Affordable lunar bases

Paul Spudis and Tony Lavoie have posted a paper describing an ambitious lunar development program that they believe can fit within NASA’s expected budget by relying heavily on in-situ resource utilization (ISRU): /– Can we afford to return to the Moon? – The Once and Future Moon – Dec.21.10 /– Affordable Lunar Base (pdf)

Rand Simberg comments on the plan: Back To The Future – Transterrestrial Musings.

I’ll note that groups at ULA have for some years been promoting low cost lunar exploration architectures with existing launchers. See, for example, the papers in the Exploration section in the ULA library such as this one: A Commercially Based Lunar Architecture, by Frank Zegler, Bernard F. Kutter, Jon Barr – United Launch Alliance – AIAA 2009-6567 (pdf).

Fuel depots play big roles in both the Spudis/Laovie and the ULA approaches. The latter gets fuel from earth whereas in the former there is a relatively early transition from earth deliveries to fuel derived from water at the poles.

I’m all for ambitious lunar programs of either kind but, as always with Dr. Spudis’s presentations, I cannot accept the way he dismisses the potential for significantly lower cost transportation to LEO. He says, for example, that the Falcon 9’s cost has already plateaued in the $5000/kg range. That’s an awfully quick plateau since the F9 has only just had its second flight. If a new expendable (so far) can already reach that price range with innovative design and construction techniques, why shouldn’t a fully reusable vehicle be able to do at least ten times better? That’s Elon Musk’s goal for a reusable F9 and other reusable designs should also do that well.

Despite the claim that there have been “numerous attempts” to lower launch costs “over the last 30 years”, there have in fact been no well-funded, sustained, systematic programs to develop low cost fully reusable vehicles over that time. (The DC-X was a start but it got derailed by the X-33.) Today we finally see SpaceX starting from an orbital expendable and working towards reusability while VG, XCOR, et al are starting with fully reusable suborbital and working towards orbital. Both approaches should eventually do a lot better than a couple of thousand dollars per kg to LEO. (I agree that launch rates are also a big factor but reusability will allow for high rates.)

Until costs drop below that range, I expect that no matter how hard Dr. Spudis tries, he will never convince people to pursue creation of a permanent human outpost on the Moon. Even highly effective ISRU will not obviate the need for a continuous stream of large amounts of materials and equipment from earth. On the other hand, I expect the combination of low cost LEO transportation and abundant lunar resources could convince a lot of people that not just a NASA science base is feasible but large scale space settlement is as well.

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