• dr

    I still think that NASA should be investing most of its HSF
    dollars in trans-lunar exploration. Pushing the space frontier outwards. For
    this reason, I find the “capture an asteroid and bring it to the moon” mission
    slightly disappointing, simply because I think that the emphasis should be on
    taking astronauts to the asteroid rather than the other way around.

    I can see that if NASA was to agree with the theme of the
    above statement, then they could be left with a problem. Most of their HSF
    budget is basically split between SLS and ISS, with the remaining money being
    used to fund Commercial Crew. In principle, NASA would like the Commercial Crew
    activities to conclude so that they can release that funding stream to use it
    for trans-lunar exploration. Likewise the cost savings from CRS and Commercial
    Crew on the ongoing running costs of ISS, could be re-allocated to trans-lunar
    exploration. However, it is clear that some Americans feel that if China goes
    to the moon, and there is no presence of any other nation, that they will de-facto
    claim the moon as Chinese and seek to expand their activities and influence as
    fast as possible. This political scenario suggests that NASA should have a lunar
    programme, to create a US presence on the moon giving a political counter
    argument to any Chinese claims.

    It is not clear, where funding for a lunar programme would
    come from, if NASA is to continue funding ISS and a trans-lunar programme. If
    the trans-lunar programme was scrapped, then a lunar programme could replace
    it. The issue with this, is that NASA could find itself back doing the kinds of
    missions it abandoned in the early ‘70s, making it look like it has gone
    nowhere in fifty years damaging its ability to inspire the next generation.

    I used to have the opinion that the ISS should be kept
    flying as long as possible. I note that if Bigelow can get Alpha operational by
    2016 or 2017, then NASA with ISS, would be in competition for scientific research
    with Alpha, which is essentially private US business. I believe that since most
    of the construction costs of ISS should now be sunk, then most of the ongoing
    costs of running ISS should be the costs of launch and so the costs of CRS plus
    Commercial Crew. Since Alpha is likely to be cheap to construct, its major
    ongoing cost should be the cost of launch to resupply the station. It is likely
    that ISS and Alpha would use similar vehicles to resupply them, so I would
    expect that their costs of utilization are similar.

    One major problem that NASA will face with ISS, is that even
    if CRS and Commercial Crew are successful in reducing the running costs of ISS
    to NASA, they will not do so for NASA ISS partners. If the amount of money
    being spent by NASA on ISS dropped, then NASA could find itself under political
    pressure to “share the gains” with its partners, and therefore could be asked
    to take on a greater share of running the station, which would reduce the cost gains
    NASA realizes from their commercial partners.

    Consequently, I now think that if Alpha is successful and there
    is little enthusiasm amongst ISS partners for continuing with ISS, that NASA
    should agree to a de-orbit in 2020. NASA LEO HSF activities, would be switched
    to Alpha, with a recognition that those activities could be ramped up or ramped
    down, according to budget, by buying more or less module space on Alpha. This
    would avoid almost all political pressure from ISS partners, because then NASA’s LEO HSF activities would be mainly US only. This programme could be funded at a lower level than ISS, and since I believe that Alpha is likely to also contain telebots, additional scientific experiments could be performed by those telebots, amplifying the utility of any human crew. This should reduce the cost of scientific research to below that of ISS.

    So this would leave NASA to sort out a lunar programme and a
    trans-lunar programme.

    It is my view that the main reason for going to the moon is
    resources and hence mining. If the private sector were to be involved with this
    activity is it highly likely that they would require property rights as argued
    by Mr Bigelow, in the video on this blog post. Initially, this would be
    whatever that is of value that can be gained from the lunar surface. It seems
    likely that there is water at the lunar poles, and this could be mined and
    purified, and sold to space stations in LEO. It is also possible that oxygen could
    be extracted from lunar rock(or the water), and also supplied to LEO. It is likely
    that if material is transported from the moon to LEO, particularly if electic-
    thruster powered vehicles are used, that it will be cheaper than launching the
    same materials from Earth. At a later point, it is theoretically feasible to
    obtain Iron or Titanium rich ores from the surface of the moon, and to process
    these to make the pure metal. These could, in principle, be 3D printed into
    spare parts for vehicles, space stations and the lunar facilities.

    Assuming that the cost of launch has fallen and continues to fall, then the amount of infrastructure in LEO should continue to grow, likely in a parabolic or exponential manner. This should supply a growing market for exports from the moon.

    This could be facilitated from a business perspective by a group of wealthy investors forming a startup company intending to do the first mining. This startup company would join a consortium consisting of a major global mining company and NASA. The roles in this consortium would be the following: the startup company will mainly fund and run the first mine, the mining company would provide technology and operations expertise, and NASA would provide astronauts, astronaut training expertise, technology and in-space operations expertise. I would anticipate, that once the startup company had established its first small scale mine, that the global mining company in the consortium would be more prepared to fund further activities, since those future activities would have experienced risk reduction from the lessons learned from the first mine.

    What might the first mine look like? I suspect that it would
    of the open cast type, but very shallow, just collecting material from maybe
    the top 20cm or so of the lunar surface. Assuming that the first resource to be
    sought is water(ice), then a “refinery” would likely be required to purify the
    water to make it potable, and therefore more valuable in LEO. I would expect
    that this first mine could be mined by a single robot, probably controlled from
    earth and the water purification facility would be no larger than a typical car.
    So the amount of infrastructure required by this first mine is quite minimal (obviously, there are also some accommodation facilities for visiting engineers). The number of mines and their scale would grow with increasing demand from LEO and other lunar facilities.

    So, I can foresee a scenario where NASA could have a
    presence in LEO, lunar and trans-lunar activities. I think that it is possible
    for NASA to economize on its spending on the LEO and lunar programmes by
    leveraging private investment, as I have outlined above, and so be able to fund
    a trans-lunar HSF exploration programme to expand the space frontier, visiting
    asteroids.

  • dr

    @Doug Messier,
    If the comment above is to big, feel free to delete it.

  • Some Old Desert Rat

    I just bought 15 acres of moon property off of an online internet website!

    The Realtor promised me that is has a great view of the star I bought about 15 years ago in the constellation Virgo!

  • mzungu

    If the guy manage to bring back any moon rocks or builds a hotel there, don’t think anyone going to stop him….he’ll be a hero.

    If he is going to go change some international laws, think his needs to bribe all those officials around just got a magnitude higher. Just another round of nonsense talk.

  • Robert Gishubl

    The only comment I would add is that if SLS was scrapped it would free up a lot of cash for NASA to develop these facilities. NASA could use the funds from SLS to be the initial tennant for Bigelow Alpha using Falcon Heavy to launch. All new space using COTS type approach to reduce the cost. Then resupply of materials and crew would be contracted on a service basis, This would let NASA concentrate on trans luna transport and in-situe resource utilisation also along the COTS model, but where there is no/limited comercial capability NASA should return to traditional research programs. Such items as fuel depots and deep space habitats. There should be no reason that some components could not be comercially sourced and some be prototypes built in house by NASA.
    This hybrid approach would play to the streangths of the different sectors, giving the best outcome as fast and cheaply as possible. NASA has always relied on comercial contractors to some extent and the comercial contractors have reliev on NASA expertise to some extent.