I was invited to give a talk on lunar commerce at a Emerging Space Industry Leaders workshop last week hosted by ULA at their Centennial, Colorado campus, and put on by my friends at Advanced Space LLC and the FAA Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. This workshop was primarily attended by a group of CU Boulder students and young professionals from the area, along with a few folks from ULA, Advanced Space, and myself, and was discussing commercial opportunities leveraging lunar resources. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to be talking at the workshop, several people wanted to hear more about what I presented about, so I figured a blog post or two were in order. In this post I’ll provide my presentation and some notes to go with it, as a lot of the slides are mostly pictures that I spoke to. If I get time, I’ll follow-up with a few short blog posts about some of the new ideas I had either preparing for or participating in this workshop.
First here’s a pdf copy of presentation: ElementsOfACislunarEconomy_1Apr2016
Electrical Analogy of Commerce (slides 3-5):
I started with an electrical analogy to frame the conversation. When you hear people talking about lunar resources, it’s often put in terms of “What could we get from the moon that’s so valuable that it’s worth going all the way there to get it?” As I was thinking about this problem, I realized that historically most trade started out with only the most expensive of goods. In the middle ages, we went to China for silks, rare spices, things like that. Gold and spices were two of the main allures for exploring the Americas, and one of the main things that put California initially on the map for much of America was the gold rush. In a way it makes sense though. If transportation networks are immature, extremely expensive, and extremely dangerous, only the most expensive goods are going to be worth transporting. But over time as transportation networks mature and technology improves, the cost and hassle of moving goods around drops dramatically, and you now start seeing dramatic shifts in commerce. As the price of goods required to drive commerce drops the amount and value of commerce actually dramatically increases. China makes far more off of exporting clothing, Walmart goods, and electronic devices today than it ever did (even inflation adjusted) from exporting luxury goods like silks and spices in the middle ages, even though the average inflation-adjusted value of the average export has decreased dramatically.
My point with respect to lunar resources is that the cost of getting goods to and from the Moon, and shipped throughout cislunar space drops, the scope and value of cislunar commerce is going to skyrocket, and most of the money likely won’t come from shipping the most uber value-dense materials (propellants, PGMs, etc), even if that’s what most are focusing on today.
To segue into the next section, talking about elements I’ve identified that we need to drive down the cost of cislunar commerce, I pointed out that while historically the cost per round-trip ticket to the moon1 has always been in the $500M-1B range, what would happen if that price could be brought down to $20M like tickets to the ISS have been in the past? What about $10M or $1M? As the price of travel to and from the Moon, and throughout Cislunar space goes down, it becomes easier and easier to experiment with new businesses, and for things like tourism and other economic activities that are further removed from mining and resource extraction.
Lowering the Resistance to Cislunar Commerce (slides 6-15)
So how do we get down to the magic $1M/person round-trip ticket? I’m not sure I know entirely how to get there, but there are several elements that seem like they’re critical. In many cases these revolve around an idea a colleague told me about from Amazon’s business model–he called it “looking for zeros.” Basically the idea is can you find a trick that allows you to take a typically required expense column in your business model and zero it out? Amazon apparently found a clever way to zero out inventory holding costs for itself by having suppliers store goods in Amazon’s factories, but only buying them when the customer places an order2.
Here were some of the key ideas I brought up that could help drive the cost of cislunar commerce down to interesting levels:
- Reusable Earth-to-Orbit and In-Space Transportation (slide 7): This one is pretty obvious and may feel like flogging a dead horse, but has a few less obvious points worth mentioning. First, earth-to-orbit reusability can be a two-edge sword, because while lower launch costs can dramatically lower the cost of harvesting lunar and/or NEO resources, launch from earth surface is also the most direct competitor to lunar and NEO-derived resources. The closer you get to the source for a resource (Earth, Moon, or NEOs) the more competitive that source is going to be as the supplier. Lunar and NEO mining advocates often point out that extra-terrestrial resources look really good at existing launch prices, but the question will be how awesome they look as the prices come down. I’m not sure, but it’ll be a fun process to watch. Second, you really want both complete earth-to-orbit reuse and in-space reuse, not just one or the other. I bring this up in part because ULA talks about refueling and reusing ACES in-space but downplays recovering ACES to Earth for earth-to-orbit reuse. Refueling of upper stages does make a lot of sense and opens up some very interesting possibilities when you start moving reusable in-space assets around. But if a payload is being launched from Earth’s surface, like say a satellite, it’s already going to be attached to an upper stage, and in most cases it makes more sense to refuel that stage the payload is already attached to rather than transferring the payload to a previously launched stage. So over time you’re going to end up with a glut of stages on orbit if you don’t also figure out how to recover and reuse upper stages for Earth-to-Orbit launch. I could3 go on, but those two sub-points will suffice for now.
- Knowing How Much Gravity People Need (slide 8): I’ve flogged this topic many times on this blog, particularly in this thread, but you may be wondering what this has to do with lowering the cost of cislunar commerce. One of the observations made many years ago in a Microcosm-led study4 on lowering the cost of lunar settlement was that one of the biggest costs of human bases on the Moon is the assumption that you have to swap crews out every few months. Most baseline plans presented over the years have assumed stays of 3-6 months or less per crew rotation, in some ways analogous to the ISS. Having to pay the tax of shipping everyone home every three months adds up quickly, even if you’re getting the return fuel on the Moon. Being able to extend tours to 1-5year tours of duty would dramatically lower the transportation costs associated with building up a lunar base, and a key prerequisite to making that happen is going to be knowing if humans can adapt well enough to 1/6g for that to be safe. If you assumed lunar gravity was just as bad as microgravity, you’d have a hard time getting approvals for much more than 1yr tours of duty, even if you made the other changes Microcosm suggested. But if it turns out that 1/6g is much closer to 1g healthiness-wise, longer stays would be practical. Especially in early days when transportation costs are the highest, allowing initial crew to stay longer I think will be critical to lowering the cost of getting a permanent toehold on the Moon. Imagine what colonizing the west would’ve been like if you had to send all your pioneers back East every 3-6 months! There’s also an intriguing market I realized could come out of all of this, but that’s a blog post for another day.
- Depots/Distributed Launch (slide 9): This one I’ve also flogged a lot on this blog. But in addition to being a key enabler for lower-cost transportation, and for fully-reusable in-space vehicles, Distributed Launch and Depots will likely be a key market for lunar resources as well. And yes, those pictures are both original Altius artwork. If we had the kind of backing of a Bigelow or a SpaceX, we’d be primarily focused on bringing depots and distributed launch to market. As it is, we have to bootstrap and take a much longer, more circuitous route, but I wanted it to be clear that at least someone is trying to work this problem.
- Atmospheric Gathering (slide 10): Back when Bernard, Dallas, and I presented our propellant depot paper at AIAA SPACE 2009, the paper session we were in included a paper about orbital atmospheric gathering. The idea is to create a spacecraft that could fly in a lowish orbit, scoop-up some fraction of the particles it collides with, capture, compress, and sort those particles, and spit some of them out the back fast enough to overcome the drag. If you could make this crazy idea work, you could harvest atmospheric gases without having to launch them from Earth, potentially saving tons of money in the long-run. The idea has been around at least since the PROFAC concept was proposed 60yrs ago, though that concept required a nuclear reactor flying around at 100km altitude, which is a little bit too crazy even for me. I won’t go into the technical challenges for atmospheric gathering in this post, but I think I’ve finally hit on a solution to one of the hardest, so I’m starting to pay more attention to the concept. If such a technology can be made to work, it might be able to provide a cheaper source of at least LOX in low earth orbit, basically zeroing or nearly-zeroing out the cost of launching that LOX. Like RLVs, this is a two-edge sword, as this both lowers the cost of getting to/from the Moon, but would also compete with lunar propellants.
- Aerobraking/Aerocapture (slide 11): This is another hobby horse of mine, especially with the work we started doing supporting MSNW on their Magnetoshell Aerocapture technology development a few years ago. Zeroing out most of the propellant cost of braking into LEO is a huge cost savings for reusable in-space vehicles. If you want to reuse things in-space, you have to actually stop in orbit, not just letting most of the stuff burn up while your crew returns in a tiny capsule. And stopping in LEO on the way back from the Moon takes just as much delta-V as doing a trans-lunar injection in the first place. Doing this propulsively with LOX/LH2 cuts your payload from the Moon in half, doubling the cost/kg of propellant or materials delivered to LEO. If you can do this via aerocapture/aerobraking, especially with something that can do it in 1-2 passes, and doesn’t weigh a large fraction of your spacecraft dry mass, the cost of bringing stuff back from the Moon or elsewhere cuts in half almost immediately. It also leads to my next hobby horse: real spaceships.
- Real Spaceships (slide 12): While this has been in my mind for years, I don’t know if I’ve ever really gotten into this on Selenian Boondocks like I’ve wanted to. If you look at most space architectures over the past 50-60 years (outside of science fiction), they’ve always assumed that you carry a reentry capsule with you, and toss almost everything away along the way. I think the Apollo engineers called this the disintegrating totem pole approach. Even approaches that have used aerobraking/aerocapture have had to look like big reentry vehicles. But between solar electric propulsion and/or technologies like magnetoshell aerocapture, you may now be able to have vehicles that look nothing like an aerodynamic reentry shape that can shuttle repeatedly between Earth and other deep space destinations (the Moon, Mars, NEOs, Venus, etc). Some of these may be exploration vehicles, so may be passenger cyclers, so may be cargo haulers. But I think real spaceships are going to be an important part of lowering the cost of at least passenger travel throughout cislunar space. Right now reentry vehicles tend to have very high launched mass per person. But what if you could leave most of the long-duration life support and accommodations mass on a cycler instead of the vehicle you have to haul to/from earth orbit? What if your earth-to-orbit passenger launcher had people packed in more like an aircraft, then you transferred (via another aircraft-packing-density vehicle) to a cycler that had your train or ocean liner like accommodations for the several day trip out to the Moon. You could leave the most massive elements looping around in cycler orbits and only have to accelerate/decelerate5 much lighter transfer pods, zeroing out a lot of the costs inherent with moving people around. If you design the cyclers to be modular, you can build them up over time, starting with rather modest vehicles, and growing them bigger and bigger as flight demand increases. I should probably save more for future blog posts.
- In-Situ Resource Utilization (slide 13): You’re not going to get cislunar transportation costs low without using lunar resources for at least propellant. Enough said.
- Human/Robotic Teams (slide 14): While I don’t think anyone these days is dumb enough to suggest trying to setup a lunar base without using robots to help the people, there are plenty of people silly enough to suggest having robots do all of the work before the people get there. I’m still very skeptical of the ability of robots to affordably handle the complex tasks of setting up a lunar propellant mining, processing, and shipping operation without at least a few people there. And even if it is somehow possible, I’m skeptical that it’s going to be cheaper and faster than a mix of robots and people working together6. I just think that robots make crappy people and people make crappy robots. The optimal mix is likely going to be many robotic minions7 per person, but having at least a few mechanically/electrically inclined people and a well-stocked machine shop is going to make things go amazingly smoother than trying to do this with just robots, IMO.
- Propellantless Lunar Launch and/or Landing (slide 15): I still need to finish my “Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Lunar Transportation Schemes” series, but finding a way to find a zero with landing and/or launching objects from the lunar surface is going to be important in driving down cislunar transportation costs. While there are some great reusable-rocket lunar lander ideas out there, like the Masten/ULA XEUS vehicle, finding a way to eventually get around the rocket equation for getting stuff up and down at the Moon is going to be a must if the Moon wants to be competitive in the long-term. Right now two of the biggest advantages NEOs have over the Moon is that prospecting can theoretically be done using small, low-cost micro- and maybe even nanosatellites, and that return delta-V can often be a lot lower8. Finding a way to at least get raw materials off the Moon without using rockets can negate that second benefit. Finding ways to land things safely on the Moon without propellant can dramatically lower the cost of setting up infrastructure. Eventually getting to safe ways to land and launch people without using propellant is the real holy grail, and is probably required if you ever want to get round-trip ticket prices down to $1M or less. That’s all nice you may be saying, but is that even remotely possible? I think so. But more on that when I actually get back to that blog series.
Can all of those pieces working together really get the cost of a round-trip ticket below $20M? $10M? $1M? I’m not sure, but I think so. Hopefully over the next several years on Selenian Boondocks I can find more time to pursue these various threads in more detail9.
Lunar Resources (slides 16-17)
I won’t go into detail on every item on this slide, but do have a few points I tried to make:
- I explicitly didn’t mention Helium-3. I think this is way oversold as a primary resource worth extracting on the Moon. The one fusion-power company that I think is credibly pushing using Helium-3 fusion (Helion Energy–a spinoff from MSNW) has a method they think can let them breed the Helium-3 from Deuterium. That said, during the discussion, it came up that there are existing, non-fusion energy terrestrial markets for Helium-3 and they never have enough of it. I don’t know how much demand there really is, but if you’re already strip-mining the lunar surface for other reasons, you might be able to sell a little He-3 on the side… maybe.
- With all of the recent interest and development in metal 3d printing, the fact that there are meteoric nickel/iron particles in the lunar regolith that may be magnetically separatable could lead to an interesting 3d printing feedstock, if someone isn’t already looking into how to extract, purify, and print with those materials already.
- I still think suitability for tourism and related industries is a seriously underappreciated resource for the Moon, especially as costs come down. The Moon has the “resource” of “location, location, location” going for it–it is really the only planetary destination off-earth that can be visited and returned from in less than a month. While a small number of rich adventurers have historically done very long vacations like African Safaris, the ability to go, have fun, and come back in a reasonable period of time is going to make a big difference in my opinion. One of the biggest deterrents to current orbital tourism on ISS has been not the cost, but the necessity to drop everything for 6 months of training in Russia. Most rich people are also busy people, and even with the most unrealistically amazing propulsion concepts on the books today, you’re probably talking at least a few months round-trip to go to Mars. For the foreseeable future, Mars will get settlers, while the Moon will get visitors10.
Cis-Lunar Markets (slides 18-23)
Paul Breed made the point yesterday that “When Guttenberg invented the printing press, he had no idea that Shakespeare would come along.” Ie that it’s often almost impossible to truly identify the true end-uses of new innovations. That said, while being a rather speculative endeavor, there are at least some concepts for markets of cislunar commerce that I think are worth discussing. By markets of cislunar commerce, I mean a market that involves leveraging in some way at least one lunar resource, instead of being entirely sourced from Earth. As each of these markets could be a blog post (or blog series of their own), I’m going to keep things high level so this blog post doesn’t end up too much longer than it already is:
- On-orbit Manufactured Spacecraft (slide 19): The vast majority of economic activity in space to-date has involved “photon handling” of one sort or another–i.e. telecommunications, earth observation, and navigation. While all of the spacecraft used for these applications have so far been built on the ground, there are several groups who have identified the potential of on-orbit assembled spacecraft that are too big to be launched in once piece from the ground. Of all the things we could manufacture profitably in space, spacecraft seem like one of the most likely options. One of the more interesting ideas I’ve had is a spacecraft with enough power and aperture area11 to enable replacing rural cellphone towers. I’m not a telecomms expert, but AIUI, if you can throw a big enough aperture at it, you can receive even the faint signal from a terrestrial cellphone, and if you can throw enough aperture and power at it, you can send a spotbeam down with similar received power at the cellphone to what you’d receive from the cell tower. It always seemed to me that a big part of why satellite telephony took off was that cellphones got small a lot faster, and if you could have an existing cellphone switch from local cells to orbital ones when outside of the city, it seems like it would make things a lot easier than having tens or hundreds of thousands of rural cellphone towers throughout the world. If you can get the cost of materials and propellant from the Moon below the cost of launching them from Earth, this could be a big market for lunar resources. While that maybe hard to beat in LEO, for big GEO platforms, the Moon might have more of a fighting chance of beating even 2nd or 3rd generation RLVs.
- Space Solar Power (slide 20): I won’t dismiss space solar power out of hand, but I’m pretty skeptical it will be able to compete with advances in nuclear fission or fusion as time goes on. People talk about powering remote bases and such, but those are precisely the places where you’d rather have an intermodal cargo container sized advanced nuclear plant rather than a large rectenna. The areas where space solar power are least unlikely to happen12 are areas where advanced nuclear would have a hard time, such as supersonic electric aircraft like I discussed in a previous blog post. There are a lot of details to be investigated to see if even these applications make sense, but they seem more likely than traditional baseload space solar power concepts. Especially if you can find a way to collocate them with and leverage the apertures you were using for telecommunications–the biggest benefit over batteries will be for transoceanic flights, which is precisely when a telecomm satellite has the least customers to service.
- Propellant (slide 21): I’ve already talked about this a lot in this blog post. But it does really seem like things could change dramatically if distributed launch13 becomes an accepted launch operation. You might see a lot more direct GSO insertion missions instead of having the spacecraft use chemical or electric propulsion for orbit-raising from GTO to GEO. Not having to pack so much performance into every flight would allow more margins for engine-out or underperformance, or for launch vehicle reuse. The challenge is going to be if lunar resources can compete with RLVs and atmospheric gathering for the LEO market, because that’s probably where the biggest demand will be.
- Settlement/Tourism (slide 22): One of the bigger lunar market will be supporting settlement and tourism throughout Cis-lunar space and beyond. I have a blog post I want to write tomorrow about a new (at least for me) angle that could potentially help drive at least LEO settlement. Similar considerations to the other two markets will apply though–the closer the resources are to the Moon, the more likely the Moon can be the best source for providing those resources. This is why lunar tourism is such an interesting market for lunar development, IMO.
- Cyclers (slide 23): As I discussed previously under “real spaceships”, I think cyclers are going to be critical for any large-scale transportation of people to destinations like Mars. The idea of launching and landing and then relaunching all of the mass needed for Mars transit every time seems really, really silly to me. A modular, upgradeable, in-space only cycler system where for a given trip most of what you launch each time is just the people and goods they’re taking with them seems to make far more sense to me. If such an approach is taken, lunar materials could once again play a key role.
Anyhow, that’s a really long-winded version of my presentation, but it captures a lot of my thinking that I haven’t had a chance to fully discuss here on Selenian Boondocks yet, so I figured I’d share.
Latest posts by Jonathan Goff (see all)
- NASA’s Selection of the Blue Moon Lander for Artemis V - May 25, 2023
- Fill ‘er Up: New AIAA Aerospace America Article on Propellant Depots - September 2, 2022
- Independent Perspectives on Cislunar Depotization - August 26, 2022
- I used ticket price as a metric instead of $/kg though technically the two are pretty heavily interrelated.
- I may be mangling that a bit–it’s a second hand anecdote
- and almost certainly will
- Wertz, J., “Architecture for Developing an Economically Viable International, Large-Scale Lunar Colony.” IAF Specialists Symposium on Novel Concepts for Smaller, Faster, Better Space Missions April 19-21, 1999, Redondo Beach, CA
- Because you only really have to spend rocket propellant when you go to accelerate or decelerate something relative to its unpowered trajectory. Inertia can sometimes be your friend.
- At least if the people are handled in a smart way–there are ways of making crew transportation far more expensive than it needs to be. See: NASA’s Commercial Crew program
- I picked that up as a humorous term of endearment from a friend from NASA. As he put it, minions are trusted assistants who are competent enough to be given some level of autonomy, unlike peons. Hopefully in the robotic uprising the robots find a way to program-in a sense of humor. :-)
- A third is that theoretically resources can be a lot more concentrated, with shorter mining distances required
- and with more numbers and less handwavium
- though possibly some settlers as well if it turns out that humans can safely adapt to lunar gravity levels
- The term of art used in the industry for satellite dishes
- See what I did there?
- i.e. launching a spacecraft to LEO, tanking up the upper stage from some source, and then doing the burn to high-LEO, MEO, GEO, or beyond, instead of just building a bigger and bigger rocket to try and meet all needs in a single earth launch