Random Thoughts: Throwing the Moon a Bone

[Note: This blog post was originally planned to be something significantly longer, triggered by one of Eric Berger’s recent Ars Technica articles1. But running a bootstrapped startup gave me the choice of waiting until this was totally irrelevant, or saying something less comprehensive now. I went with the latter.]

One of the space policy ideas that has been getting a lot of air-time recently, particularly with the change in presidential administrations, is that NASA should abandon its Asteroid Redirect Mission and so-called Journey to Mars for a return to the Moon instead. You would think that as someone whose website name more or less means the “lunar back country,” that I would be a huge fan of that idea. But really, I’d rather that Congress and the Trump administration stick with their Journey to Mars, and only “throw the Moon a bone.”

By throwing the Moon a bone, I mean some level of NASA involvement that is greater than benign neglect, but less than being its core focus. Why? Because when NASA picks something as a core focus, it tends to attract all of the NASA centers and their special interests and pet projects out of the woodwork, trying to find some way to be involved, even if it doesn’t make sense. But programs that aren’t core or flagship programs, that get just enough support to actually happen without becoming another “10 healthy centers” make-work project, they sometimes get real things done. I’m thinking of things like COTS, or like the competed SMD missions. So, I’d rather NASA keep its manned spaceflight program focused on an indefinite “Journey to Mars,” with NASA centers fighting over development of some big Mars mission elements like deep space habs, Mars landers, or something else like that, while keeping lunar involvement lower key.

One idea would be to do something like COTS for the Moon, as part of supporting ESA’s Lunar Village concept. Basically do a public/private partnership with 2-3 companies to develop moderate-sized (1-20mT) unmanned cargo landers to the Moon, followed by a modest CRS-like cargo delivery contract. Have that, and possibly the use of a cislunar deep space hab be our contribution to the Lunar Village. If SLS/Orion survive the axe, maybe we could also throw in providing crew transport to the Moon as well. But let ESA develop the crew lander2 and the base facilities. With the commitment of US provided logistics, and possibly crew transport to a cislunar orbital habitat, that should be encouragement enough to ESA and Russia etc to develop the rest. Ironically, that would have the US in a way playing a somewhat similar role for the Lunar Village to what Russia has been doing with Soyuz and Progress for ISS.

In return for us providing cargo deliveries, and possibly some part of the crew deliveries, NASA could ask for one of the crew landing on any given lunar mission be American (much as ESA and JAXA get to send a crew member in exchange for ATV and HTV deliveries), and having some subset of the crew time on the surface dedicated to NASA research and US commercial lunar efforts. Like ISS, they could set aside a useful fraction of the lunar cargo and crew time to be provided to commercial entities trying to prove out lunar ISRU, prospecting, propellantless launch/landing technologies, or other items related to lunar commerce. I’m just thinking about all of the technologies necessary for lunar resources to become useful to humanity–the prospecting, mining, refining, propellantless launching, etc. Imagine how much easier it would be to develop say a lunar ice mining system, if you had access to a little bit of crew support time as needed, without having to cover the full cost of getting the crew there. Without something like lunar village, the cost of having people in the loop would be prohibitive, so you’d be forced to try and do everything robotically. But the mix of robots with a tiny bit of crew time to handle the small subset of tasks that would take the vast majority of the effort to fully automate seems really promising.

My worry is that if the Moon becomes NASA’s core focus again, that NASA will insist on doing core elements in-house, like resurrecting the monstrosity previously known as LSAM to go after a manned lander. If we want to go back to the Moon in a way that doesn’t amount to little more than reheated Apollo leftovers, having the Moon be a secondary priority might actually better than being the main show.

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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.
  1. Eric is tied with Jeff Foust for being my favorite space policy writer
  2. Which could theoretically be an ascent stage or lunar ejector seat concept attached to the cargo landers
This entry was posted in Commercial Crew, Commercial Space, COTS, Lunar Commerce, Lunar Exploration and Development, Random Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Random Thoughts: Throwing the Moon a Bone

  1. ken anthony says:

    You may have just hit on a generally true concept. “The less government focuses on a thing the more it benefits it!”

    I’d like to see the moon developed, but the vision to do it with available resources doesn’t seem to exist? A lunar lander that doesn’t leave half itself behind should not be that difficult. Anybody making such a vehicle could probably lease it out for profit.

    A scaled up Dragon with more fuel capacity could probably do it except it uses the wrong fuel for a lunar SSTO.

  2. Andrew Swallow says:

    Putting a spacestation in orbit around the Moon would make loading, refuelling and
    repairing the reusable landers considerably easier.

    Reducing the payload and stretching the fuel tanks would permit Cygnus and Dragon to reach the lunar orbit spacestation. This is also an ideal journey for a reusable SEP tug.

  3. DougSpace says:

    Jon, Would you consider signing my LunarCOTS.com petition? Doug Plata, MD

  4. Any Mouse says:

    The trick, really, is to make the core mission of NASA something that they never get a chance to really focus on, but manage to hit a series of beneficial “side missions” along the way. It’s a bit like a dog chasing after a rabbit.

    If you have the dog chasing after a mechanical rabbit at a track, the dog will keep covering more and more ground. If you have a real rabbit, then the dog catches it and you just end up with a bloody mess.

  5. If NASA would concentrate on the technologies needed for deep-space travel, ISRU, human health in space, methods for landing and living on other objects in the solar system, and the logistical challenges of becoming a spacefaring civilization, it wouldn’t really matter whether its goal was Mars or the Moon. The technology would drive the missions, rather than the missions driving the technology.

    That’s probably not a strategy that would be much fun to defend in front of a congressional subcommittee, but neither is sinking $30B into a Mars mission only to discover that you didn’t really do much to enable the aforementioned spacefaring civilization.

  6. Andrew Swallow says:

    Alternatively start with a Moon (or Mars) base and work back to the technologies needed to build and operate the base. A Moon base is a collection of building and looks like a village, which is something Congressmen can understand.

  7. Paul451 says:

    ken anthony,
    “You may have just hit on a generally true concept. “The less government focuses on a thing the more it benefits it!” “

    Given that Jon wants something like the entirely government funded COTS to play a role in the entirely government funded ESA “Lunar Village”, then no.

    “Anybody making such a vehicle could probably lease it out for profit.”

    Lease it to whom?

    Andrew Swallow,
    “Putting a spacestation in orbit around the Moon would make loading, refuelling and repairing the reusable landers considerably easier.”

    Only if that space station is in any way compatible with that role. Try suggesting using ISS to do staging and refuelling.

    Jon,
    Re: the main article.
    “something like COTS for the Moon, as part of supporting ESA’s Lunar Village concept.”

    But it’s hard to see the new administration agreeing to the US supporting any European effort.

  8. Andrew Swallow says:

    Only if that space station is in any way compatible with that role. Try suggesting using ISS to do staging and refuelling.

    The ISS would be great for staging – lots of docking ports and arms to move the cargo across. Although all the movements would mess up the microgravity experiments.

    Any space station would have to be designed for the function.

  9. gbaikie says:

    Re: Throwing the Moon a Bone

    I think throwing the Moon a bone would be exploring to the Moon to determine if there is minable water on the Moon. And I think a “reheat” of Apollo is fine. Or there is no reason for NASA to build a lunar base before it’s determined if there is minable lunar water and in addition the “reheat” of Apollo, it would begin with establishing a depot in LEO which is used in lunar exploration. So should do redo Apollo but use a depot to explore the Moon and likewise major part of Apollo began with robotic exploration of the Moon.
    For there to be minable lunar water, one needs to know if there areas [small areas] which have a higher amount of water concentration, and one needs to mine large amounts of water- hundreds of tons per year. And to mine large amount of lunar water one needs depots in space- or you don’t need a lunar base. Though if lunar water is mined, one could cause one get lunar bases.
    NASA should begin Lunar and Mars exploration by first establishing a depot which can transfer LOX in LEO.
    In nearer term NASA should use the depot to refuel lunar and Mars robotic exploration missions. Crewed lunar missions follow the lunar robotic exploration- such crewed mission would be like Apollo crewed missions except they differ in that they use the LOX depot on LEO. These crewed lunar exploration could have less crewed mission as compared to Apollo- something like 2 to 4 manned lunar landing.
    After these manned lunar missions, the next crewed exploration would be at Mars.

    Mars exploration can also use LOX depot in LEO and will first have Mars robotic missions which would prepare for such crewed mars exploration. And a focus of Lunar and Mars exploration is not to have down time between these exploration efforts- so for example one would begin Mars robotic missions while wrapping up the crewed lunar exploration. Lunar exploration program can occur while ISS program is being funded, but by the time crewed Mars missions begin, one will have winded down the ISS program- at least in terms of it’s 3 billion yearly cost. Though ISS re-supply aspect can continue as rocket fuel deliveries which supports the Lunar and Mars exploration programs.
    I think Lunar exploration program should have total cost of about 40 billion and such cost includes LOX depot at LEO. It would involve more than a dozen robotic mission and a few lunar crewed missions. The 40 billion total also includes using SLS- or lunar program cost could have been cheaper than 40 billion, if not for existence of SLS program. And lunar program begins and ends within a 10 year [or less] time period.
    Now by time of 2025, SLS may or may not have been terminated. It’s also possible that Congress may decide somewhere around the time of 2025 to fund such things as lunar bases or whatever. But the Lunar and Mars exploration programs would not require much increase to NASA total yearly budget. Or 4 billion for 10 year is 40 billion dollars and not talking about increasing NASA budget by 4 billion dollars per year, rather NASA already has built in costs which would be counted as part the lunar program costs

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