guest blogger john hare
There is a fairly constant murmur that commercial space will not go beyond LEO and more mumbling that there must be a specific destination with a specific timeline.
The second mumbling assumes that there is some top down command structure that will make one thing happen regardless of obstacles or opportunities along the way. Goals for the short term are often good, but not so much for the uncertain future. It is roughly the difference between getting married or staying single. When you get married, it better be the right one, and all the other options better be off the table. A single goal and time frame assumes that no other goal is worthwhile, and that nothing will ever change the relative values.
The murmur about commercial not going beyond LEO is often from people that haven’t considered the implications of CATS. For this post, I suggest that CATS is $1K per kilogram to LEO and work out a few costs that apparently haven’t been considered openly enough. I also suggest that RLVs are giving launch on demand in order to hit that price point.
Say someone wants to send a small commercial robot probe to a NEO. Current state of the art might be a one ton spacecraft with a mass ratio of three to go from LEO to the object. At $10K per kilogram for launch costs, $30M. The way it is currently done, perhaps $50M for the vehicle itself and another few million for operations. So $85-90M for one data set. From program start to launch could easily be from three to five years, plus looking for funding and operating the vehicle almost as an afterthought. It would be easy to burn a decade on the program, and well over $100M considering the time value of money.
With CATS and launch on demand, other methods become attractive. If it is allowed to triple the mass of the probe and use less efficient engines, a three ton vehicle with nine tones of propellant becomes 12 tons IMLEO instead of 3 currently, though launch costs drop from $30M with a long lead time to $12M whenever you get ready to go. With relaxed mass constraints developing the probe becomes a construction project rather than research and development. Shield modern electronics with mass rather than use expensive antiques that are space rated. It seems possible that the three ton probe could drop to $1,000.00 per kilogram in construction costs, for a total of $3M in hardware costs. Lead time could drop to a few months with relaxed hardware mass restrictions. Engineers could spec a 7mm bolt from COTS suppliers rather than spend the time and money to determine that a 6.26mm bolt gives the exact safety margin required.
If CATS makes it possible to send a NEO probe within three months of decision for a total cost of $15M, that is a time frame and cost that fits into a quarterly stockholders report. Pick your favorite reason to go, and it is quite possible that there is a millionaire out there that will agree with you. Minerals, volatiles, SPS materials, or just to see what is there become affordable to many thousands of interested people. At that price point, hundreds of probes per decade would certainly fly.
Many many people will point out that a three ton probe is way too much craft for early prospecting. Some people will certainly agree that 10 kg of fairly sophisticated instruments could be quite capable and not even be all that expensive if they didn’t have to support a decade program and could avoid a lot of that helpful oversight. 10 kg of instruments in a 40 kg vehicle with an IMLEO of 200 kg including propellant would drop the launch costs to $200k. Instruments and hardware by the right people might double that total cost. With a total of $400k per flight, commercial and private players would launch them by the thousands. I think it would be safe to suggest that known NEOs, the moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and most of the asteroid belt would be explored for a fraction of today’s government exploration budgets.
There are some that would try to do probes with a 1 kg cube sat, While I’m skeptical, CATS would make it possible for them to prove me wrong for around $10k.
I personally am more interested in the effects on human spaceflight. With $1,000.00kg for launch costs, a person’s direct mass cost to LEO would be around $100k. A reasonable overhead for life support and supplies would bring it to perhaps $500k for a several week visit. A true CATS launch on demand would let people go during a month vacation. Bigalow would have to get busy building stations and hotels to accommodate the customers that could and would go at that price point. There is a laundry list of experiments that companies and governments would do if their orbital workers could do a three month LEO tour for under a million. An EVA worker cost would drop to a couple of thousand dollars an hour under these conditions.
What about beyond LEO? A five ton vehicle could certainly shuttle from LEO to LLO and back with four people. Flying the same vehicle repeatedly with four people and supplies would require about twelve tons of propellant and provisions per trip. Twelve tons of supplies is about $12M in launch costs and about $6,346.50 for the actual supplies. Circumnavigating the moon for under $4M per person including launch costs and LEO accommodations is considerably less than anything currently planned and should be proportionately more attractive to customers.
If the vehicle has entered LLO, then a modest craft can single stage from there to the surface and back. Propellant costs would bring the whole adventure to about $8M per person for the round trip from Earth’s surface to a moon base and back. Additional time on the surface is simply a matter of supplies. At $10k per kilogram on the Lunar surface, a person could stretch their stay by about three weeks per million dollars. It is a fairly safe bet that many people will go, and some of them will go for profit as they look for something they think valuable to some market. Anyone that can create more than 5 kg per day in resources from the local materials can stretch their stay almost indefinitely.
For some, it’s Mars or nothing. There is no reason they can’t get to Mars while everybody else exploits the nothing they disdain. Think of a ship of a thousand tons for their comfortable journey to Mars that takes ten thousand man hours of EVA to assemble and needs three thousand tons of propellant for the trip. What would that cost? At $1K per kg for the ship mass, $1B for construction. $4B for launch cost. $20M for EVA labor costs. Total costs for a thousand ton ship on Mars trajectory, $5.02B plus tax, tag, and title.
Quit yammering about commercial stopping in LEO. If commercial creates CATS, the rest follows.