Doug Plata has a new website at spacedevelopment.org with a concept for sustainable Lunar development. He sent me the link and suggested I look it over. I read it through the first time as a plan and promptly (in my mind) picked it apart. I went over it again as a conceptual approach coming away with considerably more positive feelings about it. I am quite opinionated about various approaches to getting things done with a normal reaction that I could do this or that better after someone else has done the heavy lifting of the initial approach. Anyone interested in developing the moon would benefit from a reading of his website including all the specific links.
My take on it is that it contains many desirable features and has missed a few critical points. One of the main ones is the knock on effect that the drop in launch prices will bring. I can see prices to LEO dropping to under $500.00 a kilogram within the timeframe he is suggesting. FH, New Glenn, BFR, etc in the near future. At that rate, a billion dollars launches 2,000 tons into LEO. This is the main basis for the criticisms I see. I will use that number in this post.
Doug suggests that a small percentage of the NASA budget could implement his scenario. A billion a year being 6-7% of the normal budget would be sufficient if used intelligently, mostly with COTS type applications. I don’t see any NASA managed project of this magnitude being immune to the various congressional feature creeps for the long term. Major NASA programs tend to multiples of that, which then tend to political rather than effectiveness direction. He makes a few mentions of international participation which to me has the same effect multiplied. IMO, his scenario needs to be a private venture ramrodded by a hardheaded businessman with a solid technical team in order to remain in reasonable cost territory.
I can see a variation of his vision being done possibly faster than his website suggests. One example is that of the partial gravity research that has been left fallow for so many decades. He suggests the partial gee research takes place on the moon after the early human landings. I suggest that a 50 ton partial gravity research facility in LEO will be possible for $25M in launch costs and less than $10M in hardware costs. $200.00 a kilogram for hardware is in line with terrestrial computers and electronics, and well above most hardware. With low launch costs, much of the over engineering of current spacecraft can be eliminated. The partial gravity research could start year one with results starting to be well characterized before the first human landings on the Lunar surface. It could be known whether a fetus could develop at 1/6 gravity by the time the first couple headed that way. It may not even be necessary to have a centrifuge on the moon, or it may be desirable to have a much larger one. That knowledge is necessary and long overdue.
The focus on finding and mining water dominates much of Dougs’ concept. I think the results of inexpensive launch has not been well factored in. With methane/LOX a mass ratio of about 5 from LEO to the Lunar surface puts a ton in place for about $2.5M for launch costs. A hundred tons of water for a quarter billion FOB moon seems like a good early supply. Four hundred tons of equipment and supplies delivered to the moon for a billion dollars seems like a good year two operation. By exploring and prospecting for all potential valuables instead of a water dedicated mining operation, it seems possible that better and easier sources of almost everything will be found. It would be most unfortunate if a massive effort were made to extract water from the polar regolith only to find that nearly pure sources were available in many locations. It would be bad as well to hope that better sources would be found only to find that the polar regolith was indeed the only reasonable source. I suggest a lot of exploration and prospecting before major mining investments.
Doug puts a lot of emphasis on communicating the excitement to Earth in as many languages as possible even if by naturalized Americans with all early crew members multilingual. I personally place less value in talking to people than getting them there in the first place. If a person can be delivered to the Lunar surface alive and healthy with a ton of gear, launch costs of $2.5M per person are down to the point that any interested nation should be able to pay their own way. The six person international teams that he suggests could get there, stay a while, and back for under $40M. Any nation group that can’t or won’t supply that level of support shouldn’t expect much sympathy from those that do pay. International pride would come from self sufficient groups paying their own way instead of being dependent on the charity/political connections of others.
The gymnastics and dance routines that he suggests be practiced with tethers on Earth could instead be developed and learned properly in the Lunar environment. Artists need some freedom to be artists. Earth control and choreography is unlikely to give the best results compared to the experimentation on location by the artists themselves. Again, $40M for a gymnastics or dance troupe to spend a month or so on the moon seems a quite reasonable cost. It also doesn’t require your geologist to be selected for athletic abilities.
The suggestion is that crew should have very long stays of several years or perhaps indefinitely due to costs and transport risks. I suggest that that attitude is caused by the ridiculous prices of crew transport that exist now, and not those that will exist in the near future. At the $2.5M that I suggest will be possible to get someone to the Lunar surface, and about that much more for a year of supplies, crew rotations could resemble those of the ISS currently. While some could stay longer and would be encouraged to do so, I don’t see it being the bottleneck to Lunar development.
Some of the hardware in the scenario seems to be missing a few tricks. The lander based on the Masten Space Systems work with ULA seems like a future manned transportation system to the Lunar surface. For early hardware delivery, a variation of the Falcon 9 hover slam seems to have something to offer. A stage that hits hard or tips over is not going to explode as seen in footage of some early barge landings. The propellant will evaporate in the vacuum faster than it could sustain ignition. So the cargo could be saved even in the early learning curve landings. An upright stage that landed properly could unload with an onboard gantry crane in the 1/6 gravity. Several companies could learn by doing rather than learn by designing and simulating and then learning the hard way anyway.
A Lunar rotovator has been proposed many times and a development scenario like Dougs’ could afford to learn to operate it. A 1,600 m/s rotovator could pick up as well as deliver which would eliminate much of the need for mining or delivering water. A 25 ton unit could pick up and deliver ton packages, though not people at first. That would be about a $100M investment that would pay off in operational knowledge that could apply to LEO, Mars and asteroids just a few years on.
A depot scenario would benefit this development. A delivery to LEO that had extra mass capacity could deliver propellant as a secondary payload for nearly free. A refueled upper stage would make a dedicated transfer stage unnecessary. Refueling or off loading extra propellant in Lunar orbit could also make the trips more cost effective. Storage facilities in Lunar orbit and on the surface would definitely enhance the value of Lunar propellant when it did start becoming available.
Doug mentions saving the capability of the SLS for Mars missions. I say why bother if 4,000 tons can be placed in LEO for the price of one SLS launch. I also disagree that a manned Mars flyby is a useful mission. Phobos and Demos mission, maybe, though I’m not sold on those either. Of course, not being a Mars enthusiast, I probably would be a hard sell for a surface mission as well.