One of the things I’d love to do if I were successful enough at Altius to afford it would be to sponsor graduate-level research into space technology, business, economics, and policy topics that I’m interested in. Not just because I don’t have time to dig into these topics as deeply myself as I would like, but also because frankly there are lots of graduate students out there who have better analytical tools they could bring to bear than the crude ones I could come up with informally. I decided to share some of these ideas via a blog post in the hope that maybe I could either inspire someone in grad school who is looking for a research topic, or if not I could at least plant the seed for conversation on this blog. If someone is interested in doing one of these research topics, I’d love to do a review of the final paper when it comes out.
Topic One: Lunar ISRU Economics In The Age of RLVs
This is one that I often discuss with coblogger Chris Stelter on Twitter. There have been a lot of papers over the years looking at ISRU economics, but the vast majority, if not all of them, have made the assumption that launch costs are more or less static. I think I understand the usual reasons for doing so–either a) these papers are trying to recommend a policy change, and therefore are being compared against the status quo approaches of say government exploration missions using entirely earth-launched propellants, or b) at the time of the papers, RLVs weren’t taken very seriously, and the last thing they wanted to do was to make ISRU look less respectable by making it look like it depended on RLVs.
But now is probably a good time to start looking into what lunar ISRU economics look like if you assume RLVs can be successful in driving down launch costs in the foreseeable future. I’ve seen a lot of SpaceX fans recently who have made the argument that lunar or NEO ISRU is totally irrelevant because BFR costs are guaranteed to be so cheap that there’s no way lunar ISRU could possibly compete with it. I think this is… mildly overoptimistic, but one result of lunar ISRU studies that assume status quo earth-to-orbit launch costs (both for launching ISRU infrastructure, and as competition) is that the lunar ISRU price points they quote really do seem kind of high compared to potential RLV price points. I personally don’t think lunar ISRU is in as much trouble as all that, but I do think that since it is more likely that we’re at the dawn of the age of the RLV, that those interested in lunar ISRU economics should at least start looking as RLVs become available.
Some thoughts on approaches:
- Launch costs are going to vary over time–even if gas and go RLVs happen in the foreseeable future, it’ll still take time to get there. So instead of treating launch costs as static, make a few scenarios where you make different assumptions about the shape of the launch cost vs. time “S-Curve”. How long does it take for significant reductions in $/kg to start appearing? How low can they realistically get before hitting diminishing returns? How steep is the slope of $/kg over time once that initial decrease starts creating new demand that creates virtuous cycles? The nice thing is that you can probably characterize these S-Curves with only a few parameters, and then you can come up with say at least three scenarios–a pessimistic one where RLVs are only mildly successful, and launch costs decrease slowly, hitting diminishing returns at a moderate price point, an optimistic one, where RLVs are very successful, and the transition is fast, with the point of diminishing returns being dramatically lower than current prices, and then a middle of the road S-Curve shape.
- Assume that lunar ISRU developers are smart enough to leverage RLVs as they become available, so that launch of ISRU hardware can take advantage of the decreasing costs over time. For example–George Sowers was mentioning a recent CO School of Mines analysis that showed it was possible to extract water from the lunar poles for $500/kg of extracted water on the lunar surface. But he was assume a $35,000/kg delivery cost to the lunar surface for all the infrastructure.
- It would be interesting to see analyses that reflect the idea that lunar ISRU developers might be able to leverage decreasing launch costs to also lower the exploration and development costs of their lunar ISRU capabilities.
- It would be good to include scenarios for how hard lunar ISRU ends up being, ranging from scenarios where trying to crack oxygen out of the regolith is the best we can do, through lunar polar ice being legit, all the way through Warren Platts’ lunar aquifers scenario. My guess is that this could also be modeled by some sort of S-Curve as well, as there’s going to be a learning curve for developing lunar mining, that eventually snowballs, but then hits diminishing returns, but the timing, depth, and steepness of the curve could vary.
- It would be cool to see analyses that assume different cislunar transportation architectures for getting lunar ISRU propellants back to LEO. Not just rocket only, but also architectures that use propellantless launch options (see my unfinished “Slings and Arrows” series), aerocapture, SEP transfer, nodes at different cislunar orbital locations (LEO, EML1/2, LLO, etc).
- It would be interesting to see with these analyses where the equillibrium point ends up being for lunar ISRU vs RLV-earth-launched propellants under different assumptions. I could see some cases (optimistic RLVs, pessimistic lunar resource difficulty, lame approaches to cislunar transportation) where lunar ISRU isn’t even competitive on the lunar surface, while there may be other scenarios, where lunar ISRU wins hands down even in LEO. But it would be interesting to see patterns and what assumptions lead to which outcomes.
Anyhow, I just wanted to seed the thought. I’ll probably turn this into a series for other research topics I’d like to see others write, but I wanted to throw this one out there.