Bigelow Urges Lunar COTS Program, Wants Moon Property Rights Review

Artist's conception of a Bigelow lunar habitat. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)
Artist’s conception of a Bigelow lunar habitat. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

A report by Bigelow Aerospace that was commissioned by NASA urges the U.S. space agency to take a commercial approach to lunar transportation  similar to the one used to develop transport services to the International Space Station, according to published reports.

Company founder Robert Bigelow, who has ambitious plans for private space stations and lunar bases, said on Tuesday that he will be applying to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Tranportation (AST) for a policy review of lunar property rights by the end of this year, Jeff Foust reports from Washington, DC.

Bigelow and and NASA’s Associate Administrator Human Explorations and Operations William Gerstenmaier discussed the findings of the report during a press availability in the nation’s capital. The report was produced under a Space Act Agreement between NASA and the company.

The event was not streamed for reporters outside of Washington. Foust attended and also obtained an advanced copy of the document. His report on the document is here. Excerpts of his Tweets from the event are below.

According to Foust, the document urges that NASA adopt an approach similar to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which paid SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation to develop cargo freighters to supply the International Space Station.

The COTS phase was followed by Commercial Resupply Service contracts, in which NASA is paying SpaceX and Orbital to deliver cargo to the station. The companies were paid for achieving milestones, and they have maintained ownership of the launch vehicles and cargo ships.

It’s not entirely clear how a lunar COTS model would fit into NASA’s deep space exploration plans, which are focused on sending astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020’s.

Jeff Foust ‏@jeff_foust

  • Handout at the Bigelow/NASA event. Not a lunar passport but a pocket-sized copy of the Outer Space Treaty.
  • Here’s a preview of the event, based on advance copy of the report:
  • Bigelow, setting the stage: America as a gov’t is no longer ambitious, especially when compared to China.
  • Bigelow: This is not 1961, folks. American gov’t and NASA cannot afford to be challenged as they were then.
  • Bigelow: lunar base as done under business as usual is utterly and absolutely politically and financially impossible.
  • Bigelow: comm’l space capabilities growing, but needs an anchor customer to take business beyond LEO.
  • Bigelow: can NASA build upon the success of COTS and take the next step?
  • Bigelow: to make application to FAA/AST for policy review of lunar property rights before the end of this year.
  • [Presumably as part of launch license for future Bigelow module.]
  • Now it’s NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier’s turn: entered into Space Act Agreement w/Bigelow to have another look at what we’re doing.
  • Gerst: we learned a lot of things from the report; we’ll take a look at it, factor in the considerations. It was a good exercise.
  • Gerst’s comments about the report were pretty vague about content and how NASA will use it.
  • Bigelow said they’re “engaged in a number of areas” to follow up on the report, both technically and poltiically, but few add’l details.

  • Erin Schmidt

    Doug, do you know of any recordings from this press event?

  • Douglas Messier

    I don’t know. I inquired about whether it would be streamed online or put on a telecom, and NASA said no. I will ask about whether any audio or video recordings will be made available.

  • Douglas Messier

    The answer is No. NASA has no plans to release any audio or visual recordings of the event.

  • Erin Schmidt

    Thanks for looking into it.

  • Aerospike

    To me that looks like a case of somebody who wants to run before learning to walk.
    We are still a long way from a commercial LEO ecosystem with private space stations and regular flights to those. Is there even a valid business model for the moon yet?

    On the other hand, a lunar COTS could even be cheaper than the LEO one, even if that is counter-intuitive at first.

    The launchers are already in place and once you have a bit of experience with tugs in LEO, going to the moon isn’t that much of an effort any more.

    “LEO is halfway to any place in the solar system”

  • Hug Doug

    Lunar COTS… sounds like a good idea on the face of it, NASA paying for Bigelow to construct a lunar base or other companies for cargo supply drops to a lunar base… assuming that Congress would agree to such a thing, even though it’s working out pretty well for Comemrcial Cargo / Crew development for the ISS. it could dovetail nicely with the current programs if managed properly, but what are the odds of the government doing that?

    i think Aerospike is right, though. Bigelow is going to need to demonstrate that it can create a workable business model for leasing space on a space station before attempting to lease space on a lunar base, which is what Bigelow has said it wants to do in the past.

  • DougSpace Please go there and join the others who have signed the petition.

    The whole lunar property rights makes me a bit nervous though. Companies who work in space have a right to the materials that they have harvested as well as protection from having their operations interfered with. You can build an entire cis-lunar infrastructure using lunar ice based upon those two principles. So, I wouldn’t want a good “Lunar COTS” program to be shot down if there is an unease with declaring lunar property rights.

    I use “Lunar COTS” as broad term to include four sets of programs:
    – Commercial Cis-lunar Transportation System
    – Commercial Cis-lunar Supply Service
    – Commercial Lunar Surface Operations
    – Commercial Cis-lunar Crew
    Or if you wish, you could drop the “Commercial” if you feel that public-private programs are not truly “commercial”.

    I believe that these program could be completed for about 5% of NASA’s budget (currently 3-4%) and in about 16 years resulting in a decent-sized telerobotic ice harvesting system and deliveries of hundreds of metric tonnes of propellant and/or propulsion service to LEO, and about eight astronauts on the Moon maintaining and expanding said telerobots at a permanent base.

    A couple of cool things to remember is that OTV/Lunar Landers may be easier to develop than launchers due to the lack of Max-Q anywhere near that which a launcher experiences. Also, reusability of in-space craft may be much easier than doing the same for launchers due to the lesser heating than reentry. We have already done aerobraking on Mars and Venus.

  • DougSpace

    > Is there even a valid business model for the moon yet

    Cargo and crew to LEO is of value to NASA. So, private companies are earning money serving NASA before a full commercial LEO ecosystem. Indeed, NASA serving as an anchor tenant could go a long ways to helping establish that ecosystem by keeping the participating companies in business, providing a baseline flight rate, and providing technical advice, etc.

    Same thing for the Moon and especially a related cis-lunar transportation infrastructure. NASA would benefit from planetary surface experience. Any ice-to-propellant operations on the Moon and sent to EM-L1 and/or LEO would be tremendously useful to NASA’s lunar, interplanetary, and Mars missions. So, meeting those needs could provide the companies with an anchor business while the truly commercial market develops. My guess is that boosting comm sats, circumlunar tourism, and then lunar surface tourism would be the initial heart of lunar-based commercial enterprises. Later could come the other enterprises that some space advocates dream about.

  • therealdmt

    I’m all for going to Mars on an exploration mission, but something like this (a lunar ‘COTS’) should be our national priority, in my opinion.

    Mars is too far away (time), too expensive ($), and too dangerous (radiation exposure, weightlessness enroute) for a sustainable presence in the medium-term future. There are also the practical difficulties of landing large equipment through Mars’ thin atmosphere, the dust, biological contamination (potentially in either direction) and the approximately 2 year gaps between launch opportunities for resupply or rescue. Until we get beyond chemical rockets, while it is possible (at great cost) to do initial exploration, learn how to live there, and set up some initial infrastructure, it’s not going to be a large sustained presence, let alone something organically growing (economically speaking).

    The Moon is 4 days away. Commercial companies can get there and work there — if not quite yet, it’s within reach. Chemical rocket technology will suffice. With NASA and international partners as the anchor tenant, other businesses can grow as offshoots. Plus, the cost to NASA will be much lower than doing it on its own — NASA’s budget will go farther, allow it to do more.

  • therealdmt

    Exploration missions to asteroids and Mars _on top of_ a sustained LEO, cislunar and lunar surface presence, including robust commercial activity — well, now we’re talking.

    A mission to Mars wouldn’t just be a Hail Mary then, but an extension of ongoing activities.

  • Aerospike

    Your assessment is probably right but I think you are overlooking something: because of ISS and the retirement of the Shuttle (as decided back in 2004 iirc), NASA had an actual need for Cargo services in LEO.

    However, right now NASA doesn’t have any “lunar, interplanetary, and Mars missions” that would directly benefit from a cis-lunar infrastructure. Currently all the robotic missions are designed to be directly launched from earth and I don’t think this will change soon. Nobody will incorporate a cis-lunar infrastructure into their designs unless it actually exists. Catch-22 in my opinion.

    Once LEO services grow beyond NASA buying cargo to ISS, with different stations, fuel depots and regular flights (driving prices down) it would be interesting to see if robotic exploration missions would incorporate things like refueling in LEO. I think then the time for a lunar COTS would be right, but as said in my previous comment above, going to the moon once you have a LEO infrastructure isn’t really that much of a problem any more.

  • Aerospike

    I agree in principle with you, but I don’t really think that heavy NASA (or international) participation (as anchor tenants) is needed for kickstarting a commercial lunar infrastructure.

    Increase focus on LEO, start a “CORS” program (commercial orbital refueling services), increase funding on CCDev (or however it is currently called…) to speed those programs up.

    With those pieces in place, commercial activity in space will expand exponentially. It will be like the influence the transistor had on computers!

  • savuporo

    ISS as a politically stable space venture has been successful. There are many lessons learned, if one chooses to learn the useful lessons.

    What are the primary good attributes of ISS, that prevented it from getting axed ?

    – Its international, which makes it less suspect to political winds in any participating country. Its hard to cancel or defund
    – It was put together from multiple small modules over time. It’s design was flexible enough so that the scope and sequence of assembly was constantly reevaluated and evolved
    – There are multiple strong interest groups ( ESA, JAXA, Roscosmos, NASA, now commercial entities ) supporting its continued existence
    – Some degree of redundancy in systems, including its modules and servicing spacecraft
    – In-space assembly was/is a feature, not a bug. Especially if multiple launch vehicles could deliver the modules

    The weak points
    – Reliance on a single launch vehicle (STS) on critical path. Nearly fatal
    – Inability to perform major upgrades – Zvezda, Zarya, Unity etc can not conceivably be deprecated and replaced
    – Assembly and operations rely on human presence
    – Missing inclusion of emerging space powers, China, India
    – Could always have more system redundancy.

    If someone would come up with a proposal for a lunar base design that would include the “good”* aspects of ISS and fix the weak ones, Lunar COTS could happen.

    However, it is critical to recognize that if something like that would be funded by public funds, the design has to be politically intelligent. Learn from programs like C-17 and implement it on global scale – make it not cancelable.

    So, from the outset, your design will have to be buildable, launchable and serviceable by most existing space powers – so better make sure that Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Mitsubishi HI, EADS Astrium, Krunichev, and yes even CGWIC would have something to gain from it and would lobby for its support, around the world.

  • Dennis

    Omg, that website is one ugly scumbag 😀 Are you sure that was created in 2009? Looks more like something I would have made when I first went online in ’94 :S O M G

  • DougSpace

    I’m open to suggestions / help from anyone.

  • DougSpace

    I think that we should continue the political status quo in a smart way. By that I mean that we shouldn’t add Lunar COTS programs on top of the current public-private programs. Instead, we should wait until the budgetary demands of the current public-private programs start to wind down but then keep the public-private part of the budget at the president’s 5% and then start to implement these Lunar COTS programs.

    Although I think that SLS/Orion are budgetarily demanding and are challenging to justify, they do have considerable political support and so I think that it could do the public-private programs harm if it becomes a “commercial” vs “monster rocket” fight. I don’t want that fight because I don’t think that we can win it. Rather, I just want to make sure that the 5% of NASA’s budget for public-private programs is maintained because I think that the solar system could be opened up sustainably with that amount of resources.

    As for Mars, I think that we should start making steps towards Mars by doing the relatively lower-cost approaches that doesn’t require the expensive development of a large Mars lander system. These steps would be a manned Mars flyby followed by a Phobos and/or Deimos mission. The latter may require the SLS. However, by the time we are prepared to send humans to the Martian surface, hopefully the Lunar COTS programs will have had enough time to be producing in-space propellant at EM-L1 and/or LEO. At that point, the SLS upper stage could be refueled at LEO and maybe EM-L1 and so that we wouldn’t need much more than a 90 tonne SLS to be doing manned Mars missions. I haven’t run the numbers so I don’t know it this is actually feasible so it’s just an idea.

  • therealdmt

    I absolutely agree on Commercial Crew — at the least, fully fund NASA’s request.

    Orbital refueling could be a game changing infrastructure move too.

    Incorporate a Bigelow module into the station, and then as the ISS winds down (2028?) move towards replacing it by buying space on a commercial space station.

    Basically, we could have a pretty exciting space program right there (more exciting than what we’re doing now) — for a LOT less money then we spend today. That would leave funding for NASA to expand the area we operate in out to the moon and near earth asteroids.

    Seems pretty straightforward, actually…

  • therealdmt

    With congress so intent on the SLS (at least for now), you make a good point in that it might be better to not make SLS the enemy (even though it kind of is, in terms of it soaking up dollars that could be better spent elsewhere). If congress is forced to choose between commercial and SLS, it is clear that, at least for now, they would absolutely choose the SLS.

    If SpaceX stays on a relatively trouble free schedule, launching to Geostationary orbit this year, launching to the ISS with Dragon on the 9v1.1 early next year, successfully testing the Dragon abort system, successfully flying the Falcon Heavy, and finally getting in a manned space flight (and maybe Boeing doing the same) as SpaceX and Orbital continue to service the ISS and the Bigelow module gets installed on the ISS and works well…well, the old way of doing things is going to start looking too inefficient and too ineffective to be politically viable. But that’s then (maybe, if all goes well). For now, we have to tread lightly where it comes to conflict with the SLS.

  • Douglas Messier

    Hey! Please show a little decorum on this site. So what if the website isn’t great? His priorities are in the right place.

  • savuporo

    >>However, right now NASA doesn’t have any “lunar, interplanetary, and
    Mars missions” that would directly benefit from a cis-lunar

    Thats my point below – design a lunar base program that mimics ISS in it’s political makeup, with the significant difference that it would be dependent on something COTS like from the outset, including assembly, not just resupply.

  • Aerospike

    yeah, I’ve already read your comment (and upvoted it ;))

  • Dennis

    My apologies for being so rude about it, I do support the principle of the website. But I think it could use a major overhaul to something more modern, I’d be glad to give some advice/help if you’d like.

  • DougSpace

    Apology accepted. Actually, your comment has led me to redesign the website which I hope looks a lot better. I think that it does. When I get it up (withing the next couple of days), I would be curious about your opinion of it.

    …and hey, if you do support the principle of the website, have you become one of the signers yet?

  • Dennis
  • DougSpace

    Yes, thanks for signing.
    I have now updated and hopefully it is an improvement.

  • Dennis

    It does indeed look better now, easier on the eyes to. Could use some information in the header section for improved SEO so you can be found better on search engines.