Category Archives: Space Geeks

Awesome Space Settlement Art

Glenn Clovis is a genius and a visionary.  Just look at that awesome image of twinned Island Three’s above! Check out more of the outstanding space-themed images on his website here.

Update: I recently learned Glenn converted his old static website (with lots of cool space settlement stuff) into a more frequently updated blog.  So we can expect to see lots more from this awesome space artist!

How do Astronauts do Laundry in Space?

I recently learned that the International Space Station does not have a washing machine.  Astronauts are expected to wear dirty clothes (even underwear!) for three or four days until they put on clean set from a very limited wardrobe.  A supply of clean clothes is provided every few months on resupply rockets.  If the resupply rocket is delayed, astronauts have to make do and turn their jockeys inside out, I guess.  Once they do finally get clean clothes, the dirty laundry is packed into the empty resupply capsule which is then jettisoned and burned up in the atmosphere.

Except for maybe a pair underpants that they’re using to grow plants in. Seriously. Because “there might be a few nutrients in there.” Blech.

Why doesn’t NASA just install a washing machine in the space station?  They already have a super-duper space toilet and a golden robot.  Surely a washing machine wouldn’t be too hard to whip up?

Hand me the dryer sheets, will you?
Hand me the dryer sheets, will you?

The best I can tell is that, they could it but it’s actually easier with the current system.  Washing machines use lots of water and water is actually quite expensive to deliver to the space station. I guess NASA has decided it’s easier to ship up clean clothes rather than hundreds of pounds of water. Also, detergents are chemical irritants. If some got out in the closed environment of the space station it could wreak havoc on the delicate experiments and equipment, not to mention the astronauts themselves!

soap in the eyes
When anyone gets washing machine detergent in their eyes.
But what about when we go to Mars or the Moon and resupply is not an option? NASA has studied a waterless air-jet microwave washing machine as well as super odor-resistant materials. Whether or not these solutions will work for a five-year long Mars trip remains to be seen. Sounds like yet another reason why we need long-term space settlement to test all this stuff out before we go to Mars…



Forget Mars: NASA wants to build a floating Cloud City on Venus.

No for real.  Balloons with regular breathing air will float in Venus’s heavy atmosphere.  It’s closer than Mars, there is less radiation and the gravity is about the same as on Earth.  Check out the video:

Curious to learn more about colonizing Venus? Check out our podcast on the topic:


Spacegiving: Let’s be Thankful for Space!

As we head into the 2015 holiday season we here at This Orbital Life have a lot to be thankful for (not least of which is the awesome turkey astronaut genetically engineered by NASA).

Let’s review:

Unless you’re living under a meteorite, you know that Blue Origin successfully tested their suborbital reusable launch vehicle. In secret. Without government funding. Huge freaking news and a big step forward for commercial space development.


Taking a step back, consider for a moment that humans have lived in space for 15 years.  That is, there has been a continuous human presence on the International Space Station since November 2, 2000.  That’s a milestone achievement and one that is set to expand as the Chinese and commercial providers ramp up development of their own stations.

Lotta action in the commercial space sector.
Lotta action in the commercial space sector.

The United States has a burgeoning commercial launch vehicle development sector. Specifically, I count eleven companies seriously (with real money) developing new launch vehicles. Seven of those companies are doing so without any significant government assistance. There are probably more I’m forgetting. Eleven well-funded companies bending metal and building rockets to go into space is a market. What will these companies accomplish in future years?

No GPS = no Uber.

Cubesats are revolutionizing the satellite market and have the potential to revolutionize the world as well. You can build a satellite and launch it for hundreds of thousands of dollars, something that, not too long ago, used to cost ten of millions of dollars. Looking forward, two extremely well-funded companies are looking into building global wifi networks using small satellites.

But that’s only the beginning. The Alliance for Space Development gives a good roadmap as to what is in store for space development. In twenty years human beings will be living on the moon, on their way to Mars, and building permanent communities in orbit.

So be thankful this holiday season: our space future is bright!

Recent Proposals to Increase NASA Funding

In the past few years ideas have bubbled up for spending more money on NASA.  For example, prominent scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed we double NASA’s budget.  Separately, the slick, well-funded Penny4NASA group says NASA should get 1% of the federal budget.

Obviously, it is counter-intuitive to expect an organization like NASA to get more funding these days.  Asking for more funding for anything, but especially something like space exploration, is not likely to garner much support from Congress or the general public.  But, hey, it’s Friday before a three-day weekend.  Let’s have a little fun!  Below is a summary of recent proposals to boost NASA’s budget (as well as a few more thrown in by the Budgeting Department at This Orbital Life):

Recent Proposals to Increase NASA Funding - Sheet1

I realize that chart is a little small so it’s summarized here:
– Our baseline is NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget of $17.46 billion.
– If we eliminate sequestration we get an additional $900 million.
Medicare made improper payments of $50 billion in 2013.  We could transfer only 10% of that waste to NASA for an extra $5 billion to bring the space budget to $22 billion.
– We could double NASA’s budget to almost $35 billion.
– We could dedicate a measly 1% of the FY15 Federal Budget of $3.685 trillion to NASA for a budget of almost $37 billion.
– Why not have a one-time “space stimulus” or “high-tech surge” of $100 billion, to bring NASA’s budget to $117 billion, at least for one year?
– In the mid-1960s, NASA’s budget was almost 5% of the entire Federal Budget.  If we spent the same amount today, NASA would get a whopping $202 billion. Starships, anyone?
So what could we spend all this extra money on, assuming it is provided?  That’s for next time…

Big Moon Press Conference Today: 1pm, National Press Club, Wash. D.C.

There will be a big announcement today at 1pm at the National Press Club in Washington DC. A NASA-funded study recently laid out a pathway to return to the moon in under ten years for about $5 billion leveraging commercial partnerships (like NASA’s COTS program). I will post more as I learn more.

Who will keep the peace once we settle outer space?

We all love Malcolm Reynolds.  If you don’t know who that is, you need to fix this problem immediately.

Mal is a space pirate.  A space pirate with a heart of gold, sure, but a pirate nonetheless.  How will future space settlements deal with space pirates  and other unsavory characters?

This is just one of the questions discussed by the burgeoning field of astrosociology. If this sounds a little premature, consider this: there are anecdotes about astronauts on the International Space Station getting into arguments.  If a handful of elite professionals holding similar values lose their cool in space, what will happen when hundreds or thousands of diverse, opinionated people have disagreements in space? Will these future towns in space devolve into anarchy? Shouldn’t we try to figure out a way to resolve conflicts and keep the peace in outer space now?

You might get cranky too, shoved into a space capsule with two grumpy Russians.
You might get cranky too, shoved into a space capsule with two grumpy Russians.

At it’s core, astrosociology is the study of the human dimension of outer space.  It asks questions like:

  • what will happen to human culture when we make first contact with aliens? What are the religious implications? (Poll: If little green men ask, “take me to your leader,” what does that really mean? )
  • how will space hotels and, eventually, space colonies and planetary settlements, be governed? From earth, independently or some other way?
  • how will resources be allocated? For instance, oxygen is not free in space and has to be produced or imported. Will everyone have to pay a tax in order to get oxygen to breathe?
  • what nationality will a baby born in a space station receive? Is the very concept of nationality relevant for spaceborne societies?

Pretty crazy, right? Yeah I know. If you like this, check out our latest podcast or take our poll.

If an alien landed in your backyard and asked, "Take Me to Your Leader" who would you bring him to?
  • 10% - ( 1 vote )
  • 40% - ( 4 votes )
  • 10% - ( 1 vote )
  • 40% - ( 4 votes )

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Calling all (Space Station) Architects!

There is a problem with space exploration. Despite the fact that lots of new rockets are being built, almost no one is thinking about the next generation of space stations.  Where will all those rockets go once the International Space Station (ISS) is decommissioned in 2028?  Considering that the ISS took at least thirteen years to design before the first components were built (1985 to 1998), we should be laying the groundwork for it’s successor now.

Many people assume that Bigelow Aerospace will replace the ISS with a commercial space station.  That might be true, but what if it doesn’t happen?  What if funding dries up or the owner of the company changes his mind?  It’s imprudent to put all of our space station eggs in one basket.

The proposed Bigelow Station. Nice, but it would be nice to have a back-up plan too. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
The proposed Bigelow Station. Nice, but it would be nice to have a back-up plan too. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Of further concern is the fact that any conceivable follow-on station to the ISS (including Bigelow stations) will not be very different from today’s space station. They won’t incorporate major leaps in technology. Specifically, they will not rotate to provide artificial gravity, they will not use asteroidal or lunar resources as raw material to produce a portion of their expendable supplies (e.g. oxygen, water or radiation shielding) and they won’t be much bigger than existing stations.  In short, they won’t provide a stepping stone to true ‘towns in space.’

 The current lack of planning and innovation in space station design will greatly impede the shared goal of the space community: a permanent, self-sustaining, self-replicable human presence in outer space.

We need to start planning now for the next generation of space stations.

So what do we do? We need to start planning now! Specifically, a group of like-minded technically savvy individuals should get together to create a space station architecture that:

  1. Can accomodate an order of magnitude increase in the size of crews over current designs.  In other words, dozens or hundreds of people can stay there instead of just a handful of elite astronauts.
  2. Is modular, flexible, upgrade-able and interchangeable to keep costs down and interoperability high.
  3. Is ‘spinnable’ i.e. has components that can be manipulated to generate varying levels of artificial gravity.
  4. Has components small enough and light enough to fit on the cheapest of launchers, especially the Space X rocket family.
  5. Generates way more electricity than current space station infrastructure.
  6. Incorporates in-situ resource utilization i.e. derives some of its supplies from asteroids or lunar raw materials.
  7. Is cheap enough to get started without government assistance using not for profit or incremental revenue sources.

Over the next few months This Orbital Life will attempt to start this project. Anyone interested in joining us should send us an email or post a comment! Ad astra!



What if Everything we know about Space Manufacturing is Wrong?

Most space geeks agree that the best way to build large structures in space – like, say, a huge settlement – is to use space manufacturing to build them from raw materials found in orbit.   Common knowledge says this method will be cheaper and more efficient than how we’ve built space structures in the past: by just launching everything up from Earth.

But what if the common knowledge is wrong?  What if it now makes sense to launch everything up from Earth?

Credit: Society of Space Professionals
Credit: Society of Space Professionals

Many people embraced space manufacturing because launch costs were previously way too expensive to launch something as big as a space settlement into orbit.

But launch costs are dropping.  With the Space Shuttle, it used to cost about $10,000 to send one pound into orbit.  SpaceX can do it today for $2,200 per pound.  Increased competition and developing technology mean these decreases are likely to continue.  Both SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance are testing renewable launch technologies.  Billionaires Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into advanced launch techniques.  In the next five years we may break the $1000-per-pound-to-orbit barrier.

What will that mean for space settlement?  If launch costs drop to $1000 per pound (or lower) could we manufacture space settlements on Earth and launch them up?   Rather than having to wait to develop mining and manufacturing in orbit?

What if launch costs fall to $1000 per pound? Or lower?

This Orbital Life acquired the designs for a conceptual ‘next generation of space stations’ that is, essentially, a proto-space settlement.   An e-book will be released shortly outlining the details of this space settlement (stay tuned for that!).  However, for the purposes of this article, this design is a good proxy to test the idea of launching space infrastructure from Earth rather than building it in orbit.  This first generation space settlement will mass 2,548 metric tons.  At current rates, a structure of that size will cost $11.9 billion to launch.  At $1000 per pound, it will cost $2.6 billion to launch.  At $100 per pound, the price drops to $255 million to launch.

Could this proto-space settlement be constructed without space manufacturing?
Could this proto-space settlement be constructed without space manufacturing?


Considering it cost about $35 billion to launch the $100 billion International Space Station, we can (very roughly) estimate the cost to build the design described above at $32.6 billion, including $1000 per pound launch costs.  Or, to use the price estimate in the forthcoming e-book, this space settlement will cost about $60 billion.  Could the space manufacturing strategy do it for less? And in less time?

Could we build and launch a small space colony for less than $60 billion? 

What’s likely to occur is a combination of both strategies.  Some space structures will be launched from Earth and some portions of future space stations will be derived from orbital raw materials.  Exactly how that balance is struck remains to be seen, but it’s nice to have more than one option as we continue to build up the human presence in outer space.


“Only” $1.5 trillion for a manned Mars mission?!?

Space News recently published an op-ed implying that $1.5 trillion  is a reasonable amount of money to spend on a manned Mars program.  That’s one point five trillion dollars, with a T.


The op-ed was written by O. Glenn Smith, a former manager of the Space Shuttle program.  Because of his experience at NASA, we can safely assume he knows what he’s talking about and his estimates are sound.  Which is part of the problem: expecting Congress to spend $1.5 trillion on a manned Mars program is unrealistic.  It’s worse than unrealistic, it’s bananas.  It will never, ever happen.

Expecting Congress to spend $1.5 trillion on an Apollo-like Mars program is, quite simply, bananas.

The author writes that NASA’s annual budget will have to increase to $54 billion per year, up from $18 billion per year.  A 300% increase for at least twenty years.  There are only a few scenarios where Congress might be persuaded to spend that kind of money on the civilian human space program:

1. Sentient alien life is found on Mars.  Like, ya know, little green men with ray guns.

Yes, we're skeptical too.
Yes, we’re skeptical too.

2. China or Russia or [insert any geopolitical boogieman] decides to bankrupt itself and go to Mars first.  Not gonna happen; their economies are slowing and they have higher priorities like feeding their populations.

3. Tens of millions of heretofore unknown American voters are discovered living in a hidden space colony on Mars.

But let’s be serious.  Despite the shortcomings in the article,  the author should be commended for having the courage to put a number on a Mars program.  There are a lot of unrealistic expectations about Mars and this will hopefully put a lot of them to bed.  Which is good: it will help the space community focus on what is achievable rather than tilting at Martian windmills.

Establishing self-sufficient, self-replicating human communities in space should be the first step in any Mars program. 

What is achievable?  Establishing self-sufficient, self-replicating human communities in space via public-private partnerships between NASA and the aerospace industry.  Once these communities are up and running, a sprint to Mars becomes easier, less expensive and more feasible.


Something Remarkable is Happening in the Space Community

Since the end of the Apollo missions, various members of the space community have debated how to turn humanity into a spacefaring civilization.  NASA officials, politicians, and plain ol’ space enthusiasts advocated for differing positions. Some said we should return to the Moon, others argued for Mars.  We should build a huge expendable rocket, we should build a reusable spaceplane.  People within the space community took these various positions and vociferously argued for their own pet projects.  Meanwhile, time marched on.  Shuttle was proven to be too expensive and dangerous; it was eventually cancelled. The ISS was built but the keys were handed over to the Russians.  The Moon and Mars slipped further and further away.  For forty years the space community fought with itself while progress in space policy languished.

Then, suddenly, all that changed.  The infighting stopped. Miraculously, consensus was achieved.  What happened?

The space community agreed that space settlement should be the goal of the U.S. space program. 

Last week a “diverse group of over 100 space leaders from academia, government and industry came together” at a big meeting in Washington DC to hash out a space policy they could all agree on.  They knew something had to change.  The Pioneering Space Summit, as it was called (and from where the above quote comes from), was, apparently, a huge success.  These formerly parochial, space geek know-it-alls got together, swallowed their pride and acted like adults.  They agreed on the following statement:
The long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.  This will be best achieved through public-private partnerships and international collaboration.
Alleluia! This is remarkable in several ways.  Not only did dozens of people holding divergent opinions agree on a single policy (Congress, take note please!), but that policy included the phrase ‘settlement.’  Previous to this, space settlement had been, I’m sorry to say, a fringe idea.  However, this statement is a recognition that space settlement will enable exploration and provide benefits to people back here on Earth.  In short, adopting a space settlement strategy results in more bang for the NASA buck.
These groups will lobby Congress with one voice to put this new space settlement policy into law.
So what’s next?  Eleven space advocacy groups have banded together under the banner of the Alliance for Space Development to put the aforementioned policy into law.  Specifically, the Alliance will lobby Congress for the following items:
  1. A 3.5 billion dollar prize for the first organization to successfully demonstrate a reusable space plane.  A reusable space plane will cause launch costs to plummet, enabling all sorts of useful space businesses to take off.  The prize money will be paid out only when the goal is achieved.  It’s a little complex but these guys have really throught it through.  The incentives are structured in such a way to build a reusable spaceplane industry rather than just a one-time stunt.
  2. A commercial replacement to the ISS.  This was made even more urgent today with Russia’s announcement that they will pull out of the ISS by 2024.
  3. Legally authorizing NASA to pursue space settlement, which, bafflingly, they are currently not required to do. 
  4. Continue the current regulatory regime for space commerce.  In other words, don’t increase regulations because the current system is working pretty well.
  5. Continue and increase funding for current space commercialization efforts i.e. Commercial Crew and Cargo trips to the ISS.
I think it’s important to note that this Alliance has a track record of success.  The core of this group was the same crowd that helped pass the Commercial Space Act in 1998.  That was the law which laid the groundwork for the current flourishing of space commerce we see today.  Now these people are ready to kick the space economy into a higher gear and accelerate space settlement at the same time.
In short, it was a very exciting meeting (at least for a space geek know-it-all like me).  Here are some pictures from today’s Congressional briefing today in the Rayburn House office building in Washington DC.
Charles Miller, Executive Director of the Alliance for Space Development.
Charles Miller, Executive Director of the Alliance for Space Development.
Jeff Foust of Space News (foreground, lower right) asks a question of Charles Miller, James Pura (President, Space Frontier Foundation) and Mark Hopkins (CEO, National Space Society).
Jeff Foust of Space News (foreground, lower right) asks a question of Charles Miller, James Pura (President, Space Frontier Foundation) and Mark Hopkins (CEO, National Space Society).


Representative Fattah offering his strong support of the new organization.
Representative Fattah offering his strong support of the new organization.


Chatting with Buzz Aldrin after the event.
Chatting with Buzz Aldrin after the event.


What if Launch Costs Plummet?

Last summer, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company is planning for a reusable Falcon 9 to cost no more than $7 million to launch.  If SpaceX achieves that goal (which looks likely to occur), it will provide the lowest cost launches in history.  See the table below:

Max payload to Orbit
Cost per lb kg lbs Cost per launch
Atlas V 401 (EELV) $2,392 18810 41382 $98 Million
Falcon 9 v1.1 $2,115 13150 28930 $61 Million
Falcon 9-R $242 13150 28930 $7 Million

Sources: Breaking Defense, SpaceX, Wikipedia

So what does that really mean?  We crunched the numbers here at This Orbital Life.  Today it would cost about $2.2 billion to boost something the size of the ISS into orbit.  For the same amount of money (but using the Falcon 9-R) we could boost ten times the mass into orbit.  So, instead of a station that supports only six astronauts, we could put enough mass in orbit to support sixty.
With lower launch costs, bigger infrastructure in space is possible.

We could use that mega-sized space station as a staging ground and a construction yard for Mars missions.  Lots of them.  Current plans call for NASA to spend almost $2 billion just to launch the fuel the spacecraft will need to go to Mars.  That doesn’t count the actual spacecraft itself.  For that $2 billion and, again, at $242 per pound, we could launch four complete missions to Mars.  Four full missions for the price of just the fuel for one mission.

Falcon 9-R could boost ten times the amount of materiel into orbit for the same price we are paying today.

For those who prefer tables, maybe this will help:

Launch costs
Object Mass (lbs, est.) delivered to orbit NASA rocket ($5,200/lb) Atlas V 401 ($2,392/lb) Falcon 9-R ($242/lb)
ISS 921,800 $4.79 Billion $2.2 Billion $0.22 Billion
Nautilus-X 792,000 $4.11 Billion $1.89 Billion $0.19 Billion
Mars mission 1,867,140 $9.71 Billion $4.47 Billion $0.45 Billion


So I know that’s a lot of numbers.  But what it shows is that if the Falcon 9-R is successful we could be on the verge of an explosion of activity in orbital space.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it could enable the fulfillment of lots of long-held space dreams.  Things like zero gravity resorts, vacations to the Moon, settlements on Mars, asteroid mining and lots of exciting scientific discoveries and engineering breakthroughs.

The Falcon 9-R is already being tested.  We here at This Orbital Life believe it could become commercially available within the next five years.  Once proven, it won’t take long for the impacts to be felt.  Strap yourself in, the future is coming fast!


How to Build an Orbital Economy to Support Mars Exploration

A previous post proposed a new national space policy, specifically regarding human spaceflight.   A key component of the new policy will be public-private partnerships to solidify and expand the permanent human presence in Earth orbit, and thus lay the groundwork for a mission to Mars.  This post will describe three public-private partnerships that will help to do just that.  They are ‘Commercial Station’, ‘Commercial Resources’ and ‘Commercial Transport.’

Commercial Station

Luckily, humanity already has a permanent foothold in space in the form of the International Space Station.  At any one time there are six human beings living and working in space aboard  ISS, or simply ‘Station,’ as it is called.  Station is a incredible feat of engineering and international cooperation.  It took decades to design and build and it rivals the Apollo program as humanity’s greatest achievement in space.

Unfortunately, it’s deteriorating rapidly and will have to be replaced no later than 2028.  It cost over $100 billion to build and billions more per year to operate.  We must find a cheaper solution if we are to continue the research necessary to push on to Mars.

Happily, as a result of the experience gained with ISS, the private sector is in a position to provide commercial space stations.  NASA does not have to spend $100 billion and ten years to build a whole new station.  Instead, by 2028 it will be possible to rent space in a private space station, just like one can rent space in an office building on Earth today.

NASA's new landlords
Rather than building their own station, NASA could rent space from commercial space station operators.

But how to develop the market and ultimately choose a landlord?  Well, why not have a competition?  The private sector makes a compelling case.  For instance, Bigelow Aerospace, a premier commercial space station operator that has already flown station hardware, is offering a station equivalent in size to the ISS for $1.35 billion per year.  For comparison NASA requested over $3 billion for Station operations in fiscal year 2015.  However, due to design efficiencies, Bigelow’s station could accommodate at least twice as many astronauts.

For instance, one private space station offers twice as much capacity for half the price of the NASA station.

So how might the aforementioned competition work? It would be very simple.  NASA could issue a request for proposals (RFP) for commercial operators to provide accommodations for government astronauts to live and work on a privately-operated space station.  NASA could offer, say, $1.35 billion per year for six astronauts to occupy 900 cubic meters (the volume of the current space station).  The respondents to the RFP would work with NASA to meet the government’s specific criteria before any contracts were signed.  Over time with subsequent proposals and more competition, it is likely that the price might fall even further.  Additionally, other space agencies and commercial operators, like space tourism companies, would join NASA as tenants in the burgeoning commercial space station industry.

Of course, this new generation of space station, as well as any eventual mission to Mars, will need supplies.  Things like fuel, oxygen, water and radiation shielding.  That brings us to the next partnership that will enable the new national space policy:

Commercial Resources

The ten or twenty people living in space once ‘Commercial Station’ is up and running will require relatively small amounts of supplies to survive.  Those supplies will probably be brought up from Earth on rockets.

However, getting to Mars is a completely different story.  One trip to the Red Planet will require 428 tons of fuel.  For comparison, the ISS (the biggest thing ever to be put in space) masses about 419 tons.  So we’re talking a lot of fuel.  To get it all into orbit, NASA is planning to spend billions of dollars.

For the Mars missions, NASA will spend a lot of money just to get rocket fuel into orbit.
For the Mars missions, NASA will spend a lot of money just to get rocket fuel into orbit.

But making rocket fuel is a relatively simple process, even in space.  And the raw materials are up there too, in the form of asteroids just floating around.  Perhaps the private sector could deliver propellant to NASA and figure out a way to do it cheaper than sending it all up from Earth?

Theoretically, if NASA used the cheapest rocket to launch 428 tons into orbit (which they won’t), it would cost $1.07 billion.   Instead, NASA could offer to purchase the equivalent amount of fuel for $1 billion, assuming it was delivered where they needed it (low earth orbit) and in a usable form.   And that’s only for one mission; they could offer the same deal for every other mission to Mars.  This would save the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars and provide a billion incentives for the private sector to set up a sustainable rocket fuel industry in space.

Oh and by the way, the same stuff that makes rocket fuel also makes great drinks, breathing air and radiation shielding: it’s good ol’ water ice.  So our Commercial Resources partnership not only provides fuel for the mission to Mars cheaper than NASA could do it, but it also establishes a supply chain in space for cheap oxygen, water and shielding.

Commercial Transport

Going to Mars will require humans to test equipment and techniques on the Moon which in turn will require an intermittent base on the lunar surface.   But in order to properly establish and supply a base, we need a means to get to and from said base.   In short, what we need are regularly scheduled commercial flights between low earth orbit and lunar orbit.

What we need are regularly scheduled commercial flights between low earth orbit and lunar orbit.

In 2004, NASA estimated it would cost $63.8 billion to return humans to the moon once.  Just once.   But getting something the size of the original moon lander into orbit today would only cost about $70 million (using the cheap rockets referenced above).  To get it all the way to lunar orbit would require additional fuel and a booster spacecraft costing about another $500 million.  So, rounding up, let’s say  it will cost $600 million, one way to the Moon.  That’s for a craft that holds two astronauts and a few tons of cargo.  Of course our estimate doesn’t count development costs.  But, come on, we’ve done this before.  Will it really cost NASA $63.2 billion to reinvent the wheel?

If so, it’s an opportunity for another partnership.  Rather than spending all that money on something it’s already done, NASA could instead issue another request for proposals indicating it wants to purchase, say, ten round trip flights to the Moon for $12 billion (assuming a one-way trip costs $600 million).  There could be two trips a year (every six months) so the budgetary impact would be $1.2 billion per year for ten years.  This would take astronauts from the Earth’s surface to low lunar orbit.  Then they would use the NASA lander to finish the trip and go down to the NASA base on the lunar surface to perform their research and experiments.  $1.2 billion per year may sound like a lot but it sure beats $63 billion plus.  Also, the Commercial Transport provider will have other customers: there are lots of other firms with plans to go to the Moon for various reasons.  And they all need a ride to get there.

Lots of companies want to go to the Moon: customers for Commercial Transport besides NASA.
Lots of companies want to go to the Moon: customers for Commercial Transport besides NASA.

Towards An Orbital Economy

A summary of the costs so far, compared to space station spending:

$ billions per year deliverable for the year
Commercial Station 1.35 12-astronaut capacity space station
Commercial Resources 1.00 428 tons of LH2/LOX in low earth orbit
Commercial Transport 1.20 2 round trips between Earth and low lunar orbit
Total 3.55
FY2016 NASA Budget Request for
ISS Operations
3.13 6-astronaut capacity space station

The total cost of these proposals total is $3.55 billion per year.  Compared to $3.13 billion for ISS operations in 2016.

But let’s set the costs aside for a moment.  Stepping back, one can see that these plans create an economic ecosystem of self-sustaining and self-reinforcing business relationships in space.  Over the long term, Commercial Transport could provide transportation services to private entities wishing to get out of low earth orbit and establish stations, mining facilities or workshops in other areas of the orbital neighborhood.  Commercial Resources will provide the fuel and supplies for those entities and Commercial Station will provide the housing.

These plans create an economic ecosystem of self-sustaining and self-reinforcing business relationships in space.

And by acting as an anchor tenant in the beginning stages NASA will not only enable Mars exploration, but it will also kick-start the creation of an enduring orbital economy.

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A National Space Policy Proposal

With the U.S. Presidential election now underway, it’s a good time to start thinking about how to improve our national space policy.  The existing space policy covers a lot of ground in various areas.   This post will focus on the sexy stuff: civilian human space flight.  In other words, how to get astronauts into space and figuring out what they should do once they’re up there.

The next President should instruct NASA to pursue three goals in sequence: first, expand the permanent human presence in orbit. Second, establish an intermittent presence on the Moon.  Third, a ‘sprint’ to Mars.

Three goals: humans in orbit, an outpost on the Moon, and a sprint to Mars (and back).

Why three goals?  The first two steps are needed to properly achieve the third.  Sending humans to Mars is a good and worthy goal.  Learning once and for all whether or not life evolved on a separate planet could change our species.  Furthermore, learning if Mars can once again support life (like, say, human life!) will change the world again.  Also, a mission to Mars is an inspiring event, especially if it is an international collaboration, as we here at TOL think it ought to be.

But current policy makes a human to Mars mission unlikely.  It’s too expensive, too bureaucratic and it won’t happen for decades (assuming Congress funds it all).  Worse, once it’s done, there will be little infrastructure left in space to do it again.  In other words, the current strategy will spend tens of billions of dollars to get flags and footprints on Mars.  After that, all the rockets and technology developed for the project will be put into mothballs.  It’s happened before and we’re on the path to make the same mistake again.

Saturn V Rocket Booster on Display at NASA JSC
Instead of using them to go on to Mars or establish a permanent human presence in space, the last Moon rockets became very expensive lawn ornaments.

The alternative policy proposed here will provide a more enduring human presence in space.  A key component of the strategy is to engage the private sector to lower costs and allow NASA to focus on exploration versus transportation.  First, the U.S. government should establish a public-private partnership to replace the International Space Station with a commercial venture.  Rather than spending billions to build a new space station (once the current one is retired in 2028), the U.S. government can rent space from a private space station operator to perform experiments related to advancing technology needed to go to Mars.  Similar public-private ventures can be used to supply the space station with fuel, water and oxygen derived from asteroids and comets.  A partnership already exists to get astronauts into orbit on private spacecraft.  A similar one should be established to get astronauts to lunar orbit.

It would be foolish to go all the way to Mars before testing how certain machines operate in a dusty, low-gravity environment.  Do it on the Moon first.

Once in lunar orbit, NASA should establish intermittent missions down to the lunar surface.  Such missions are needed to test techniques and processes that might be used on Mars. It would be foolish to go all the way to Mars before testing how certain machines operate in a dusty, low-gravity environment.  Do it on the moon first before going all the way to Mars.  This lunar outpost could be partially built and operated by another public-private partnership, like the ones described above.

What does this get us? A network of privately-managed space stations, fuel depots and workshops in orbit.   A small but permanent lunar outpost.  NASA will be a prime tenant for these facilities but by no means the only one: space tourism and research facilities will also be big players in this new commercial economy in space.

Private-sector activity in space will make a Mars mission easier, safer and more likely to succeed.

Just as important: kick-starting a commercial human presence in space via competitively awarded partnerships will make a Mars mission easier, safer and more likely to succeed.  Astronauts going to Mars can take advantage of the fuel and supply depots in orbit and, if necessary, be that much easier to rescue should something go wrong.

Once this network is up and running, NASA will be ready for it’s ‘sprint’ to Mars.  Using advanced propulsion technology developed in orbit, an international crew of astronauts will fly to Mars in three months or less, spend a week or so on the surface, and then scoot back to the relative safety of Earth orbit.  Using a combination of fast engines and the infrastructure provided by the new orbital economy, there should be no need for a years-long journey to Mars costing tens of billions of dollars (as is currently planned).

What might all this cost?  Unfortunately, it won’t cost less than the current policy.  In fact, it will probably cost more.  But not that much more due to the extensive use of competitively-bid private sector partnerships.  Sounds too good to be true?  We’re already doing it.

The private sector has proven it can deliver more services for the same amount of funding, or less.
The private sector has proven it can deliver more services for the same amount of funding, or less.

Furthermore, it delivers not just Mars but also a moon base and an enduring human presence in Earth orbit.  Basically, three for (almost) the price of one.

The private sector has proven itself ready and willing to join NASA in exploring the universe.  The next President should instruct NASA to engage these partners to build an enduring, self-sustaining commercial human presence in space, a lunar outpost and finally fulfill humanity’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars.

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UPDATE: Did NASA just admit it’s planning to build a ‘Commercial Station’?

An update on the post below: no commercial station but yes on a possible commercial lunar lander:

Building on the progress of NASA’s partnerships with the U.S. commercial space industry to develop new spacecraft and rockets capable of delivering cargo — and soon, astronauts — to low Earth orbit, the agency recognizes the U.S. industry’s interest in reaching and exploring the moon, and has competitively selected partners to spur commercial cargo transportation capabilities to the surface of the moon.

Commercial robotic lunar lander capabilities could address emerging demand by private customers who wish to conduct activities on the moon and could also enable new science and exploration missions of interest to the larger scientific and academic communities.

It’s important to note that this initiative, with the acronym CATALYST, is un-funded (boo!).  From this release, it looks to be a partnership directed at boosting, or at least piggy-backing on, the Google Lunar X-prize.

In a statement today commemorating CRS-5, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said:

“I congratulate the SpaceX and NASA teams who have made today’s success possible. We look forward to extending our efforts in commercial space to include commercial crew by 2017 and to more significant milestones this year on our journey to Mars.”

What other significant commercial milestones could he be referring to?   Did he just tip his hand? Could NASA be laying the groundwork for, say, “Commercial Station” or maybe “Commercial Lunar Lander”?  What could be more significant in the COTS world than having U.S. astronauts ‘fly commercial’ into orbit?  That’s already pretty amazing, does NASA have something else in mind? Hmmm…