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.