The more I think about the Lunar One-Way-to-Stay concept, the more intriguing it is. Fundamentally, it’s one of the only ways with existing transportation systems to get the cost of early lunar experimentation anywhere near low-enough to be useful and interesting. Ultimately, for thriving two-way cislunar commerce, you need tugs, and depots, and high-flightrate RLVs. But this approach might allow you to work the problem from both ends.
As far as implementing this idea, the technology isn’t the hard part. Technologically, this is something that could’ve been done in the 70s. Modern technology and modern launch services make it a whole lot easier and more feasible, but the technology isn’t the key obstacle. Money is and always has been the biggest obstacle. But I think I have an idea, and it’s just crazy enough that I want to share it.
Any business plan whose first step is “first we convince a billionaire to give us lots of money” usually deserves to be laughed off the stage. But this isn’t a business plan competition entry, or some pitch before VCs that I’m demanding to be taken seriously, so I’m going to suggest just that. Even with a wealthy philantrocapitalist, I think you’d still want a concept that both gives you a reasonable chance of making the money back if things go well as well as minimizing your losses if it doesn’t work out.
Anyhow, this is a bit of a long-shot, and definitely not fully-baked, but here’s what I have so far. The business case revolves around a few core concepts:
- A privately developed simple lander and an ITAR approved method for launching it on both US and domestic launchers.
- Using barter with various space agencies with domestic medium-lift vehicles to provide both the startup launches and the sustaining launches
- Making revenue off of selling remaining space to corporations, research institutions, and smaller countries that are interested in lunar experiments, but lack indigenous launch capabilities
- Possibly offsetting initial lander development by selling rover delivery services to NASA or other large space agencies.
Some of these sound a bit crazy, so why don’t I explain them in turn.
The key technology piece in the project is obviously the lander. As discussed before, I’m thinking of something in the 10-20klb IMLEO range, with a payload in the 4-6klb range. The propellant combination for the lander doesn’t hugely matter. It could use storables like Martijn likes, it could use space storables like LOX/Methane or LOX/Propane. Heck, it could even use LOX/LH2. While the state of the VTVL industry isn’t quite mature enough where you could just order one of these custom and have it delivered to your launch pad 6 months ARO, a lander in these capability ranges isn’t a huge stretch for the commercial space industry, especially if they can partner wisely with some of the more traditional space companies or work with NASA via Space Acts. DC-X was actually a much bigger, probably more complicated system, and was done by a traditional aerospace company for around $100M in current dollars. A bare-bones lander, developed leveraging the emerging capabilities in the entrepreneurial community could probably be fielded for less than that. Possibly in the $50M range. You don’t need to push too hard on mass fractions or engine performance (you need to push a bit, but it isn’t as weight critical as some of the Apollo LM systems), and the technology is a lot more mature than it was in the 60s.
An important part of this process is not just developing the lander, but also working from the start with ITAR to make sure a process is in place that will allow you to launch on as many international launch vehicles as is feasible. This may not be fun, but is probably doable with appropriate precautions.
Most space agencies prefer to spend money within their own borders, and interact with other agencies on a barter basis as much as possible. While this can sometimes lead to suboptimal solutions, it might just work in this situation. On the launch side, the barter would go something like this–the private entity would provide a lander, all lander ops, and physical launch integration work, and the space agency (NASA, ESA, RSA, JAXA, ISRO, or CNSA) would provide the lifter and upper stage for the mission. The launching country would get a certain share of the lander’s cargo space for their own experiments, a certain portion would be reserved for consumables and spare parts, and the remainder would be owned by the private entity to resell to other countries without launch capabilities (say a 40/40/20 split). In addition to transportation of the space hardware, the launching country would also get a share of the astronaut’s time on the surface. So basically you’re providing them with transportation and manned experimentation on the lunar surface in exchange for them providing a launch done by their own people. If one of the countries is willing to take some additional risks, they could even “buy” one of the two initial astronaut slots, in exchange say for a commitment to a certain higher share of the logistics launches per year. In exchange they’d get both the prestige of having one of the initial lunar crew, as well as a higher share in the available time. Over time, as the risk decreases, the initial crew could also be expanded (once again on barter terms that would have the agency in question shouldering a larger share of the required launches).
It should be mentioned how crazy of a bargain this really is for them in comparison to the typical lunar mission approach. Look at Constellation. It will be a lot more capable, but ultimately, somewhere around $10B/yr (and about $150B up-front), you get 4-person years/yr (2x 4-man crew rotations) and about 75klb of cargo (2x 17mT landings) on the moon once you have a base setup. Calling it a 60/40 split on costs (for manned vs cargo flights), that comes out to $1.5B per person-year, and about $53k/lb on the lunar surface–ignoring development costs. With a program like this, say you gave a country 1/4 of a man-year per launch, and about 1800lb, at a cost to them of call it a $200M launcher plus extra upper stage for the transfer. Splitting that $200M the same way (60/40), that gives you $480M per person year, and about $45k/lb on the surface. You don’t save a huge amount per pound of cargo on the surface, but your cost per person hour is about 1/4 as much (which is once again not too surprising–you’re not rotating crews, and not having to carry enough propellant to get them home–which takes about 4x as much mass per mission compared to a one-way manned landing). And you don’t have to spend tens of billions up-front, and you can buy your lunar program “by-the-slice”. Paying for an extra launch every year (and some lunar systems costs) is well within the budget capabilities of many of these agencies. While they might not be willing to take the risk of flying their own astronauts, or of “owning” the program, they are a lot more likely to be interested in a program like this, where someone else is shouldering the key risks, and they’re just getting a cheap deal. Even if they have their own lunar ambitions down the road, using a service like this would allow them to drastically reduce their technological risk moving forward, and might allow them to get a lot more benefit out of their investment when they eventually get that capability themselves.
One of the key markets Bigelow is looking at for his inflatable space habitats is providing smaller countries with a way to participate in space for much cheaper than trying to do everything in-house themselves. By lowering the cost to participate, it makes it a lot more feasible for smaller countries, and even some corporations or research institutions to participate. This may be a country like South Korea wanting to send a rover that can get maintained by the astronauts over time. It may be a country wanting to do its own sample return mission–with the ability to have a human on the ground helping to presort/preprocess samples to maximize the bang for the buck. It could be a company like Catepillar that wants to get involved in lunar surface systems for future exploration programs sending a bunch of bearing concepts to test exposed to the lunar environment. It could be some small startup that has a crazy idea for lunar dust mitigation that it wants to try selling to future government programs, but needs testing and debugging first. There are many possibilities. The key here is that since the launch is already paid for, the private entity running all this can price the payloads however makes the most sense. You do need to cover lander costs, ground-ops costs, and the time of the scientists, but it might be possible to offer these slots at a price that is lower than they could buy commercially to try and stimulate demand, or if there is enough demand already you could price it high enough to make a decent profit. If there’s enough demand, you might even be able to justify paying for an additional “purely commercial” flight or two per year. You would want to save up some of the money to cover contingencies–like if something breaks down and you have to fly an emergency resupply flight on short notice, or if you decide for one reason or another to throw-in-the-towel after a few years, you can send enough propellant to get the settlers home. But depending on the interest level, this could easily be a business that has revenues in the low hundreds of millions per year.
Minimizing the Initial Risk
One additional market for the lander, and one that could allow the initial investment to be recovered a lot faster, would be to see if you could sell it to one of the space agencies for landing a rover or some other scientific package. The key here is that the lander is getting developed, on the philantrocapitalist’s own dime regardless of if he can presell any lander slots. This makes it easier to sell it as a commercially available service instead of a government funded development program. Using a light Atlas vehicle for instance (maybe with one or two strapons) you could probably short-load the vehicle enough to put a couple hundred pounds of useable payload onto the lunar surface. For a bundled price of say $200-250M for the launcher and lander, it would still be a steal transportation-wise for your customer, but could possibly pay off the initial costs of the project in one shot, even before the initial landings. The good news is that while its great if you can presell the landers for other applications, it isn’t the end of the world if you can’t.
One other way of minimizing the downside may be to see if you can prearrange the initial several launches. If you can line up enough international partners, it may be possible to get the initial setup done without having to actually buy any of the launches yourself. You’d still have to pay for the landers, but this way your total capital at risk for the startup is only the cost of 3-4 landers.
Anyhow, comments? thoughts? attempts to send nice young men in their clean white jackets to cart a certain space blogger away?