A very interesting and more than likely true observation made by the committee is that no matter which launch vehicle is chosen, the current NASA human spaceflight fixed cost structure will be the same. The committee found that the development costs for the Shuttle Side Mount would be less, which many of us have noted, due to the fact that the Solid Rocket Motors, External Tank, and even the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) boat tail (where the engines are mounted) would be essentially identical to the current shuttle. It would be quicker to field as well. However, they also found that the recurring costs would be higher due to the extremely high cost of the SSME. On the Ares V side, it was found that while the development costs would be higher, the overall lifecycle costs would be lower due to the lower recurring cost of the vehicle. However, there are assumptions built into these findings that could change going forward.
Launch Vehicle Lifecycle Costs Vs Architecture Life Cycle Costs, the Key to Success
With the commission zeroing in on lifecycle costs, one is driven to understand what they mean when applying that term to each architecture as well as each launch vehicle choice. It should be granted, that for some of the missions chosen, that the committee’s findings related to the lower costs of the Ares V lite vs the Shuttle Side Mount are correct. Missions to a libration point, a NEO, Lunar Orbit or Mars orbit or even Lunar Surface Sorties would all be cheaper using the Ares V as there is little that can be done to more efficiently carry out those missions. However, this does not apply to the Moon First lunar base.
The reasoning is as follows: The Shuttle Side Mount Moon First scenario in 5C has two crewed (3 Shuttle Side Mount (SSME’s) per crew) and two heavy lift cargo flights. But why dos there have to be heavy lift cargo flights? The key finding was that for the Shuttle Side Mount that SSME cost dominate the recurring costs, to wit:
With two crew and two cargo missions per year, this would require eight to ten launches of the Shuttle-derived launcher, each with three or four SSMEs or derivatives, for a total of24 to 40 of the Shuttle engines being used, with a resulting high recurring cost. (page 93 of the report)
If you can cut the number of cargo flights from heavy lift to zero and take a page from the Flexible Path’s call for a lighter lunar lander a radical shift occurs. If you had a lunar base, you could actually use a much lighter lander just to ferry crew from lunar orbit to the surface and back. If you were able to do this, the lunar mission itself could possibly be dropped to two Shuttle Side Mounts per crew and four vehicles per year. This would be further enabled by In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), which could proceed from private enterprise to enable the government to explore further and more cost effectively.
If the government chose to locate a base at a lunar pole (preferably the north to enable the maximum amount of surface exploration), and explore outward from there, caches of food, fuel, and other consumables could be staged. There are definite driving paths from the north polar region Peary Crater permanently lit zones down to Mare Frigoris, which then liberates a ground expedition to easily traverse the entire nearside Mare region. Much of the lunar farside terrain in the north is less onerous than in the south as well. Supplies could be emplaced by commercial landers who would use precision guidance to land their payloads, or the supplies could be carried overland by groups paid to do so. How much would the science value be raised and value given to the government by extending their scientific exploration potential. The government could incentivise this market in the same manner as COTS.
This is the beauty of the Moon, it is now within the possible grasp of private enterprise. Instead of launch opportunities once every two years, there is one available every two weeks. Today we have the Delta IV, Atlas V, the upcoming Falcon 9 as well as our international partners who could provide supplies, crews, and other hardware to extend the value of lunar exploration. There is even a plan to uprate the Ariane V to as much as 20 tons to trans lunar injection orbit. There are all kinds of deals that can be struck that would completely swing the cost benefit ratio to this type of architecture. This is something that the flexible path, no matter how scientifically interesting it might be, can provide. Though some of the first product from lunar oxygen production should be to enable a robust NEO mission.
As far as cargo’s go, there are not really that many cargo’s that require the full capability of any of the heavy lifters. For those that do, they could be split between EELV heavy launchers. If a heavy reliance on ISRU were implemented, the number of large Earth integrated payloads would be dramatically reduced.
Augustine and The Issue of In Situ Resources
Anyone who has read the Augustine report is struck is struck by the fact that ISRU, while mentioned, is left out of the near term technology opportunities. Some of this is due to the inertia of only choosing “proven” technologies. This is one thing that we do that is not like we did in the Apollo era, but that we can fix easily. On the earth we have thousands of years worth of experience in mining and processing minerals, making oxygen and metals from lunar rock is but an extension of this. I was very pleased at the ingenuity of the winning team from the lunar regolith challenge at Moffett field in October of this year.
The winner’s robot moved over 500 kilograms (1100 pounds) of simulated regolith in 30 minutes. On the Moon, digging regolith, moving it, processing it, storing the products are all part of what must be learned but the centennial prize actually brought several teams worth of developers into thinking about the problem who built hardware and tested it under the pressure of competition. This machine in some evolved form, will be input side of the ISRU process and even one metric ton per hour of materials processed would lead to amazing results, especially if the output included metals such as iron, aluminum, magnesium, and silicon.
The bottom line is that with very little monetary incentive from NASA in the form of the prizes, some teams have developed quite a bank of human capital and operational experience in these areas. In NASA’s technology roadmap, if ISRU is made a centerpiece of the reason for the lunar base, then it can be applied soon and possibly from private entrants. Larger prizes for larger aspects of exploration could achieve similar results. These prizes, if large enough, could be a significant economic stimulator. The prize for processing a ton of lunar regolith into usable propellant and metallic products must be high enough to encourage participants but should also be enough under the government’s cost to make it cost beneficial to the taxpayers. This could help accelerate the development of this technology to bring it to a much higher technology readiness level, faster than other methods as it widens the pool of interested parties beyond the aerospace companies that normally get larger development contracts. A billion dollars? Two billion? That would be an amazingly cheap price to pay to crash through this exploration debilitating barrier.
Even a layman like me can see the good in his plan, but I have to disagree with his opinion in that this plan might be accomplished within the current budget (unless I mis-read his statement).
So I don’t really see his idea happening any time soon.