ESIL-8 Elements of Lunar Commerce Presentation

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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. 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.
    9. 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.

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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 the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. 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. I used ticket price as a metric instead of $/kg though technically the two are pretty heavily interrelated.
  2. I may be mangling that a bit–it’s a second hand anecdote
  3. and almost certainly will
  4. 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
  5. 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.
  6. 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
  7. 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. :-)
  8. A third is that theoretically resources can be a lot more concentrated, with shorter mining distances required
  9. and with more numbers and less handwavium
  10. though possibly some settlers as well if it turns out that humans can safely adapt to lunar gravity levels
  11. The term of art used in the industry for satellite dishes
  12. See what I did there?
  13. 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
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

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 the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. 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.
This entry was posted in Altius Space Machines, Business, Commercial Space, ISRU, Launch Vehicles, Lunar Commerce, Lunar Exploration and Development, MHD Aerobraking and TPS, NASA, NEOs, Propellant Depots, Space Development, Space Settlement, Space Transportation, SpaceX, Technology, ULA, Variable Gravity. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to ESIL-8 Elements of Lunar Commerce Presentation

  1. The predicted time limits beyond the Earth for significant bone loss in humans that could cause skeletal fractures is:

    Space (microgravity) – 36 weeks (60 weeks with exercise)

    Moon (1/6 gravity) – 96 weeks

    Mars (2/5 gravity) – 159 weeks

    With exercise, it might be conservatively assumed that humans could remain healthy on the surface of the Moon for nearly four years. Whether vigorous exercise on the surface of the Moon or Mars could totally alleviate the deleterious effects of low gravity is the question, IMO.

    This is why I believe that multiyear stays for humans on the lunar surface (at least four years or more) should be a NASA priority in order to find out if humans can adjust to low gravity environments. The long term health and reproduction of fish, chickens, and hogs on the lunar surface might also be of interest.


    Living and Reproducing on Low Gravity Worlds

  2. Marcel,
    I’m skeptical of any research that claims to understand how humans will adapt to hypogravity. Bed rest has proven a reasonably good analog for zero gravity, but without any actual hypogravity data to compare to, I’m skeptical that we can really claim modified bed rest is a good analog for hypogravity environments. It might be, but when you can only verify effects at the two extremes, you really can’t say anything with confidence about the curvature in the middle.

    Long way of saying that I agree with you that we should be trying longer-duration lunar missions (once we get people flying there). There’s no reason to suspect it will be worse than microgravity, and Scott Kelly and others have shown how 1yr durations in microgravity seem feasible with exercise, as you’ve pointed out.

    That said, I’d love to get some honest-to-goodness hypogravity data, using something like xGRF, to see how well actual hypogravity test subject adaptation behavior matches the adaptation behavior of subjects in simulated simulated bed rest.


  3. Helium 3 demand might go up if niobium based quantum computers take off. I was a solder monkey at a lab looking at those early in my undergrad career and most of the cost of our setup was in the He3 in the dilution refrigerator.

  4. Warren Platts says:

    There could exist exotic transport mechanisms in the lunar environment that we don’t see on Earth that could concentrate precious metal ores, such as differential electrostatic dust transport resulting in electrostatic placer deposits of gold and silver. cf. Platts, Boucher & Gladstone (2013):

    Heck, you really wouldn’t even have to bring it back. Just set up a bullion vault on the Moon, and it could trade on the world’s gold market.

  5. Warren Platts says:

    Speaking of Lunar markets, judging from the Panama Papers, there seems to be a big demand for offshore banking and places to register shell companies! 😉

    As for satellite manufacturing, there might be defense applications, such as a 100,000 or more unit constellation of “brilliant pebbles” that could provide full-spectrum defense of cislunar space.

    And speaking of “cislunar”, am I the only one that winces whenever I hear or see it? There’s always a lot of talk about making a Earth-Moon transportation infrastructure that would be analogous to the transcontinental railroad in the US. Notice it’s called the *trans*continental railroad. Who ever heard of a ciscontinental railroad??? Technically, ciscontinental is correct, as the railroad does not extend beyond the coast of the continent. But the railroad did more than link New York to San Francisco. It also linked up the east coast with Asia, and the west coast with Europe.

    As for ‘cislunar’, it’s not even technically correct: any Earth-Moon infrastructure will no doubt have components at the L2 point: the L2 point is not between the Earth and the Moon, and so fails the definition of ‘cislunar’.

    “Translunar” has a much more transcendent, shall we say, ring to it, it would include the L2 point, and it captures the idea that the transportation infrastructure would link more than just the Earth and the Moon. E.g., the L2 point is an ideal jumping off point for departing to Mars. A single stage, reusable, true spaceship with enough propellant could have a delta v of up to 11 km/sec. If topped off with Lunar propellant at the L2 point, it could conceivably get the travel time to Mars down to on the order of 3 months.

  6. gbaikie says:

    Lot’s of stuff here. But I will pick part about space power:
    “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. ”

    Roughly speaking I would say space power starts at lunar poles- where one can easily get constant sunlight allowing 24 hour, 365 days of year of electrical power- though it’s significantly reduced when you have lunar eclipses [Earth blocking the sun].

    One can also get in the beginning a significant amount of solar space power in Earth high orbits and one could also start with the 80% of time with sunlight at single polar locations of the ethereal peaks of lights.
    So start with one peak, then link it to two or more ethereal peaks of light locations to get constant sunlight for the grid, then as one need more electrical power it become more about encircling the entire lunar pole region and one has essentially an unlimited source of solar energy [or a larger electrical market larger than Earth currently has].

    So space solar power starts at lunar poles, but when one talks of space solar power, one generally referring to solar power harvested from Space and somehow transmitting this energy to Earth surface.
    And for electrical energy to transmitted to earth surface, one needs the electrical power to be cheaper in space, than it is currently is on earth surface- so somewhere around point where electrical power is less the $100 MW hour/10 cents per kW hour
    in terms of retail price or roughly $50 MW hour wholesale/non-peak need.

    But I think that once one gets to $1 per kw hour wholesale at lunar poles it will be a relatively short period [say 10 years] before one can get to such lower prices.
    Or seems unlikely we will get any significant power of electrical from Space to earth surface within 50 years from now. Though we could have a significant amount of electrical generated in space within 20 to 30 years or somewhere around more than 1000 times more solar power in space in total as we have currently within +20 year and then say, a doubling in total capacity on average every year thereafter.

    As far as solar completing with fission/fusion. First, within next century, I imagine chemical rocket power will dominate the market- and after a century chemical rocket power should remain a significant portion of market.
    One could in the future, leave the Moon without chemical rocket power, but seems unlikely to do this within 50 years from now, though some kind of assist launch coupled with chemical rocket power seems likely or possible within 50 years. And it seems possible/likely that governmental activity could be focused on non-chemical rocket power.
    Now, general reason chemical rocket power will dominate is that water will be cheap in space. Roughly to use the Moon, water needs to start at less than $1000 per lb, and to settle Mars water needs to be less than $10 per lb.
    And then with Mars one could get to point where fresh water is about same price as on Earth, and eventually be cheaper than in some places on Earth than it is now- but this would be more than 100 years from now.
    But within a century water in space could about same price as water is on Earth and as could electrical power be as cheap or cheaper. And the water not coming from Earth, Mars, or the Moon, though one might [or probably] be getting all the water using fusion drive- Ie, the nuclear bomb drive of the Nuclear Orion propulsion.
    So chemical power in space will be a cheap or cheaper than it is on Earth in the distant future and using chemical rockets will be simpler- most people would use them, though for more exotic needs one would use the non-chemical- such you want to get to Mars in less than 1 month or go beyond Jupiter or whatever.

    So in terms of space power, I would say it starts on Lunar poles, then Mars surface, then maybe Mercury surface or Mars orbit, and then Earth Orbit to provide electrical power for Earth’s surface and Earth orbits.

    And need NASA to explore the Moon to determine if and where there is minable lunar water [should require less than 10 years], then NASA needs to explore Mars to determine if and where one could have human settlements [part of this site location is a cheap source of billions of tons of water that settlers can extract cheaply- probably from underground source of liquid water- drinkable water]. And such Martian Exploration would require at least a couple decades. In meanwhile commercial lunar mining determine if the exploration of the Moon allows the possibility of profitable mining lunar water, coupled with various other markets- which include lunar sample return to Earth, lunar tourism, mining lunar iron and other materials [including He-3],
    and various governmental and non-governments “lunar bases” which would be international- as all markets are. And lunar water and rocket fuel might used for NASA’s Mars exploration program. And that NASA is doing this Mars exploration could encourage this lunar commercial and various types governmental activity on the Moon. OR NASA lunar exploration could determine that one can’t mine lunar water in the near term. If that was the case, NASA should still go on to explore Mars, but might also focus on other moons/asteroids which could have minable water [and/or could include Mercury’s poles and/or Ceres] .
    But before NASA explores the Moon to determine if minable, it should develop depots until depots are moved beyond the experimental stage of operational use.

  7. Jim Davis says:

    “Heck, you really wouldn’t even have to bring it back. Just set up a bullion vault on the Moon, and it could trade on the world’s gold market.”

    Why bother? Just *say* you have a bullion vault on the moon (or Mars or in the Alpha Centauri system or the Andromeda galaxy, etc, etc) and trade it on terrestrial markets.

  8. Bob Steinke says:

    “Heck, you really wouldn’t even have to bring it back. Just set up a bullion vault on the Moon, and it could trade on the world’s gold market.”

    “Why bother? Just *say* you have a bullion vault on the moon (or Mars or in the Alpha Centauri system or the Andromeda galaxy, etc, etc) and trade it on terrestrial markets.”

    Money is a fable agreed upon.

  9. Paul D. says:

    If launch costs and PV prices continue to fall, at what point will it become feasible to put server farms in space powered by 24/7 PV power? I’m thinking applications where high latency is ok, such as Bitcoin mining. Think of this as avoiding the expense of power beaming by moving the consuming application up into space.

  10. gbaikie says:

    –Why bother? Just *say* you have a bullion vault on the moon (or Mars or in the Alpha Centauri system or the Andromeda galaxy, etc, etc) and trade it on terrestrial markets.–

    The point is that customer has a choice- keep it on Moon or pay to return it to Earth.
    The cost of shipping it back to earth will largely depend upon price of lunar rocket fuel.

    And one has a bit of problem in terms of deflationary aspect of lunar rocket fuel- it starts out at high price, and one could expect this price will lower.
    So, Lunar LOX at lunar surface could start out at more than $1000 per lb, but within 10 years it could be less than $500 per lb [so- deflationary], but as LOX lowers in price, gold will become cheaper to ship to Earth. So not shipping gold back to earth, is one hedge against lower lunar rocket fuel price. Or the price of lunar gold at the Moon increase in value as the LOX price lowers. So Lunar gold could double in price over a decade of time, even if Earth gold remains at same price, if the cost of shipping it back to Earth is lowered in price.

    What is required is the choice of returning it to Earth or keeping on the Moon, and one will have different price depending on which option one chooses.

    Or were the Moon covered with gold, currently it’s not economical to bring it back to Earth, but if you have rocket fuel made on the Moon, it becomes economical to bring it to Earth.
    Or gold is $1200 per troy oz or $14,400 per lb. If Lunar LOX was $1000 per lb, it might cost about $5000 per lb to ship it to Earth, so Lunar gold at moon could/might be priced at about $10,000 per lb or lunar gold brought to Earth might sell at about 15,000 per lb.
    Of course this all depends upon cost to actually mine gold on the Moon. Or cost to mine platinum or whatever.
    But simple lunar dirt [lunar sample return] would be worth more than gold- and that is easy to “mine”- or pick up. And if you lower the cost of lunar samples below the price of gold, that would be significantly lowering it’s current “price” of lunar samples on Earth. But for example were lunar samples to lower further in price, say, to price of silver, then one might ship gold to Earth [or keep it in vault on the Moon].

    So keeping gold on the moon is hedge against lowering LOX price, which means lunar gold on the Moon worth a higher price, than it would be otherwise [say, $100 or $200 per lb more]. Of course if you actually needed earth gold for some use on the Moon, it’s $14,400 per lb plus the cost to ship from earth to the Moon. So in terms of a hedge
    lunar gold could be priced between $10,000 per lb and $14,400 per lb [earth price] PLUS the cost to ship it from earth.

  11. Hop David says:

    How many Emerging Space Industry Leaders are enthusiastic about the moon?

    I’ve been having an ongoing argument with David Brin and Eric Berger. Berger will say asteroid guys are moon haters out to get Bush. Brin will say moon guys are asteroid haters out to get Obama. I’ll tell both of them it’s idiotic to inject partisan politics into plans for space exploration.

    One of factoids Brin throws out is that most serious space entrepreneurs have no interest in the moon, that the heavy weights he hobnobs with are gung ho about parking asteroids in lunar orbit. I’ll ask Brin for a cite and say loftily he knows all the smartest and most influential space people. I’d expect such a cite from Donald Trump but it was disappointing coming from a science fiction author I used to admire.

    Personally I am gung ho about both the moon *and* near earth asteroids. So far as I know, myself and my fellow A.R.M. supporters are a tiny minority. I believe moon enthusiasts are also a small fraction.

    Has anyone done an official poll or survey?

  12. Hop,

    My guess would be Asteroids are more popular than the moon overall. For some good and some not so solid reasons. You can realistically do asteroid prospecting missions with smallsats, which is potentially a lot cheaper than what lunar prospecting will cost. And when you hear people going on about asteroid mining, they really seem to think all it will take is inflating a big bag around the asteroid and letting it heat up and melt…

    Maybe they’re right, but I’m skeptical it’ll be that easy. I think there’s room for both lunar and asteroidal exploration and resource development.


  13. gbaikie says:

    —One of factoids Brin throws out is that most serious space entrepreneurs have no interest in the moon, that the heavy weights he hobnobs with are gung ho about parking asteroids in lunar orbit. I’ll ask Brin for a cite and say loftily he knows all the smartest and most influential space people. I’d expect such a cite from Donald Trump but it was disappointing coming from a science fiction author I used to admire.

    Personally I am gung ho about both the moon *and* near earth asteroids. So far as I know, myself and my fellow A.R.M. supporters are a tiny minority. I believe moon enthusiasts are also a small fraction.

    Has anyone done an official poll or survey?–

    I would say, that if you don’t want/need governmental involvement then space rocks are the “only path”. One reason is the possibility of owning a space rock.
    Or if you had a billion dollar to spend, you could find out if you can own a space rock.
    And probably any space rock could be worth 1 billion dollars.
    Or one only needs a billion dollar to spend- and simply offer to buy one [assuming it’s the space rock, one wanted].
    If you are buying a space rock, someone should be able work out how to get you one.

    But not sure that any 700 ton rock being worth $1 billion- [$1428.57 per kg].
    Though 20 meter diameter sphere: volume of about 4188 cubic meter. density of 1: 4188 tons or at density of 2: 8377 tons.
    So say 5000+ tons of any kind of rock might worth 1 billion dollar.
    Or 4000 tons of mostly water [ @ $250 per kg] would obviously be worth 1 billion dollars- if delivered to EML-1/2
    But at somewhere around $100 per kg of almost any mineral/substance in stable high earth orbit could has it’s uses/value that equal to around $1 billion dollars.

    But in terms of space policy, I think NASA should explore the Moon.
    And I don’t think NASA should be a buyer of space rocks, nor be a seller of space rocks, rather NASA should explore space to find minable resources.
    And NASA exploring some space rock, doesn’t help anyone own that rock- instead it seems to add unnecessary complications to a future claim of ownership of that rock.
    I can see some value in US military being a buyer of some space rocks- but politically it seems a bit unlikely. So 1 billion dollar rock owned by Military could be used to stop a bigger rock from hitting Earth [but such planetary defense isn’t much of current priority].

    If NASA explore the Moon to determine if and where there is minable water, once this is done, it seems that Moon might viable destination for private investors. Depending upon the exploration done by NASA.
    There is many reasons NASA should explore the Moon to determine if there is minable water, one aspect is it could limit the land rights claims of the Moon. And limiting land claims on a Moon is good thing- so, not same thing as screwing with any claim of a space rock. So we don’t need the foolishness of some entity claiming the entire Moon or even claiming one of the lunar poles.
    Not against a lunar government doing this- but that comes later.

  14. Paul D. says:

    For propellantless lunar landing, consider delivery of bulk materials by crashing. The impact speed can be low enough that some material will not vaporize, or even in some cases melt.

  15. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:


    Interesting! In someways that relates to what Dennis Wingo was talking about in his Moonrush book. He felt that strong meteors (say ones made of metal) hitting the Moon at a shallow angle have a high probability of staying intact due to their lower velocity. If you could send a TLI stage with some course corrections to enable intentionally lithobraking of bulk materials at the moon, without slowing into orbit, and without landing, that could potentially save a lot of money, if you happen to need some raw materials early-on near a lunar site. Imagine say using a Centaur or ACES stage to boost the payload, with an ESPA-based pusher to target its lithobraking approach (kind of like on LCROSS, but more extreme). With distributed launch, ACES could send almost 70 metric tons of material to the moon that way…

    Longer term I have some less crazy ways of getting more fragile stuff propellantlessly to the ground, but those ways could really use a non trivial amount of aluminum and/or copper sheeting…

    Dangit, you’re giving me more blog post ideas when I haven’t come even close to working through my backlog yet.


  16. Paul D. says:

    If we’re crashing material onto the moon, there’s no reason it has to come down in large pieces, or even all at once. It might be preferable to have a slow, steady drizzle of fine dust onto a target area. The particles would not penetrate deeply, and would accumulate as a crust on the regolith that could be scraped off and purified.

    So, is there some way to disperse a stream of dust so it lands on some fixed point on the lunar surface over an extended period?

  17. Paul,

    I’m not sure that having a fine dust of stuff would be that helpful. You’d much rather have it come down in chunks big enough to just pick up. But that could still be smaller stuff (less than 1 ton for instance). The question on how big is probably going to be what’s the cheapest way to get it there. If the cheapest way is to take a used Centaur or ACES, refill it off of XS-1, and add a bunch of metal cannon balls from XS-1, that might suggest chunks smaller than 1500kg each.


  18. Paul,

    Sorry, I hit send before finishing my thought. I could only see wanting to go to anything smaller than a shot put if you had some dramatically cheaper way of getting it to the Moon than rocket propulsion. Like if gun launch to the moon made any sense, that might be an argument for smaller pieces. But if you’re going to have to use a decent sized rocket to do the TLI burn anyway, may as well aggregate bigger chunks so your post lithobraking “mining” operation can be done easier.


  19. Axel says:

    “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”

    I like this idea, it’s new to me. Is there an easy way to refine moon dust under vacuum conditions to 3D printing “ink”? Especially if this “ink” could be made without additives to be supplied from Earth (which seems to be typical for studies I read about) that would be huge.

    Maybe these nickel/iron particles would “stick” together like vacuum welded, no extra glue needed? Or a bit of heating might be enough to sinter them together?

    But it may be difficult to experiment on this without the real stuff. Regolith simulant will miss some properties of real moon dust, being already exposed to oxygen, nitrogen, Earth magnetic field, …?

  20. Paul D. says:

    Axel: one example of such a discrepancy was whether lunar regolith could be effectively processed by microwave heating. Simulant was heated poorly by microwaves, but actual regolith samples absorbed them very effectively. The difference, if I recall correctly, was from microscopic blobs of meteoritic metal deposited on and in the grains.

  21. Axel says:

    Paul: nice example. Do you have a source for that? The currently practical answer seems to be to build better simulants (e.g. How much variation is there on the moon? Maybe in the end we will be searching the moon for regions where moon dust matches the simulant, so the machines to process it work as tested on Earth?

  22. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Axel, Paul,
    Yeah, getting good regolith simulants for ISRU is tricky, as even subtle differences can cause big problems. This is part of why I think ISRU is going to need people on-site for debugging. Or lots of sample return first. That said, it’s often possible to make simulants with one or two key properties that simulate lunar regolith reasonably well, but you often only get to pick a small subset of the properties that match well.


  23. Andrew Swallow says:

    Sample returns – how big a sample is needed?
    Is 2-3 ounces sufficient?

    Astrobotic Technologies and Moon Express will soon be providing commercial lunar landers. These could carry rovers and ascent stages to the Moon. Cubesats are being developed that can fly to the Moon. By attaching a sticky boom to the front of a cubesat it can catch the sample pods and fly them from lunar orbit to LEO.

  24. Axel says:

    Jon wrote: “the fact that there are meteoric nickel/iron particles in the lunar regolith […] 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.”

    Just read what Sven Przywarra wrote here:
    “The PT Scientists intend to win the Lunar X-Prize, make no mistake. But they also intend to get some science done when they get there as well. And one of the main experiments that will eventually be shipped on the Audi Lunar Quattro rover is a little microwave beam and a downward facing camera. Because we need to see if this microwaving technique actually works, before we spend hundreds of millions of dollars shipping a giant microwave-bulldozer-construction robot thing to the lunar surface.”

    This seems to skip the “extract, purify” part, which would be cool if it works. Not sure what the chances are that they will reach the moon, but this could well count as work on the topic. With real regolith, not simulant. 🙂

  25. Axel,

    Microwave fusing of regolith is interesting, but you get totally different properties than you would with 3d printing of a metal. Microwave fused regolith will likely be brittle but potentially strong. That may be fine for say roads and similar surfaces. But if you want ductility (like say for a pressure vessel), you’re going to want metal. Basically, microwave fusing is a useful tool in a tool-chest, but only one of many that will be needed.


  26. Paul451 says:

    The same may be true of sintered meteoric nickle/iron grains. Even if you have relatively pure meteor NiFe dust (say, magnetically separated), bulk meteor iron on Earth is a pretty brittle metal. More like wrought-iron than steel. (Better than raw-regolith ceramic/glass, but still not suited to building pressurised tanks.)

  27. Peterh says:

    Paul, when you say brittle do you mean like cast iron? Wrought iron is softer than a good steel, but still a reasonably tough material. Cast iron is hard and brittle. Given a supply of nickel/iron dust I suspect sintering isn’t the best process for producing tensile elements.

  28. Paul451 says:

    D’oh. Yes, I meant cast. In that it’s difficult to work, even hot.

    You need to mix in a lot of higher quality steel to make it workable. Which is typically how “meteoric iron swords” (or knives) are made. In bulk form, it is apparently quite hard, so if you carve a knife blade out of a solid chunk of meteor it would hold a very good edge (and look pretty as hell), but less useful for impacts (swords/hammers/etc) or tensile loads (pressure vessels, frames). Of course, that’s not really relevant to sintering.

  29. Axel says:

    [Tried to post a comment a week or two ago, but didn’t see it on the blog. Tried again today, hoping it was just a technical problem, not a ban or spam filter… maybe I have to allow Javascript? Test, test]

  30. Axel says:

    [Test seems successful. If you can read this on the blog, Javascript is probably now needed for posting. I’m pretty sure it used to worked without.]


    agreed, this is just one potential way of “3D printing”. Macro printing of buildings is different from micro printing of precision machine parts.

    You say pressurized buildings can’t be made from brittle materials like cast basalt or sintered regolith? One atmosphere is not much for a pressure vessel, but still a lot of force per square meter. My father was a construction engineer and he told me: compared to the materials used in aerospace buildings are made of dirt. Buildings still are not cheap as dirt, but you get my idea: on the Moon they should be simple, sturdy and long lived to become economical. Given that a wall thickness of a meter or two would be acceptable and even good for radiation shielding I hope such simple, “inferior” techniques like regolith sintering will do the job. Especially when buried under more regolith so any cracks in the wall will not “explode” the habitat immediately.

    Another thought: iron extracted from regolith will likely not be strong as steel, but will likely rust when used as a building wall or a pressure vessel for oxygen. To a degree that may also happen to low-temperature microwave sintered walls which use iron as glue. Maybe in both cases protective inner coating is necessary.

    Probably reality will be even more complex. Or maybe not. I like the idea of testing on the moon. It is a start and I hope PT Scientists will get there and have some time to test several locations.

  31. Andrew Swallow says:

    Iron has a melting point of 1811 K ​(1538 °C, ​2800 °F) so a macro 3D printer with a stone head may be able to handle it. We would have to use the metal raw since it will be many years before we can operate a blast furnace in a vacuum.

  32. Peterh says:

    For 3D printing of many high melting materials I’d think selective sintering or melting of powder would be preferred to fused deposition with an extruder nozzle. Depending on the heat source (sunlight is good) no part of the machine need handle the melt temperature.

    On the other hand, basalt fiber seems to have some nice structural properties if you can produce that on site.

  33. Paul451 says:

    Meteoric iron (which is what is present in lunar regolith) will be high-nickel iron, somewhere between 10-18% (judging by metallic meteor falls on Earth). That’s fairly resistant to oxidation.

    (Of course, LOx might change that.)

  34. Andrew Swallow says:

    The outside of tanks and buildings are exposed to vacuum so do not need protecting against water, air or Lox. The inside of buildings can be painted with paint from Earth.

    Sapphire does not burn so it probably can be used to line Lox pipes and tanks. Sapphire is Al2O3. There is plenty of aluminium oxide ore on the Moon so we may be able to mass produce it and spray on iron.

  35. Pingback: The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Lunar Transportation Schemes: Part 3–Intentional Hard Landings | Selenian Boondocks

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