Regarding “Lunar COTS”

I’ve been busy a lot lately (between this, this, this, and having friends in from out of town for the holiday), so I hadn’t had a chance until now to reply to Mark Whittington’s correspondence with me (found here).  A majority of his reply was arguing against stuff that I had never said, or making claims about the “dire implications” of China making it back to the Moon first.  However, his comment here deserved a bit of discussion:

Once people are back on the Moon, then there will be a good, core market for private enterprise, Lunar explorers will need all kinds of support that a lunar COTS program could readily provide.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that I don’t think NASA should use commercial vendors for lunar resupply. Or that having the government help invest some money into developing commercial systems to do so doesn’t have merit. My beef is with this idea that we should first allow NASA to build its lunar base the way it wants to, and only then start working with commercial industry for resupply.

I think this flawed line of thinking is based on the fallacy that COTS is only now possible because the ISS is almost finished, and without ISS being completed there wouldn’t be a market for COTS cargo and crew deliveries. To me, this line of argument misses one key point–COTS would’ve been useful almost from the beginning of ISS construction. Depending on how you count things, of the so far ~29 ISS Shuttle flights, it looks to me like 10 of them have been primarily for the purpose of delivering supplies. Had something like COTS been done in the late 90s (instead of take your pick of X-33, X-34, X-37, or X-38), it would have been a huge boon to ISS construction. If those shuttle logistics flights could have been instead dedicated to flying actual station hardware, ISS would probably be complete by now.

Not to mention that as was discussed a few months ago regarding the “COTS D-” concept, a vehicle capable of returning living cargo from the station is only a few steps away from an emergency crew return vehicle. Depending on the approach, from there it may only be a launch escape system and some emergency detection hardware standing in the way of launching crews commercially as well. If there had been one or two companies offering commercial cargo up- and down-mass when Columbia crashed, upgrading those systems for crew launch would’ve been a backup option at that point. Even without the ability to launch crews, just having a US source for emergency crew return might have allowed the move to six permanent crew-members to have taken place a lot sooner.

You could go even further than this, but the basic point was that the right time to do COTS would’ve been earlier, when you could have saved a lot of money compared to using the Shuttle for everything. The same applies for Lunar COTS. The right time to start involving commercial providers is today, not 15-20 years from now. Of all the flights necessary to put together a lunar base, a decent chunk of those flights will likely be delivering supplies, just like ISS. How much quicker could a lunar base be put together if there were commercial cargo resupply capabilities right from the start? Base resupply during construction is just as real of a market as supplying cargo after the base is in place.

Sure, right now commercial industry is no more capable of delivering cargo all the way to the moon than NASA or anyone else is. But commercial industry has been capable of, for over a decade now, delivering cargo and propellants to low earth orbit, and may soon be capable of flying people as well. If NASA actually cared about efficiency, promoting commercial industry, and delivering the most benefit per dollar, they’d be using an architecture that actually leveraged commercial industry from the start, instead of it being punted into the distant future.

The fact is, Constellation doesn’t field any infrastructure or develop any technologies that would make the lunar surface any more commercially accessible in 2025 than it is today. A lunar COTS program would be starting from that point not much further along than where it is today. A lunar COTS program undertaken after a lunar base was put in place using the CxP approach would require funding the development of pretty much the full commercial transportation system. But if that’s ok to spend all that money then, why isn’t it ok to fund that in the beginning, when you can maximize the benefit of having such a capability? If commercial industry isn’t going to be capable of delivering cargo to the Moon without NASA providing support in the form of a COTS-like project, then that lack of capability today is no argument against starting on a lunar COTS program immediately.

Lastly, once NASA has so many billions of dollars per year tied up in two standing armies for Ares-I and V, and marginal costs for the two launch systems, where are they going to get money for lunar COTS? Once KSC and JSC, and MSFC are getting that much money for flying the lunar base construction flights, do you really think that the Senators associated with those centers are going to be fine with having that money go to commercial providers at the cost of workforce within their districts? It’s not like Ares I and V are going to be retired as soon as the lunar base is fielded. No, NASA is going to be working on their next big mission. Do you really think in that kind of a funding environment that NASA is going to have a bunch of money sitting around available for funding a lunar COTS effort? No. The same Senators today who are trying to suck all the air out of the room to pack their centers with engineers for Ares-I and V at the expense of COTS will be at it in 2025 as well.

I could go on, but while a lunar COTS program is a good idea, the time for it is now, not after Constellation has locked us in to another couple decades of space transportation stagnation.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
This entry was posted in Commercial Space, COTS, ESAS, Launch Vehicles, Lunar Commerce, NASA, Space Development, Space Policy, Space Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Regarding “Lunar COTS”

  1. MG says:

    Jon,

    I agree with both your programmatic analysis of what is desirable, and the political barriers to accomplishing that.

    I regret that I have no silver bullet ideas to offer. I hope that the incremental successes of commercial launch providers will eventually arouse the interests of the budget-conscious citizenry in a sufficient manner to stimulate Congressional review. Wiser minds than mine have noted that NASA should purchase launch services, not design launchers.

    I am not holding my breath while awaiting either idea to become reality.

    PS: Mega-congratulations on Masten’s continued progress. Pay no attention to the green tinge my envy has brought to my ears.

  2. But, but, Apollo! Mission Control! One small step!

    In other words, Mr. Whittington’s attachment to big NASA projects is emotional and romantic. Your logics are pointless.

  3. Martijn Meijering says:

    You are of course right that a lunar COTS-D should be started much earlier in the process than ISS COTS-D was. In fact, we still don’t have a fully funded COTS-D, what we have is $80M or so for “COTS-D Light” from the stimulus bill.

    And you are right certain senators will oppose it. But opposition is not unanimous:

    Note that Shelby has argued against COTS-D Light . He argued the money was needed more urgently on Constellation, but I think the real reason is to strike a preemptive blow against COTS-D. And again, not because the money is needed by Constellation (COTS-D is almost no cure – no pay), but because it would be highly embarrassing if COTS-D came online before Ares I + Orion did.

    Nelson on the other hand has made the opposite argument: he was angry COTS-D hadn’t been funded yet. As long as it happens in his state, he isn’t against it. And given physics and geography, California is always going to be an important launch site. What Nelson seems to want is 1) launches of an SDLV (or the Shuttle itself) relatively soon and 2) design work on Altair.

    So how does this affect a potential lunar COTS-D? Well, first of all I think there should be an L1 COTS-D before there is a lunar COTS-D. And before that ISS COTS-D should be fully funded of course.

    I’ve argued before that Constellation should be downsized in several ways:

    lunar surface hab -> small L1 gateway station
    moon initial exploration target -> NEO initial exploration target
    Altair -> single stage hypergolic cis-lunar shuttle
    Ares I -> EELV
    Ares V -> J-130 + D-IV Heavy upper stage (or ideally no SDLV and Atlas Phase 1 instead, but that’s not likely to happen)

    The one system that would have to be added is a small hypergolics depot.

    In later years you could add back some of the features that were dropped and go on to the moon. Hopefully the launchers would not be upgraded, unless Atlas Phase 1 were funded and NASA were required to use a stock WBC as an upper stage.

    I think all of this is possible while satisfying Nelson’s wishes, as long as someone is able to explain the consequences to him. It would allow him to get what he wants even if there have to be major budget cuts. With some extra additions it could perhaps even satisfy Shelby.

    Now, to get back to your points about doing a lunar COTS-D sooner. I think an L1 first approach would allow just that: once the L1 gateway is operational the logical thing to ask would be why not COTS-D for it too? That’s the political aspect. And from a technical point of view ISS COTS-D is not that far removed from L1 COTS-D. It wouldn’t take much more than another launch for a Centaur + mission kit and improved heat shielding for the crew capsule. Lunar COTS-D on the other hand requires a lander as well. L1 COTS-D could therefore be operational much sooner than a lunar COTS-D.

    In fact it all boils down to the fact that L1 is the cheapest, least risky and most accessible destination beyond LEO. Everything else follows from that: less risk, lower budgets, more commercial involvement, more international involvement.

  4. “”””””Once KSC and JSC, and MSFC are getting that much money for flying the lunar base construction flights, do you really think that the Senators associated with those centers are going to be fine with having that money go to commercial providers at the cost of workforce within their districts?””””””

    As Martjin pointed out, Shelby argued against COTS-D, stating unequivocally that space programs should be government programs. Some Republican he is! Shelby is from Alabama, home of MSFC. Nelson is from Florida, from whence SpaceX will launch ISS-bound payloads — Nelson is fine with all manner of launch providers as a result. OSC may also be launching from KSC, although it does have/will have a facility for Taurus II at Wallops (Virginia), so Virginia may be pro-COTS.

  5. MG says:

    Senator Shelby used to be a Democrat, and switched in the 1990’s. More relevant is that he is a senator from Alabama, and that Huntsville’s federal receipts keep that area sheltered from the economic storms that are flinging about the rest of us like so much flotsam.

  6. Rod,
    I think the main reason why Nelson is willing to back COTS-D right now is that he thinks SpaceX will result in a net increase in jobs compared to the status quo. Lunar COTS would not necessarily be so, especially if it decreased the need for government run heavy lift.

    That said, as we’ve been seeing recently, parochial interests don’t always align, and every once in a while they can result in someone backing something close to “the right thing”.

    ~Jon

  7. Pete says:

    While I completely agree, disruptive technologies find it difficult to challenge existing markets directly, and when they do, they tend to quickly get distorted back into the existing model. There is an argument that disruptive technologies should initially go for markets that the dinosaurs would be more profitable without, for which there is no competition from existing suppliers.

    How about modular propellant depots and space tugs in miniature, start with cleaning up dead satellites that no one else wants to touch. Get established as an innocuous trash collector (with everyone’s support), then move onto providing propulsion for exhausted satellites. In short order one might get the delivery contracts for most everything in the Earth-moon system – and without anyone really noticing how it happened.

    Constellation will go over budget and there will be great pressure to buy basic cheaper commercial services later, if they are available. For obvious reasons, this does not readily translate into government funding now (would require a preemptive admission of failure), but maybe it can be translated into private funding now.

  8. Mark R. Whittington says:

    It’s a rather charming notion to expect that a venture capitalist would invest money in a moon ship project based on government promises and not on a tangiable commitment, like a lunar base. Clearly there are people with far more “romantic” notions of the willingness of investors to hand out lots of money than I do.

  9. Pingback: Regarding “Lunar COTS” « The Four Part Land

  10. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Mark,
    ISS could be shut down just as easily while under construction as it could after it is completed. Even without it being finished there are all sorts of political forces working to make sure it stays in operation as long as possible. While I guess a finished lunar base might be a *tiny* bit less risky than one being built that has billions of dollars on the line, I doubt it’s as big of a difference as you’d like to claim. And once again, the idea behind COTS was that the government would help prime the pump in order to open up new commercial capabilities. VCs wouldn’t be funding the whole thing.

    Now, if they insist on doing things just like the way they did COTS A-C, there could be problems even after a lunar base is completely built. Raising the hundreds of millions in investment needed for a similar “skin in the game” requirement might not be feasible even with an existing lunar base–precisely because the government can’t give market guarantees. As it is, the only reason it worked at all with COTS A-C was that the “skin in the game requirements” were just within the reach of a philantrocapitalist like Musk, or a large aerospace company with existing cash reserves like OSC. With a lunar COTS-like program, it would likely make a lot more sense for the “skin in the game” requirement to be more of making sure they have a sufficiently sized line-of-credit to be able to weather cashflow issues. If they insist on doing it the same way next time around, it will likely be impossible for them to get anyone who could compete, even with an existing proven market.

    ~Jon

  11. Mark R. Whittington says:

    Jon, you seem to be contradicting yourself. In your original post you demand that a lunar COTS be done *now*, even before there is a certain market for it. Now you’re saying that a lunar COTS maybe impossible even where there is a certain market.

    Not that I’m against a little government pump priming. But I’m more in favor of making space an enterprise zone, in the way of zero g zero taxes, than with loan guaruntees.

  12. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Mark,
    You seem to be missing my point. My point is that the market is no more “sure” when the lunar base is done than when it is underway. If NASA goes through with Constellation, the private delivery approaches will bear the brunt of actually building the infrastructure necessary for commercial cislunar transportation. NASA can’t do a lunar COTS the same way with huge skin-in-the game requirements or it likely won’t work even with a base. But if they can find a way that does work with a base, it will work with a base that’s still under construction as well.

    ~Jon

  13. Martijn Meijering says:

    > If NASA goes through with Constellation, the private delivery approaches will bear the brunt of actually building the infrastructure necessary for commercial cislunar transportation.

    So what should NASA do instead?

  14. Martijn Meijering says:

    The Orlando Sentinel reports Nelson is back-tracking on COTS-D:

    “Whatever you heard, I want to make sure you understand I wasn’t specifically pushing COTS D. What I was pushing was launch complex 36 [at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station]. … COTS D first off is a human-rated program and that has not been sanctioned by NASA yet.”

  15. Jim Davidson says:

    My brother Tom, many of my friends, and I spent most of 1983 and the first weeks of 1984 lobbying Reagan to include a lunar base in the State of the Union address. As it developed, he only talked about a space station – for $8 billion, to house 12 crew, to be built within a decade. I note that none of those features were involved in the “finished” product.

    I was completely wrong. All my friends were wrong. My brother was wrong (he hates this). It was stupid. A lunar base would have been a bigger boondoggle, would still not be built, and would have perpetuated the defense contractor community (which Eisenhower called the military industrial complex) indefinitely. It was a very bad idea. I’m glad we failed to “get” our Moon base.

    As it turns out, we also failed to get our space station. The space station is a boondoggle, costs hundreds of billions to build and operate, isn’t done yet, does none of the things we wanted, isn’t commercial, is run by evil thugs at NASA who hate tourists and fight over who gets to use the toilet (!), isn’t a transportation node, isn’t a low gravity research factory, and generally sucks. Can you imagine how many trillions of dollars NASA would have wasted by now if they had followed the National Commission on Space’s recommendations?

    Jonathan, you are exactly correct. Your logic is impeccable.

  16. Perhaps the single most important underlying issue once all the layers are pealed away is this: Humanity will never become a true spacefaring civilization as long as it depends on exhorbitantly expensive government-run-and-built space programs to try to achieve that goal. Humanity MAY become a spacefaring civilization if and when the cost of going into space at an ambitious and sustainable level is low enough that private entities are able to afford to do so. This same paradigm neds to apply to private/government partnerships.

  17. Randy Campbell says:

    This may be an ‘aside’ comment but isnt’ there a “market” for Lunar-COTS services RIGHT NOW?

    Google Moon-Prize, Space-X for one has already ‘addressed’ the market by releasing Lunar delivery capabilities of the Falcon-1 vehicle. There are people looking for rides, willing to pay, doesn’t that in and of itself constitute a “market”?

    As for ISS-COTS itself, if no one else has mentioned it the Russians are planning on taking ‘thier’ modules and making thier own space station around 2020:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8064060.stm

    Sooner if the United States drops support earlier…
    And it’s pretty definate that THEY (and the EAS) won’t need the services of COTS since they have thier own launch vehicle and capsule design(s) to justify.

    What then is the “market” or justification for COTS-“D” let alone any other COTS services?

    Randy

  18. Dwayne Day says:

    There are some problems with this article. One is that it is based upon the a priori assumption that COTS will be successful. The problem is that COTS is both a government procurement model and a business model that has not been previously tested. Both government and business are in uncharted territory. That is the reason why there is not more money behind the program, and the reason why it was not tried earlier (no precedent).

    A second problem is that you have not really defined what you mean by COTS. Right now the program excludes traditional launch providers. EELV (Atlas, Delta) is not participating. Presumably you think that is as it should be. But if, as you assert, this should have been done a decade ago, who else would have done it other than EELV or another legacy provider? Would using Titan IV have saved money compared to shuttle? Would it have broken the mold of having the government provide the launch services? Or would it have simply been old soup in a new bowl?

    This is relevant when advocating a Lunar COTS approach. You have to ask if it is reasonable/realistic/wise to ask or expect the government to rely upon an unproven approach to obtaining what it needs. And you have to ask just what it is that you’re trying to achieve by doing so. Are you trying to lower costs? Or trying to promote new actors to enter the field?

    COTS advocates tend to assume that the companies involved can provide the services that are being sought, can do so at significantly lower cost, and can be profitable doing so. But none of that has been proven. Understanding this is helpful to understand why the government views this approach so warily and is as yet unwilling to go further, for instance, with a Lunar COTS approach. COTS has to prove itself.

  19. g.r.r. says:

    I would not sweat it. While I think that COTS and X prize were needed to cause all the current private space ventures, I believe that it will NOT be needed for the moon. Instead, I would really like to see Obama/NASA buy just one or two of Bigelows units for the ISS. Ideally, a sundancer that would be used for storage, and when available, a BA-330. Bigelow and Musk WANT to be on the moon. Bigelow wants to be there with a ba-330 or bigger before 2020. To do so, will require a tested infrastructure. That means that not just SpaceX’s (and possibly scaled composites with SS3), but also a system to land on the moon. I would be VERY surprised if New Shepard and Armadillo are not being thought of for just this. The blue origin can haul ppl nicely. By the look of armadillo, they are looking at the ability to haul bigger loads via more engines (similar to SpaceX). And while Space in Bigelow station would be useful for research, the moon would be MUCH more useful for vacationers. Wealthy vacationers.

  20. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Dwayne,
    I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to respond to your comment yet. It’s been a busy week. You make several valid points, but I also disagree with you on a few points (or think we’re possibly talking past each other).

    There are some problems with this article. One is that it is based upon the a priori assumption that COTS will be successful. The problem is that COTS is both a government procurement model and a business model that has not been previously tested. Both government and business are in uncharted territory. That is the reason why there is not more money behind the program, and the reason why it was not tried earlier (no precedent).

    Oh, I agree there are many reasons why something like COTS wasn’t tried earlier. My point was that the reason it wasn’t tried earlier had nothing to do with it not being useful earlier. If something like COTS had been tried earlier and been successful, it would’ve been very useful.

    Also, I actually think that the way COTS was implemented does leave a little to be desired. I agree it’s risky, and that if SpaceX or Orbital doesn’t deliver that it will give such programs a black eye. Unfortunately, it worries me that the way COTS was implemented may have increased the odds of a negative result. Setting up the program in a way that biased it strongly towards people trying to develop both a launcher and a spacecraft, allowing most of the milestones to be non-hardware milestones (ie design reviews and fundraising), etc.

    A second problem is that you have not really defined what you mean by COTS. Right now the program excludes traditional launch providers. EELV (Atlas, Delta) is not participating. Presumably you think that is as it should be. But if, as you assert, this should have been done a decade ago, who else would have done it other than EELV or another legacy provider?

    Actually, you’re misreading me here. I think that the fact that all three of the COTS winners to-date have been groups trying to do both a new spacecraft and a new launch vehicle is a worrying sign. I would’ve been fine if at least one of the companies selected was just trying to do a capsule on an EELV (or even if one of the companies had been a Boeing or a Lockheed trying to do a capsule on their own vehicle). With that in mind, yeah if COTS had been done in the early 90s (to have the capability online for when the first ISS construction resupply needs were coming online), it would’ve most likely been one of the big aerospace companies. Back then you had Atlas II, Delta II and Titan II all flying (as well as Titan IV), and the EELV development just about to start. It’s true that there’s no guarantee that it would’ve succeeded, but there’s also a real chance that by helping build up and provide a market for more commercial spaceflight capability earlier that things would’ve turned out a lot better than they did.

    This is relevant when advocating a Lunar COTS approach. You have to ask if it is reasonable/realistic/wise to ask or expect the government to rely upon an unproven approach to obtaining what it needs.

    I’m not suggesting doing only Lunar COTS, just making sure that commercial capabilities are being built up as you go, instead of putting off doing anything commercially relevant except as an afterthought. The fact is that if the government actually wants to achieve its space exploration goals (not just the narrow milestones, but it’s actual purposes), it needs the commercial sector to be able to gain those capabilities (cislunar transportation, etc). Do you have a better suggestion for how it can help grow that commercial capability?

    And you have to ask just what it is that you’re trying to achieve by doing so. Are you trying to lower costs? Or trying to promote new actors to enter the field? COTS advocates tend to assume that the companies involved can provide the services that are being sought, can do so at significantly lower cost, and can be profitable doing so. But none of that has been proven.

    I know a lot of commercial space advocates tend to think that private enterprise is tons smarter than NASA, and that NASA is a bunch of incompetent screwups who should just get out of the way. I’m not one of those. I think that NASA has an important role to play, and that private sector actors have some real challenges and limitations (the single biggest one being the challenge of raising funding).

    That said, in answering your question, I think a big part of what I think COTS is trying to achieve is “encouraging commercial use and development of space to the greatest extent practicable”. Right now, the main commercial uses of space are communications and earth observation, and that’s about it. By helping private industry develop the ability to launch crew and cargo, that now can help open up new markets. There are no guarantees in life, but if those commercial entities can get and keep a toehold in the crew/cargo launch markets, then even if their price isn’t hugely cheaper than flying the shuttle at first, it’s still opening up new markets, and new capabilities. The more capable commercial space transportation becomes, the more commercial space markets can develop. The more those develop, the less NASA has to provide everything themselves. NASA would be much better off being a medium-sized fish in a big ocean than being a big fish in a cup of water.

    Is any of that guaranteed to work? No more than Ares-I, or OSP, or SLI, or X-33, X-34, X-37, X-38, etc. The difference is that if they do work, the upside is a lot higher. And if they don’t work, the public is out a whole lot less money.

    ~Jon

  21. DougSpace says:

    Just in case anyone comes across this post…

    I have set up a Lunar COTS petition at: LunarCOTS.com. As of right now, it has nearly 50 signatures.

    The concept is pretty simple. Many people view the current NASA commercial programs as being pretty successful. But why stop at LEO? This petition proposes that American commercial space be extended throughout cis-lunar space to include the resources of the Moon. It would involve:
    – Commercial Cis-lunar Transportation Service
    – Commercial Cis-lunar Supply Services
    – Lunar Surface Operations
    – Commercial Lunar Crew

    If this is something that you think would move America’s space program forward, then please read and consider signing the petition at: LunarCOTS.com.

  22. Paul451 says:

    DougSpace,
    Have you considered moving the petition to the WhiteHouse petition site? (You’ll need to define/explain COTS.)

    https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/

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