FWIW: My thoughts on Nautilus-X MMSEV

I know all of you have been just dying to hear what I think about the Nautilus-X MMSEV vehicle that’s been discussed all over the blogosphere in recent days. Ok, probably not, but I figured I ought to get my opinions on record anyway.

I’ll start with my positive impressions first. Most importantly, I like the idea of using reusable in-space vehicles. One of the points I had intended to make with the MHD aerobraking series was that such technologies might lead to the day where directly returning to earth from the moon interplanetary space via a capsule is considered an anachronism. So, I’m a firm supporter of space architectures where the earth-to-LEO segment is totally separate from the in-space segment, and where the in-space segment favors reuse.

I’m also a fan of many of the technologies that the MMSEV was talking about, such as artificial gravity, actually dealing with radiation issues, etc.

But on net, my overall impression was that while interesting, this will never happen. At least not with the NASA we have today, and not on the budget they’re claiming. Unless I’m totally misunderstanding what all falls under “DCT&I”, $3.7B to develop that vehicle over five years sounds wishful thinking when you realize that Orion has spent more than that over a similar amount of time to get to PDR. Realistically, in a world where Orion and SLS are expected to cost over $20B more and take at least another 6 years to get to service, I really have a hard time believing that a vehicle that much more complicated, done by the same groups, is somehow going to be available that much sooner and for that much less.

I’m not trying to badmouth the guys who put their hearts and souls into this concept. I think it is visionary, and has many elements in the right direction. I just think that compared to where we are today, the budget and timeline numbers they’re claiming are overoptimistic, and that we’re not really anywhere close to being able to do something like what they’re talking about. More to the point, we’re not even to a point where we need something like what they’re talking about. While I’m a fan of NEOs and Phobos, reality dictates that most human spaceflight over the next few decades is likely to be focused in cislunar space. We may do occasional ventures beyond, but they’ll likely be riskier, smaller, and cheaper missions.

I hope we get there (to a point where we’re ready to build something like Nautilus-X) someday while I’m still young enough to appreciate it, but I think there are bunch of steps between here and there that need to be taken first if we’re going to be serious about not just exploring space, but making space part of “humanity’s natural environment”.

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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.
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15 Responses to FWIW: My thoughts on Nautilus-X MMSEV

  1. nooneofconsequence says:

    Jon, it depends on US getting out of its “small minded” mode.

    VSE was a cynical small minded vision to direct massive government subsidies to overbuild and under develop a clone of Apollo. It was done by a group of politicos united solely as a vehicle to keep spending alive and at the same levels of Shutlle, post Shuttle … regardless of if it got anywhere. This was why the hostility to any criticism – why should you care – its just our “peculiar institution”, we’ve done deals to trade off and let you have your peculiar institution as well … so shut up and let us reassemble Shuttle parts … that will be enough to scare China off the moon, heh heh heh.

    Nautilus-X is a direct challenge that makes Apollo seem two bit in comparison. If you are going to do it for “national security”, it would be on the scope of raising the ante to potentially the entire solar system. In the case of Apollo, it was the theory of the US occupying the moon. This would be a lot bigger.

    Unlike Apollo it would build over 2-3 decades as we build up the capability, prove gravity/radiation/other issues for this “mobile” ISS in Earths vicinty, then marshall the cojones to do so to take it out into targets in some solar orbit.

    Including landers for various targets.

    This would require funding at the same levels as HLV. I’d rather NASA focus on that then HLV – its a more attractive target. But you can’t do both.

    I think that the way ahead would be for the “Northern Alabama Space Administration” to shift its arsenal “small mind” / “fear culture” horseblinders from the small win to the really big win. They are highly motivated by power and influence. I think they are hurting because Dragon makes them look like losers – capsules will quickly become passe to them, and Orbital will attempt to do the same with space planes. They need something worthy really badly now.

    So shift the paradigm

  2. NOofC,
    You make some good points. I do like the idea of an honest to goodness space-“ship” that gets refitted and reused, that goes to multiple destinations. I’m just worried that if we try to do something on this scale right now, the cost is going to be so high that we’ll only be able to ever have one or maybe two of these things. While the missions it would be able to do would be cool, they’d be very rare and infrequent. For cislunar space you could do something much, much smaller (though still similar in spirit) that I think would be wiser. Trying to jump too fast from dugout canoes to the Queen Mary is likely going to not get us what we really want. But is it necessarily worse than an HLV? No. I just don’t think it’s realistic yet.

    Now, I do think that taking the basic idea, and doing a smaller, simpler “first steps” approach nearer term might be a lot more interesting.


  3. nooneofconsequence says:

    Jon, I understand your position well considering the aspect of overreach we’ve seen.
    Personally I see the small vehicle approach as being much more “cancellation prone” post Shuttle – because it doesn’t capture the public’s imagination.

    I think how you keep it from becoming a perpetual project is by managing the scope. And realizing that its a vehicle that is constantly evolving in orbit, whereby you switch-out/upgrade/add-on annually portions.

    It gets back to what Steve Squyres used to unblock the impossible MSR project – break it up into multiple consecutive missions. It starts out as a cislunar ISS vehicle with robotic landers that are deployed to visit lunar regions and perhaps do ISRU feasibility tests. It expands with rad/gravity environments that were proven at the ISS, but now you get active use of them out of LEO. Prop module gets upgraded and capability gets extended for further NEO missions, as more supply modules also are assembled. Much like ISS deploy was.

    It gets around the Apollo mission letdown in the publics eye – you’re always gearing up for bigger and bigger things. You foreshadow missions of consequence with missions of capability testing – so the public sees you are getting closer, closer … kind of like the Ranger/Surveyor missions that preceded Apollo.

  4. red says:

    The immediate question is whether or not NASA will do something like their ISS centrifuge demo. Something like that should be achievable, even with SLS/MPCV. However, there are a lot of other worthy ideas competing for the same funding.

    The other demonstrations from the Holderman/Henderson presentation (satellite servicing, lunar ISRU, SEP, depot, SBSP) also sound promising.

  5. Steve says:

    Ambitious? Yes. But in negotiations you always ask for more. I’d be interested in seeing an evolution of vehicles, starting with a Bigelow module and ending in the Nautilus-X (which you have to admit is damn cool.)

  6. Fred Willett says:

    I really like the idea of Nautilus X because it doesn’t have to start out as battlestar Galactia. You can start simple and add bits as you go along.
    The basic piece is just a cylinder with 6 docking ports. One at each end and four around the middle.
    For your first mission beyond LEO you really want to test shielding technologies. All you need is a Bigelow module at one end and a modified centaur upper stage at the other to take you above the Van Allen belt for a while.
    How much will this cost?
    Sure there’s got to be more to it than that, but not much more if you’re smart about it. The biggest problem might be working out standard electrical connections between modules so that the wiring and plumbing doesn’t become the arcane problem it is on ISS. The modules need to be modules. The interconnections minimal and standard.
    If you can work this out before you start then you have a low cost exploration system that can grow as – and only as – you need it.

  7. Gerald R. Everett says:


    I glad you posted your opinion of the Nautilus – X, and I generally agree with your analysis. I do think it is important to note that the American People don’t fund the NASA we have, they fund the NASA they think we have. The NASA they think we have has space ships. On that basis, if no other, it would be beneficial to have the NX as a national space objective toward which we continue to work (with no deadlines).

    Many of the technologies we will need for the NX will be needed for prolonged use of cislunar space. I tend to think that our probable direction in human space flight will be paced by economic utility.
    Brining space into the human economic sphere is a good thing, has worked so far in LEO and Geosynchronous orbits and can be extended to cislunar space and beyond.

    It probably won’t be NASA that builds the NX. If NASA has anything to do with it, it will be as a research organization that contracts for the private construction of NX as a government owned and operated exploration vehicle. That is the one way I can imagine it being built anytime in the next 30 years.

  8. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    I guess another way of putting my concern is that while I think this idea isn’t necessarily a bad one, I’m worried about another monoculture megaproject. Admittedly, we already have Congress pushing for an HLV-based monoculture megaproject, and this would likely be somewhat better. I’m just concerned that if we go down this route, then every other useful project will get distorted to fit the mold of this new approach. Just like how *the* space shuttle was supposed to service *the* space station, which was going to have *the* orbital transfer vehicle, etc.

    I guess it’s one of those where the engineering gets the nerdy side of me excited, but there’s this nagging “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” sensation over all.

  9. nooneofconsequence says:

    Probably due to the authoritarian vs libertarian (or top down vs bottom up) political concern. Big projects are what the authoritarian right (and left) love to consume all available funds without regard to results using different justifications.

    While libertarian thought works more in a “bootstrap” mode. Like with startups.

    Any of these things can be coopted – SLS is an example of where the budget is practically already spent and it hasn’t even been appropriated yet!

    You can do any of these visions in any political footprint – it just needs to be articulated appropriately. I’ll grant that the commercialization aspects necessary for bootstrap here are considerably more complicated given the much more distant economic horizons.

    A near term leverage can come from components and services used to enable such a program like this. Among them, prop depots are present – refueling such a craft would allow its economics of reuse significant improvement to begin with.

  10. A_M_Swallow says:

    We will end up with a spacestation and a spacecraft so we need to plan for two vehicles. A standard connector will make the modules semi-interchangeable. Something learnt from the ISS.

  11. Paul says:

    “Just like how *the* space shuttle was supposed to service *the* space station, which was going to have *the* orbital transfer vehicle,”
    “While libertarian thought works more in a “bootstrap” mode. Like with startups.”
    “A standard connector will make the modules semi-interchangeable.”

    (and others further up)

    It sounds like what everyone wants is a capital-S Standard for capsules. Power’n’plumbing’n’ports. Then it doesn’t matter who makes them. NewSpace/OldSpace/ForeignSpace. As long as they comply with the standard.

    Then you need a wish-list of small demo structures/ships. With each project (potentially) built by a different contractor, or a different country.

    And with useful modules reused between projects, even sold between contractors. (Eg, say you have an ISS-mounted centrifuge module from one project, you buy a couple of modules from a German free-flying mini-station project, add a Russian engine/tank module, and bang, free-flying centrifuge ship demonstrator, as requested.)

    By the time you get to a BEO ship, like Nautilus–X, the contractors would have several generations of standard modules under their belt.

    Plus, like commercial-crew, once you’ve got private fixed-price contractors doing manned launch they can sell their excess capacity to the tourist market, so too any used or “spare” modules can be assembled into low-cost structures suitable for private use.

    It puts NASA in a position of creating new markets. Ones capable of carrying on alone during NASA’s “lean” times. (Instead of either “competing” with commercial aerospace (shuttle), or going off on a tangent with no commercial overlap (heavy-lift.))

  12. Gerald R. Everett says:


    I hear you and surely understand your concerns around the mono
    culture mega project. I think for both technical and budgetary
    reasons, the M&M is about to melt in our hands and not in our
    mouths. We can’t afford it anymore and it will be cut and IF replaced
    by anything, it will be by the technically and economically viable
    solutions. (HLV = large privately built hydrocarbon stack & Capsule =
    Dragon). Nelson et al will take somehing rather than nothing.

    I don’t think that is the end of human space beyond LEO. Just that
    such human space will need to serve valid economic niches. Such as
    GEOS resource maintenance, and junk mitigation. Lunar mineral
    extraction, etc.

    Anything beyond the Van Allen belts will require long stay, artificial
    gravity, and radiation protection. Moreover there will be a synergy
    between the space hab, artificial gravity, and radiation protection
    to mandate the 21 day spiral out to the moon with an electric
    engine (VASMR). You can do some of this stuff with robotics but
    ultimately you need humans on seen to manage the robots. Moreover
    while no one activity may justify human presence the agragate does.

    All this builds toward the NX when NASA is organizationally a Federal
    research and exploration entity and in a place to contract for
    private construction of an exploration vehicle. IF it happens at all
    it will happen organically, over time, and for good economic reason.
    I think it is terrific for NASA to hold the NX carrot out there to keep
    the funding going and to organize the other directed technologies
    for exploration vehicle design. I recommend they name the first NX
    Enterprise with the serial # “NCC -1;->”

    Anyway that is my speculation as to the economic, political, and technical line of least resistance.

    Then there are the Chinese.

  13. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    This concept is incredibly cool. Like you said, it’s a real spaceship. For space. Though it kind of reminds me of Star Trek, where it was too expensive to film a landing scene for every episode so they “invented” the transporter… It would suck to be stuck at Mars orbit or some Lagrange point and have no money left for a lander. But even that would be a far better scenario than not having enough money to get our beloved HLV beyond CDR, or even just having to be satisfied with continuing to keep the then-ancient ISS from falling out of the sky during the 2030s.

    Which brings me to my next point. Besides the centrifuge, this concept is a lot less ambitious than ISS. There’s really no reason this can’t be done. ISS is essentially no different than this concept but on a much larger scale (ISS is nearly 400 tons, while this one would start out at around 40 tons, I’m guessing), except for the fact that ISS can’t realistically travel beyond its current orbit. And I actually think that there are other, less expensive options besides this kind of centrifuge (drugs, better exercise equipment, or a short-arm centrifuge) for mitigating microgravity effects. And I definitely think it’s cool that the Nautilus-X (still only barely a concept) can dock with ISS.

    And the core Nautilus-X probably should be made small enough to fit on an EELV of some sort. No reason it’d need a core larger than a Salyut (which was able to support 2 or 3 cosmonauts for about 7 or 8 months). The ability to expand the spacecraft modularly is a great idea, because that means you can grow (and shrink) the crew capacity to fit your mission. But the core should be small, for two reasons:
    1) You have to put the spacecraft through large delta-vs as you travel around cislunar space and the inner solar system, so you want the mass as low as possible.
    2) A large core is the only item that would require an HLV.

    I’d really be interested to see more technical details of this concept. I’m sure some of the guys behind Nautilus-X have at least a cocktail napkin around with a mass breakdown scribbled on it.

  14. Don Rodrigo says:

    Cool concept, bad R&D philosophy. Until various components that would go into such a vehicle, like the centrifuge and the different propulsion ideas, are more completely and separately tested, building a comprehensive vehicle that incorporates these elements is pure folly.

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