I recently wrote an article on NASA’s plans to return to the moon by 2020 using a dual track launch approach, lifting the crew into near earth orbit by using the new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and marrying up with a previously launched payload that would include a service module and lunar descent vehicle.
I questioned whether NASA could complete such a project in the planned time frame and within the $104 billion budget they had set for themselves:
This ambitious timetable is a good goal but would seem to be unrealistic. Every major project undertaken by NASA in the past has taken longer to develop than anticipated and cost more than was originally thought. Why should we think they can suddenly get things right on the new crew exploration vehicle?
Would it surprise you to learn that there is a very serious effort underway by private corporations to try and beat NASA at their own game and that they know that they can accomplish a moon mission in less time and for vastly less money than NASA could even dream?
According to SpaceDev’s chief, Jim Benson, the private group has found that a more comprehensive series of missions could be completed in a fraction of the time and for one-tenth of the cost of the NASA estimate.
Each mission, as envisioned by SpaceDev, would position a habitat module in lunar orbit or on the moon’s surface. The habitat modules would remain in place after each mission and could be re-provisioned and re-used, thus building a complex of habitats at one or more lunar locations over time, according to a press statement on the study findings.
Benson also noted: “We are not surprised by the significant cost savings that our study concludes can be achieved without sacrificing safety and mission support.”
These guys are not a bunch of rocket geeks sitting in in their mother’s basement idly wondering what it would be like if they had $10 billion to build a real cool rocket. These are dead serious businessmen who have run the numbers and come up with some startling conclusions:
In outlining their study findings, SpaceDev has blueprinted a conceptual mission architecture and design for a human servicing mission to the lunar south pole – targeted for the period between 2010 and 2015.
The length of stay on the Moon would be seven or more days – depending on cost, practicality and other issues. The SpaceDev study explored a range of technologies that would be needed: hardware that exists now, is currently under development, and proposed technology that NASA or other nations could spearhead, or might be developed by the private sector in time to be incorporated into lunar operations.
The SpaceDev study underscores a key finding: A combination of technology already under development by companies could be combined to create a growing and lasting presence at the Moon at costs significantly lower than those proposed by other organizations.
The reason for setting up at the moon’s south pole is the probability that there is abundant water in the form of ice in that region. Water would be used not only for its potability but for its usefulness in making rocket fuel (by combining oxygen in the water with liquid nitrogen or hydrogen) as well as fuel for rovers and the lunar habitat itself. The water could also be used to supply breathable air for habitat.
Part of NASA’s huge cost is contained in the development of the new CEV which the agency pegs at around $15 billion. And NASA is planning much, much larger payloads so there is a necessity for heavy lift capability not present in the private venture’s plans.
But what is truly exciting about this development is the recognition that a moon mission is doable and affordable. Ten billion dollars for a private sector venture is a lot of money and is probably right on the outside of the envelope where corporations would be willing to invest for such a small initial return on their investment.
But if a way can be found to spread the risk while searching for ways to efficiently exploit the moon’s resources, it may be possible to convince some of the big boys – Boeing, Lockheed, and perhaps even some of the larger mining companies like Kennecott – to climb aboard and get the project off the ground.
We are on the cusp of a transition in the exploration of space between public and private ventures. The flight last year of Burt Ruttan’s Spaceship One was a tiny step forward down a road that will have many starts and stops. The problems ahead for private companies who wish to test the waters in outer space are enormous. Companies will be asked to basically take a leap of faith and invest billions of dollars into ventures with uncertain returns and the real possibility of loss.
But the potential returns down the road are incalculable. Here’s what I wrote after Spaceship One’s historic flight where it was able to claim the $10 million X-Prize:
If there is ever going to be a private sector manned space flight industry, thereâ€™s going to have to be some kind of track record for investors to have confidence in. Perhaps the value of space tourism will be to show venture capitalists that a market exists beyond tourism for manned spaceflight. Medical research, metallurgical breakthroughs, even something as pie-in-the-sky as mining asteroids could all be huge moneymakers by the middle of this century. This will not be achieved by government owned space programs which are, by their very nature, â€œrisk averseâ€ but by private companies whose desire to make a profit will lead to the next great leap forward in manâ€™s quest to explore the unknown.