Moon settlements via NASA-Commercial partnerships

The Trump administration recently announced that the Moon is now the primary goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program. While the initiative calls for NASA to develop “an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners”, it’s very likely the plan will be centered around the hyper-expensive Space Launch System/Orion spacecraft systems because of the strong political support for these jobs programs. Since NASA’s budget is very unlikely to be increased, this means the lunar program will be stretched out many years and probably suffer cancellation by a future administration before any US astronaut sets foot again on the lunar surface.

Rather than fight SLS/Orion, proposals have been put forth that would have NASA allocate a small fraction of its annual budget for commercial led lunar projects while letting SLS/Orion lumber on in parallel.  For example, in the summer of 2015, a group led by Charles Miller released the NASA funded “Evolved Lunar Architecture” study:

The study found that

Based on the experience of recent NASA program innovations, such as the COTS program, a human return to the Moon may not be as expensive as previously thought.

• America could lead a return of humans to the surface of the Moon within a period of 5-7 years from authority to proceed at an estimated total cost of about $10 Billion (+/- 30%) for two independent and competing commercial service providers, or about $5 Billion for each provider, using partnership methods.

• America could lead the development of a permanent industrial base on the Moon of 4 private-sector astronauts in about 10-12 years after setting foot on the Moon that could provide 200 MT of propellant per year in lunar orbit for NASA for a total cost of about $40 Billion (+/- 30%).

• Assuming NASA receives a flat budget, these results could potentially be achieved within NASA’s existing deep space human spaceflight budget

An interesting similar proposal has been put forth by independent space advocate Dr. Doug Plata, who discussed his Plan for Sustainable Space Development with David Livingston on The Space Show – Mon, 11/06/2017 – 14:00

Details of the plan, which is more specific in its implementation that the Evolved Lunar Architecture study, are described at Space –

The Plan presented here proposes a path for America’s space program which starts humanity’s first, permanent steps off Earth. Using cost-effective approaches and near-term technology, it would not require any significant increase in NASA’s budget yet it would establish a permanent base on the Moon in such a way as to thoroughly inspire the citizens of the US and around the world.

The Plan proposes that, for only 5-7% of NASA’s budget, using proven public-private approaches, the US could:

  • telerobotically harvest the ice at the poles of the Moon to refuel reusable landers,
  • establish a permanent base starting with a commercial crew of eight,
  • facilitate a great deal of international lunar exploration,
  • gain experience of use for Mars while not slowing the Journey to Mars.
  • set the stage for private individuals to move to the Moon (i.e. actual settlement)

Key hardware components include:

  • [nsg]SpaceX{SET}[/nsg]’s Falcon Heavy launcher to reduce transportaton costs.
  • The reusable Xeus lander – [nsg]Masten Space{MSS}[/nsg] and [nsg]ULA{ULA}[/nsg] have been working on the design of this system based on a modified Centaur/ACES upper stage. “It is estimated that the development of the launch-ready lunar lander shouldn’t take more than $200 million to develop”.
  • Telerobots:
    • The Ice Harvestor would be designed to scoop up icy regolith from the bottoms of polar craters.
    • Dexterous Telerobots would have human-like arms and hands for carrying out various support and repair operations tele-robotically
Ice harvester prototype.

Doug has long been an advocate for a Lunar COTS public-private partnership program following the example of the highly successful COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation System) program, which enabled low cost development of the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon and [nsg]Orbital ATK{OA}[/nsg] Antares/Cygnus launch systems for delivering cargo to the International Space Station. A similar sort of competitive, fixed-price contracting approach should work for lunar development as well.

Since we have the recent record of how the public-private programs have operated, how much they have cost, and how long it has taken them to achieve milestones, we can have a pretty accurate idea of what it would take for the set of Lunar COTS programs. So, at 5-7% of NASA’s budget, it is estimated that it would take:

  • 2 years – Terrestrial Demonstrator of a full-scale lunar lander.
  • 6 years – Development of the ice-harvesting telerobots.
  • 6 years – Development of a launch-ready lunar lander.
  • 8 years – Selection and training of the first permanent crew.
  • 8 years – Arrival of the first crew at a permanent lunar habitat.
  • 9 years – Arrival of a series of international lunar exploration teams.
  • 11 years – First arrivals of private individuals at an expanding lunar base / settlement.
Schematic of lunar lander system.

Doug goes on to describe many other aspects of the mission such as

  • The UniHab – “The “UniHab” concept is so named because it would provide for all of the needs of an initial crew of eight. It would also be unified in that it wouldn’t consist of separate modules with weighty metal connectors but would be all one habitat. Its key feature is that it would be a very large inflatable which could be packed up into a single cargo module. It would also be relatively flat-roofed allowing for protective dirt to be placed on top without it sloughing off after inflation.
  • Centrifuge – “Artificial gravity can be supplied in the form of an indoor centrifuge. It would be 15 meters in diameter and would spin at 11 rpms providing the equivalent of Earth’s gravity. It would have chambers on the end tall enough for crew to stand up in. The chambers would swivel out when spun up so that the force vector would always be pointing down between the feet. The crew would spend about two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening in the centrifuge conducting “sedentary activities”. Four hours is about the amount that we are upright each day on Earth. The sedentary activities are those which most of us do anyhow and so wouldn’t involve any difference in normal daily activity.
  • Extended Stays – “Even a modest amount (e.g. 30 cm) of lunar dirt on top of the UniHab would provide full protection against solar storms and would reduce the radiation levels of the galactic cosmic rays by about 50%. This would allow for the crew to remain on the Moon for a few years before they reached their career limits. They would then have plenty of time to maintain the telerobots to push even more dirt on top of the habitat. Therefore, it is not the radiation exposure which would limit the length that the crew could stay. Rather, it is the health effects of reduced gravity of the Moon that would likely determine how long the crew could stay.
  • Crew makeup for the first few missions designed for maximum public interest.

At the upcoming SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, Doug plans to bring an inflatable mock-up of the lander to Cape Canaveral and set it up at one of the locations where people gather to watch launches. He welcomes local space enthusiasts to come and discuss the Space Development Network plan with him.

While private individuals may not have a great deal of direct influence on the making of grand undertakings like a settlement on the Moon, advocating good ideas can initiate memes that go far and wide and multiply and eventually become implemented. The COTS program, in fact, came about  largely due to a couple of decades of efforts by private individuals and space advocacy groups.

If you want to help Doug make a Lunar COTS program happen, he welcomes you to join the Space Development Network.

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