Square One: “Unaffordable” Lunar Return

SLS launch.  Square One visible in background at upper left.

SLS launch. Square One visible in background at upper left.

In response to growing calls for NASA to revive the struggling U.S. space program and specifically to dampen any buzz of a possible U.S. lunar return, once again a well-worn process that I describe as “Augustining” has come to the fore.  In brief, “to Augustine” something is to structure a report in such a way that a space goal or architecture is deemed “unaffordable.”  From the outset, the resulting report must conclude that the program being evaluated is unaffordable and “sadly,” dropping it must be laid at the door of Congress for fiscal and programmatic restrictions and not by any desire on their part to kill the program.

The latest agency Augustining is a report describing a two-launch, Space Launch System (SLS) sortie mission to the Moon.  Because only one launch pad at the Cape (Launch Complex 39) is being modified to accommodate the SLS, launches must be scheduled every six months, resulting in a fully fueled lander waiting in space for 6 months before the arrival of a human crew.  The architecture moves the rendezvous point of the Orion crew vehicle and the lunar lander to low lunar orbit, rather than Earth orbit, presumably to add some mass advantage.  The crew then transfers to the lander, descends and explores the lunar surface for about seven days, and then returns to the Orion in lunar orbit for the trip home.  All pieces of hardware, except for the Orion command module, are discarded after use.

So what’s the big conclusion from this scenario?  That it’s “unaffordable” of course.  Hence, Administrator Bolden’s recent comments that return to the Moon will not happen “in my lifetime.”  He also has said that no one should change the course NASA is currently on, because if the Moon again was made a goal for human spaceflight it would send the agency “back to square one  

Let us deal with the unaffordable aspect first.  What this current “reference mission” really shows is that by employing the Augustining process, you can devise a dumb implementation and make any mission unaffordable.  The criticism of Project Constellation was that it was “Apollo on steroids,” i.e., a large expendable rocket implementation of a short-stay mission to the lunar surface.  Yet the new reference architecture doesn’t do anything differently.  Except for changing some arcane technical details, it still is dependent on government-provided heavy lift and throws away all of the flight hardware except for a small crew return segment.  Maybe we could fly it a couple of times, but replacing all that material for each mission would soon become tiresome and excessively costly, as it did near the end of the Apollo program.

The idea that attaining a space objective won’t happen in someone’s lifetime is often expressed in regard to human Mars missions.  I hear this a lot from the human Mars mission advocates – “I want this to happen in my lifetime!”  I have never heard the “within my lifetime” constraint expressed in any Presidential declaration of space goals since Kennedy, yet it constantly re-appears in technical discourse.  It may be an understandable sentiment, but it is not a technical requirement.  Personally, I would rather that we pursue a rational path into space, regardless of how long it takes.  Of course, this is the expression of someone near the end of his career, who despairs of ever seeing a rational policy enacted to create an affordable, sustained program pursued over a reasonable time period.

So what’s wrong with going “back to square one?”  To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, if you’re on the wrong path, the one who turns around first is the most progressive.  It’s been four years since the original Augustine report concluded that Project Constellation was “unaffordable.”  They advocated instead a “flexible path” whereby we’d research technology and then go to destinations as we could.  That report proposed missions to near Earth asteroids as a possible near-term goal that could be undertaken sooner and less expensively than lunar return.

Serious study of the asteroid option showed it to be more technically challenging than originally thought.  Add to the mix that few near-Earth objects satisfy the constraints of the Orion system, abort possibilities and crew safety.  Issues arose over how the crew would interact with the asteroid, including safety concerns with regard to approaching rapidly spinning objects (What information gathering activities would the crew do?  Explore a homogeneous rock?  Sample an object for which we already have several hundred metric tons here on Earth?  Process the asteroid to extract resources with the limited power and loiter time of the Orion spacecraft?).  As none of these issues have straightforward answers or solutions, a growing chorus has challenged the agency to explain the rationale propelling this mission option.  The answer seems to be “affordability.”

The administration adopted a 2012 study that proposed using solar electric power to haul a near-Earth object back to cislunar space where it would be reached by a human crew in the Orion spacecraft.  No “expensive” lunar lander would be needed, just rendezvous and station-keeping with an asteroid in orbit around the Moon (thus avoiding the return to “square one”).  Yet in spite of all these contortions, once again we would throw away all the hardware except for the Orion crew return vehicle.  This is “affordability” by virtue of being smaller, less ambitious and more pointless.

The real problem with the new outlined lunar return scenario is its mission – a seven-day sortie to the lunar surface.  I have previously described the drawbacks of sortie missions.  By conducting sorties, you dissipate your limited hardware and resources by scattering them over a large area and by using them only once.  This is acceptable if the mission has some urgency or you have limited and specific objectives.  But as part of a greater architecture, it does not lend itself to permanence or to the establishment of any legacy hardware, infrastructure or capability.  Those concepts are anathema to the current version of the agency, which is focused on one-off stunt missions designed to deflect public attention from the fact that the U.S. space program has been decimated.

Of course, as they will endlessly explain to you, the real goal of NASA is a human Mars mission.  Any near-term mission is merely prelude to this grand adventure.  But for what are we preparing?  The current Mars mission scenario requires that all the propellant for the mission be launched from Earth.  In the old Constellation plan, that required 8-12 Ares V (150 metric ton each) launches, most of which carried propellant for the voyage.  At the current projected launch rate of one SLS (100 ton) every six months, it adds up to an even more formidable task than Constellation’s architecture.  This is in addition to all the other issues involved in a human Mars mission, including protecting the crew during a long duration trip and the currently unsolved “entry, descent and landing on Mars” problem – and all for a one-off “sortie” mission to “search for life.”  If the crew doesn’t find life, is the mission deemed a failure?  A wide diversity of space activities has suffered because of this “search for life” obsession that’s enveloped the agency for so long.

The American civil space program is now dead in the water.  They not only have no solution to their cost-difficulty problem, they don’t even have a path forward toward fixing it.  They are however, experts at telling us what we can’t do, where we can’t go (usually because they aren’t being given enough money) and why a given space goal will not or cannot happen in someone’s lifetime.  Instead of devising a stepwise, incremental approach toward creating a permanent space faring capability, we get reports pre-designed to show us why the U.S. cannot attempt them.

To thrive, humanity must pioneer, explore and create.  Under the strain of continued programmatic turmoil, confidence in our national civil space program is ebbing.  Will future generations extol in the “Right Stuff” or will they retreat from the stage?  It’s time we return to the Moon – back to “square one” – to continue on our journey to explore, prosper and secure the world.

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45 Responses to Square One: “Unaffordable” Lunar Return

  1. oldAtlas_Eguy says:


    We connected way back on Space.com Forum before it ceased operation about commercial aspects of the affordable Lunar return. This was about using almost pure commercial with seed money from NASA in an environment where these corporations sell services back and forth to each other. In other words a little bit of money in circulation generates a lot of work on each cycle requiring a lot less total funds from NASA to do a lot more work. The difference here is that NASA is a buyer/investor of available commercial services and products in cis-lunar space and not a developer.

    Although this blog is “a little bit negative” there is hope from some sources within NASA that the agency can cure itself of “we don’t want it if we don’t actively control the design and development”. Some of the bright points that NASA needs more of are COTS, CCP and the work Bigelow is doing to align NASA to what companies are currently investigating that have commercial aspects and a market beyond NASA needing only support and a guaranteed customer (having the government lately as a guaranteed customer is not that reassuring to some investors) with some seed money to accelerate the development.

    But you are correct that an “Augustine” culture can be near fatal for the HSF program if something doesn’t happen to change the culture of all of NASA.

  2. Paul:

    We need people like you and Zubrin in leadership positions at NASA.


  3. Peter says:

    I wish they had looked at this concept study for reusable landers:

    • Robert Clark says:

      Thanks for that. What’s key is that it only had to be 1/3rd the size of the Altair, making possible a much smaller, and cheaper, mission than Constellation.

      Bob Clark

  4. Joe says:

    A lot of issues. For whatever it is worth here is my take on what I think they are.

    I will go with the (one point that is) positive first: The change to a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) approach is the right thing to do. It means eliminating the need to scale the Earth Departure Stage tankage for a long wait to be used (that was 90 days for Constellation and that was a real problem, I do not even want to think what a 180 day loiter time would mean).

    But, it is pretty much all downhill from there:
    (1) The part about having only one launch pad and therefore only being able to launch twice a year is (well lets be polite and call it) interesting. When the Shuttle Side Mount was being evaluated (and there is no reason that the SLS Block One could not do the same) the maximum launch rate using two pads was 8 launches per year, so for one Pad it should be 4 Launches per year not 2. It would be interesting to know how much more efficient the Lunar Lander would be with the more realistic assumption of a 3 month (as opposed to a 6 month) loiter time. While it all depends on what financial limits you place on spending to support operations, the use of the SLS Block One should not be “unaffordable”.
    (2) Additionally the reduction to one launch pad is completely arbitrary. The current political leadership is trying to basically give one of the 2 pads at launch complex 39 away, which would make the whole “we only have one launch pad” canard a self-fulfilling prophesy. Current news reports indicate Musk (SpaceX) and Bezos (Blue Origin) are fighting over it. Bezos wants to use it for his own rockets (whatever they may be) and to provide launch support services to others (whether that could include the SLS is an interesting question). Musk (of course) wants it for SpaceX alone. A smart money bet would be that the government would give it to Musk at a cut rate thus assuring access to only one SLS capable launch pad.

    The use of a strictly sortie approach further prejudices any analysis. Strangely the linked to article includes a chart – presumably from the study presentation – that shows 3 lander variants: Sortie, Outpost, Cargo. A good question would be, did the technical types include a Lunar Outpost in their analysis only have it expunged by the political types (would not be the first time such a thing has happened).

    “Augustining” is probably going to be a very useful descriptor over the next couple of years.

    • billgamesh says:

      “The part about having only one launch pad and therefore only being able to launch twice a year is (well lets be polite and call it) interesting. When the Shuttle Side Mount was being evaluated (and there is no reason that the SLS Block One could not do the same) the maximum launch rate using two pads was 8 launches per year,-”

      I think that is their big lie right there- they jack up the price of everything with the fewest number of flights. Considering there is no orbiter to turn around the 8 flights should be easily doable and cost less than the shuttle. That should be the baseline figure being used; a maximum flight rate and those flights also being used to launch commercial payloads like the shuttle was supposed to and “pay for itself.” Ariane stacks satellites for several customers per launch and their is no reason the SLS could not do better and send up a whole busload.

      • Mike says:

        Indeed, a launch rate of 1/year is ridiculous (and totally unsafe – no rescue or back up capacity). Between December 1968 & November 1969 NASA managed to launch 4 Apollo missions (Apollo 8, 9, 11 & 12)using Saturn Vs from LC 39A (also during this time they launched Apollo 10 from LC 39B)

        • Joe says:

          Thanks for the historical reference.

          The 4 flights between December 1968 & November 1969 is excellent corroboration for the 4 flights per year for an HLV from a single launch pad like those at the 39 complex.

          • oldAtlas_Eguy says:

            The basic reason for a max of 2 flights per year of SLS is not a pad limitation but a manufacturing limitation, rocket motors, tanks, etc due to manpower levels and yearly budget caps.

      • Joe says:

        “I think that is their big lie right there- they jack up the price of everything with the fewest number of flights.”

        Yes, that is definitely one of the dodges they are using.

  5. billgamesh says:

    The question of what level of funding is justified and what goals we wish to attain with our space program is what needs to be answered. One must match the other of course. The shuttle program was a failure IMO and it failed because it was built on the cheap and there was no real goal. I think it bears repeating that the space transportation system was a Heavy Lift Vehicle that flew 135 times. It was in the same class as the Saturn V so in effect it was a continuation of Apollo. Since it cost about the same as a Saturn V we can imagine the result of flying over a hundred more times to the Moon to set up a base.

    The last 30 years show that we can indeed fly the next 30 years- all we need to succeed this time around is to learn from those two past mistakes of going cheap and not having a goal. The first mistake is easy to correct when we consider the over 9 billion dollars spent this year on missile defense and the half a century trillion dollar budget for the F-35 fighter. Augustine built the largest aerospace corporation in history by cashing in on weapons programs. As I have always maintained, spaceships are hard money because unlike cold war toys, they have to work. The United States of America has the money to fund a space program double or triple the present budget. There is absolutely no doubt about this.

    The second mistake is the hard one to correct. Why go back to a very large human space flight budget? What possible reason can justify redirecting money away from all those weapons we MUST have?

    There are in fact no less than three completely valid reasons for doubling, tripling, or quadrupling the human space flight budget. The first reason is to replace the system of satellites now in use with semi-permanent manned geostationary platforms that will be far superior to the present status quo of endlessly increasing amounts of space junk. This cislunar infrastructure will meet the future needs of the entire planet.

    The second reason is planetary defense- to have spaceships capable of deflecting impact threats. There is a comet named ISON that may soon put on a show that will inspire some consideration of this.

    The third reason is space solar power built with lunar resources. Enough electricity for the projected population of the entire planet to enjoy a western standard of living. A never ending flow of endless clean energy.

    This triad of long term projects would use the Moon as a new industrial powerhouse. The opportunities for the energy industry- both solar and nuclear- are unrestrained and unlimited. There are no environmental restrictions, no shortages of resources. It is the capitalist dream come true. When the space stations and spaceships and power stations are all built then the infrastructure will be present to effect a beam powered transportation system and finally artificial worlds.

    This is the promise of the Moon and a space program worthy of our nation.

  6. “Because only one launch pad at the Cape (Launch Complex 39) is being modified to accommodate the SLS, launches must be scheduled every six months, resulting in a fully fueled lander waiting in space for 6 months before the arrival of a human crew. ”

    Since the current administration doesn’t want any manned lunar surface missions, its probably understandable why they wouldn’t want to spend extra funds to develop a second SLS launch pad.

    But even under their own cis-lunar mission scenarios to a captured asteroid (meteoroid), a one launch pad capability would greatly enhance the potential danger to astronauts at a Lagrange point or high lunar orbit if there was a major malfunction with the MPCV– since NASA would have no capability of rescuing them for 6 months. Such a scenario is not unprecedented since it did occur during the mission of Apollo 13.

    But even under an immediate two launch scenario (two launches within a few days with two launch pads) for possible missions to the lunar surface, NASA would still need an additional launch pad for a potential rescue in lunar orbit, two additional launch pads for a rescue all the way to the lunar surface– at least until pressurized out post are established on the lunar surface capable of sustaining astronauts for at least 6 months or more.

    This is a serious problem, IMO, that needs to be immediately addressed by Congress with the logical solution of increased funding to develop at least three or four SLS launch complexes by the year 2021 (when the manned SLS program is supposed to go into operation). This certainly wouldn’t be a waste of funds since several SLS launches per year are going to be required for any reasonable manned mission to Mars scenario, the so called ‘Ultimate Goal’ of the SLS program.

    Marcel F. Williams

  7. Grand Lunar says:

    – “He also has said that no one should change the course NASA is currently on, because if the Moon again was made a goal for human spaceflight it would send the agency ‘back to square one'”

    The best response I’ve seen to this was that it would be an acceptable change, given that NASA is currently at “square negative five”.

    The choice seems simple; spend billions to reach a target that has yet to be indentified in preperation for a mission that will still be decades out? Or spend it on a close destination that all can see, with resources waiting to be tapped?

    I don’t understand why NASA doesn’t use both pads. Whatever mission is chosen, they know they’ll need multiple flights.

    • billgamesh says:

      “I don’t understand why NASA doesn’t use both pads. Whatever mission is chosen, they know they’ll need multiple flights.”

      You answered your own question; they must not intend to choose any mission. We are not going anywhere.

  8. Mike says:

    I would think that sending NASA “back to square one” is almost exactly what the current situation requires…plus a new administrator & a President with some sort of vision/interest….

    • billgamesh says:

      “-a new administrator & a President with some sort of vision/interest….”

      If Obama will not recant then perhaps the next President will take advantage of some new event similar to Chelyabinsk and steer the military budget toward space and planetary protection. That is the scenario I am most hopeful about but I am nervous about getting what I wish for; I do not WANT an impact. I just want another Sputnik to start a new space age based on atomic spaceships defending the Earth from impact threats.

      Since nuclear propulsion and nuclear energy would be required for such human crewed interceptors I believe a Moon base would be the prerequisite to assembling, testing, and launching such missions. And since such shielded crewed compartments can also be used in geostationary orbit why not replace the existing satellite network? And since we are already there why not invest in a Lunar Solar Power program?

  9. Mark R. Whittington says:

    Actually the bureaucratic dodge of declaring some course of action to be “unaffordable” by manipulation is a rather old one and not confined to space. One also remembers the infamous 90 Day Study of George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative that put the price tag at $500 billion and the schedule at 30 years, Ironically that 30 years would have been up in 2020.

  10. Part of the bitter irony here is that while NASA is whining that they only have one launch pad, the Air Force is using one (or several) that are used very regularly, and they are selling off another to two men who are described as “fighting over it.” While NASA claims to lack capability, they seem, at the same time, to have made a solid business case to build several more. If Bezos and Musk are fighting over one pad, sell to one, and rent/lease land to the other so he can build his own.

  11. JohnG says:

    I’ve been reading the Global Exploration Roadmap (GER) recently released by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group. Though this is a non-binding document, it shows that the rest of the space-fairing countries have a good understanding of what is needed in space: a sustainable stepwise approach that delivers value to the public and provides a return on investment of their hard-earned taxes. These are their words, not mine. The word “sustainable” appears 26 times in the 40-page report, “value” appears 12 times, and the term “stepwise approach” appears 10 times. While GER begins at the International Space Station (ISS), utilizing it as a platform to research human health and performance in space, the clear theme of the roadmap is to use the lunar vicinity and the lunar surface to learn how to live and work (a phrase used 6 times) in space, will preparing for human missions to Mars. The ‘sad’ part of the GER is where it is obvious that NASA insisted on inserting near-earth asteroids either ahead of the exploration of the lunar vicinity, or as a part of the lunar vicinity. For example, a sentence reads, “Missions in the lunar vicinity, such as those to an easily accessible asteroid . . .” I didn’t know there are easily accessible asteroids in the lunar vicinity. Oh yeah, there aren’t! But there could be if we just bagged one and dragged it to the Moon. LUDICROUS!! At least there is hope with the other space-fairing nations. On the brighter side of things, NASA’s RESOLVE payload that will investigate lunar polar volatiles is included in the roadmap. The GER has it right with it’s stepwise approach into the solar system, which is always listed as the Moon, near-Earth asteroids, and then Mars.

  12. billgamesh says:

    “-a sustainable stepwise approach that delivers value to the public and provides a return on investment of their hard-earned taxes.”

    We demand no “return” on a trillion dollar defense budget; why is space considered some kind of investment scheme? The explosion over Chelyabinsk made Hiroshima look like a firecracker. On the same day a much larger rock barely missed the Earth. Yet this threat is ignored because the countless billions spent countering the threat posed by illiterate tribesman with Kalashnikovs leave nothing left over. We had no warning and there was no rush to provide any warning system after the fact. And now we have moved on.
    The human race is obviously it’s own worst enemy. At least the dinosaurs had an excuse.

    The world is polarized between poverty stricken masses and economies with no more room to expand. The vast treasure spent on nations threatening each other and maintaining control over their own populations could solve the problem in a few decades by ending poverty once and for all. Solar energy beamed down from space would forever end the conflict between the haves and have-nots. No more oil or resource wars, no more filthy shanty towns; there would be endless cheap energy available for any imaginable project.

    Civilization is at a turning point and it is similar to the one Bob Zubrin wrote about concerning the Chinese turning inward instead of expanding. They burned their fleet of superships and now the modern world is burning the only bridge to a better future.

    The Moon holds the key to permanently solving the Earth’s energy problems. While power stations cannot be sent into orbit from Earth they can be built on the Moon. The military can move into space and defend the Earth from a far more serious threat than religious fanatics. Industry must be forbidden the easy money of cold war toys and directed into space.

    The access to all knowledge and to see and speak to anyone anywhere on Earth; this is so easily accomplished with a network of space stations maintained in geosynchronous orbit. With the resources of the Moon we can build these giant telecommunications space stations and forever end any problems of access or bandwidth on this planet. Unlimited connectivity.

    None of these things is science fiction; in the 21st century it is simply opportunity going to waste.

  13. Joe says:

    oldAtlas_Eguy says: August 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    “The basic reason for a max of 2 flights per year of SLS is not a pad limitation but a manufacturing limitation, rocket motors, tanks, etc due to manpower levels and yearly budget caps.”

    That is not what the article (based on the supposed “NASA” analysis) says.

    In any case, the “manufacturing limitation” argument is sophistry. As with any launch vehicle, the basic cost to have the facilities/capabilities to fly at all is such a large part of the cost that the incremental cost of flying more times is lost in the “rounding error”. If the administration wants to set “manpower levels and yearly budget caps” so that no more than 2 flights per year can be flown, they currently have the power to do so. That, however, is because they want to limit the use of the system; not due to the relatively low incremental cost being “unaffordable”.

    As I said in my original post:
    Joe says: August 22, 2013 at 3:57 pm
    “it all depends on what financial limits you place on spending to support operations”.

    If you do not want to have a viable program, you can set artificial limits – based on no real constraints – to make such a program appear “unaffordable”.

    • oldAtlas_Eguy says:

      The manufacturing limitation showed up in an article about the new tank welding machine talking about how many tanks per year it could manufacture. If they buy another machine and allocate more manpower and space they could increase this to 4 per year easily. So you are correct that this limit is soft but so is pad limitations because you can always build an addition pad if you need to launch more often as well. It just requires capital investment expenditures (government development funds) instead of operations expenditures (operations funds).

      • Joe says:

        The problem is the infrastructure that existed until the Shuttle Shut Down was sufficient to support up to 8 SDHLV launches per year.

        If “the powers that be” have purchased new equipment that has only a quarter of that capability, they did not do it to save money. They did it to intentionally reduce capability.

        This is the same issue as with the launch pads, they do not need to build a new one. They already have 2 and are trying to sell one off.

        In an effort to save us both from the risk of meta-carpal tunnel syndrome, I will close by saying that the same basic principle applies to all the other components/subcomponents of a SDHLV. The infrastructure was there to support an 8 flights per year flight rate. If that has now been degraded to no more than 2 flights per year, that degradation was not caused by affordability. It was done for political reasons.

      • Robert Clark says:

        Old Atlas, did you work on the original Atlas rockets? I was struck by the remarkably high mass ratios of these rockets using the “balloon” tank design. If you combine those highly weight optimized stages with modern high efficiency engines then you can get high payload to orbit with surprisingly small rockets.
        Do you know if any of the old Atlas rockets are still extant?

        Bob Clark

  14. Grand Lunar says:

    Vison and interest aren’t enough, as seen with previous administrations.

    What is also needed is some sense and reason.
    Otherwise, you may have a vision that is in reality not feasible or substainable.

    • billgamesh says:

      “Vision and interest aren’t enough,-”

      “What is also needed is some sense and reason.”

      Actually what is also needed is money.
      If by “sense and reason” you mean planetary protection, space solar power, and geosynchronous telecom platforms are “not feasible or sustainable” then I have to ask what is your version of reality?

      Is it hobby rockets and space tourism? Is it 100 billion dollars in tin cans going in circles and sucking up billions year after year? Is it paying “entrepreneurs” hundreds millions of dollars year after year for doing nothing more than re-manufacturing obsolete technology and re-branding it as “innovation”?

      The flexible path is a scheme based on the idea that a small company can do everything in space that massive governmental resources can and do it cheaper. Instead of a HLV it launches smaller rockets dozens of times and uses fuel depots in orbit make up for lack of lift. It has not accomplished anything despite stellar advertising and hordes of sycophant trolls spamming the web with alternate realities. It is all a scam and has done tremendous damage to the cause of space exploration. There is no cheap.

      The significant percentage of the budget once spent on the space program reverted to defense spending. This is truth- this is reality. While the private space advocates wail and gnash their teeth over the amount of money NASA “wastes” they are silent concerning the DOD budget and this tells the rest of the story.

      And that story is simple enough to understand; Norm Augustine could explain it in detail. Cold war toys are easy money- they do not really have to work. Space is hard money and no corporate being lawfully obligated to maximize profits for shareholders would lobby for space over defense.

      Greed is destroying the future of our children- it is not a popular opinion but the facts are there for anyone to see even if the mainstream media is silent about it. The world runs on energy and space solar power has always been the holy grail for visionaries like Gerard K. O’Neill who wanted an end to poverty and the conflicts it breeds. The world IS in danger of being hit by a comet or asteroid at any moment despite the statistical interval deception used to justify ignoring the threat. And finally the world can be completely connected with unlimited knowledge and information flowing to every single human being as a basic service.

      The Moon is the key to the future; lunar resources can make it all happen in our lifetime.

      This is what makes sense and the reason I am a space advocate.

  15. Robert Clark says:

    Well written as usual Paul. As you see can in the diagram of the possible landers they are still fixated on this idea that it has to be the size of the 45 metric ton(mT) Altair. But Apollo proved you can do a lander at 1/3rd that size. And in the 40 years since Apollo we can make the landersmaller, not larger than that one.
    Since NASA allowed the Altair to use hydrolox propellant rather than hypergolics, we can suppose we use all hydrolox propulsion for the in-space stages. Then by going small not large, you can do it with just 25 metric tons sent to TLI. Using a Centaur-style Earth Departure Stage(EDS), you can get about the same mass to TLI as the mass of the stage. So assume ca. 25 metric tons for this stage, and you would need only ca. 50 metric tons to LEO for such a mission.
    Being able to do such small missions is important because you actually wind up transporting more cargo and crew to the Moon than by using the large but infrequent missions. More to the point because they are small you can actually fund them and field them rather than spending billions on a mission that never flies.
    What additionally makes such missions doable is the wide variety of different launchers that can be used. If you like the SLS, it can be done on a single launch of the SLS, even on the first 70 mT interim version. If you like commercial space, you can do it on the single launch of the Falcon Heavy.
    If you like EELV’s you can do it on two launches of the Delta IV Heavy or two of the Atlas V 551 plus a man rated launcher for the crew. Heck, if you even like ESA you can do it on two launches of the Ariane 5 plus a man-rated launcher for the crew.
    NASA seems to be stuck in this infinite feedback loop when the instant you mention return to the Moon they immediately default back to a Constellation-sized mission, including the costly Altair lander. Maybe the only way to break out of this mind set is to ask people who worked on the original VSE proposal. As you recall the VSE did not need this huge architecture of the Constellation program. Perhaps they could develop proposals that would involve a much smaller lander and mission size.

    Bob Clark

    • billgamesh says:

      When people say any mission is better than no mission I have to disagree. At some point the project has to be justified as accomplishing something for what is spent. Which is why I am so critical of private space and their essentially useless inferior launch vehicles.

      Altair was too small, Ares V was too small. Any talk of going small is counterproductive. The critical limiting factor to all space exploration is the size of the launch vehicle.
      Saturn V was actually the bare minimum for a lunar mission. A 150 metric ton payload seems large only because of the guffaws and rolling of the eyes associated with it. Studies for 500 ton payload launchers were done and yes they would have and still will work.

      It is the 21st century. We have the technology to build much larger launchers than Saturn V and Aries V. The perceived size limitations are psychological based on a myth of scarcity concerning funding. The money is available- it is just not forthcoming because of the smaller profit margins of space compared to defense. The super carriers Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush are not small.

      “-they are small you can actually fund them and field them rather than spending billions on a mission that never flies.”

      Actually the trick is to spend billions AND fly. Sending dozens of “mini-missions” is a waste of time and resources when it is realized what one large piece of equipment can accomplish.
      Like this thing Bob, it is digging away a couple blocks from me as I write this;


      • Robert Clark says:

        Constellation was cancelled because it was too expensive. That didn’t happen because it was too small.
        Take a look again at the posts Spudis made discussing the VSE. It didn’t need a mega rocket the size of the Ares V. It was an actual affordable program that could have been funded.

        Bob Clark

  16. Gary Miloglav says:

    OK, some key points as I see them:

    “Affordable” is whatever you think is important enough to make some sacrifices.

    1. We can “afford” massive DoD spending on military equipment we may never use, but it keeps us “safe”.
    2. We can “afford” massive funding for failed banks to preserve the banking system from collapse.
    3. We can “afford” massive bailouts of the automobile and insurance industries to prevent catastrophic unemployment.
    4. We can “afford” to cut taxes on companies and people that have billions of dollars to spend so they can create more jobs.
    5. We can “afford” to build a monolithic, throw-away space ship that has no mission, in spite of a massive “sequester program”.
    6. We don’t seem to be able to afford an incremental, modular, approach to creating a space-faring civilization, even if the costs could be spread out over time.

    Changing the idea of what is “affordable” must come from the population at large and be directed to whomever is making the decision that something is “unaffordable”, whether that is Congress or a company. If it is a company, a product will be “affordable” only if it is profitable, or can “reasonably” lead to a profit in a “reasonable” period of time.

    The internet makes the decision-making process easier, by circulating ideas and discussions rapidly and publically.

    Regarding the number of launch pads: If NASA wants to sell or lease them, it should do so based on the maximum number of possible launches the pad(s) can handle. If the buyer or lessee cannot commit to the maximum, then the pad must be shared unless by doing so results in an overall reduction of the number of launches.

    Until NASA can “fix itself”, meaning being able to understand incremental, modular development instead of monolithic, the commercial industry will have to lead the way. This will eventually mean cooperation between all or most of the space companies such as SpaceX, et al, for launch services, Bigelow and other national governments (Japan, EU, Russia, and China(!) for habitats, and large, well-financed construction companies (Bechtel, Mitsubishi, just to name two) for lunar processing.

    However, we should remember that organizations that are smaller are more agile.
    “He travels the fastest who travels alone.” Rudyard Kipling

    Another wild card to consider is the proposed International Space Development Authority Corporation, to be formed via the United Nations, but will that be a glacial process! Don’t expect to see rapid decisions here.

    • billgamesh says:

      “Until NASA can “fix itself”, meaning being able to understand incremental, modular development instead of monolithic, the commercial industry will have to lead the way.”

      NASA is building the Space Launch System so congress already remedied the main problem which is the dismantling of the heavy lift launch infrastructure. The worst problem NASA has now is commercial space which is leading it into a dead end. This is the problem that needs to be understood and “fixed.”

      The SLS is the only hope for the U.S. space program because it enables NASA to finally have a mission again; building a cislunar infrastructure. Without an HLV with hydrogen upper stages there is only endless circles in Low Earth Orbit.

  17. Warren Platts says:

    IMHO, the NASA should simply contract with the Golden Spike Company. For $7B, they could have the first flight, and then incremental cost for flights after that would be ~$1.5B–roughly the cost of a fancy rover. This would at least get our foot back in the door. Capabilities could then be increased incrementally, starting with developing a reusable lander. With refueling capability landings at polar or far-side sites could be considered. It’s still a bit too early to select a site for a permanent station–we need to do some scouting sorties first.

  18. Even if the SLS was limited to two launches per year, you could still launch a manned mission with both the MPCV and a manned lunar lander launched at the same time if the lunar lander was an– empty– single stage reusable space craft that could be fueled by a fuel depot in low lunar orbit.

    Lockheed-Martin conceived such a LOX/LH2 single stage vehicle a few years ago.


    Solar powered space depots that store water and then converts it into fuel when needed could be placed in low lunar orbit. So potential fuel in the form of water could be stored almost indefinitely in lunar orbit. The SLS should be able to deliver at least 30 tonnes of water to low lunar orbit.

    A two launch scenario would still allow the SLS to deploy two large lunar outpost components (12 tonnes each) to the lunar surface each year with an Altair-like landing vehicle. It just wouldn’t allow any manned SLS missions that same year.

    But there is still no logical reason, IMO, to restrict the next heavy lift vehicle (SLS) to a two launch a year scenario when NASA’s former heavy lift vehicle (the Space Shuttle) was capable of launching up to 8 times per year.

    If we’re building an SLS, we need to use it!

    Marcel F. Williams

    • Paul Spudis says:

      But there is still no logical reason, IMO, to restrict the next heavy lift vehicle (SLS) to a two launch a year scenario when NASA’s former heavy lift vehicle (the Space Shuttle) was capable of launching up to 8 times per year.

      There may not be a logical reason, but there is a programmatic one — the new and future NASA is a shell of its former existence. It does and will not have the money or manpower to fly an HLV system more than twice per year. And this is all according to plan.

      Here’s something to chew on: sources tell me that the current SLS ops plan is NOT to fly twice per year. It is to fly once every TWO years.

      America continues its march to the stars.

      • Joe says:

        I have seen presentation charts done prior to the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) concept.

        The SLS flight schedule was as follows:
        – The Block One SLS would only fly twice once in 2017 (a test flight), then on some kind of crewed mission in 2021 (4 years later).
        – The Block One SLS would then be abandoned to begin development of the Block Two SLS.
        – That was to take until 2025 (another 4 year period.
        -The Block Two SLS would then fly about every two years for crewed missions to Asteroids (with the Asteroids still in their original orbits), until the 2030’s, when the Mars Mission was to begin.

        I did not get to attend the actual presentation, but am told that when asked questions like
        – How will launch crew proficiency be maintained while flying so seldom?
        – What kinds of additional support vehicles/hardware will be required to perform the Asteroid missions?
        – How will the ramp up to the 6 SLS flights/year required to support the Mars Mission be accomplished?

        All the questioner would get in response was disapproving stares.

      • billgamesh says:

        “-the current SLS ops plan is NOT to fly twice per year. It is to fly once every TWO years.”

        Well, that’s obviously not going to work. What a mess. Needs to be on the cover of Time or exposed in some way. The public does not have a clue how screwed up their space program is.

      • Here’s something that further makes your point Dr. Spudis:

        AUGUST 15, 2013

        “Even after the MPCV is fully developed and ready to transport crew, NASA will continue to face significant challenges concerning the long-term sustainability of its human exploration program. For example, unless NASA begins a program to develop landers and surface systems, NASA astronauts will be limited to orbital missions using the MPCV. Under the current budget environment, it appears unlikely that NASA will obtain significant funding to begin development of this additional exploration hardware, thereby delaying such development into the 2020s. Given the time and money necessary to develop landers and associated systems, it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct any surface exploration missions until the late 2020s at the earliest.”

        Of course, one reason that Congress won’t appropriate more money for the manned space program, IMO, is because both Democrats and Republicans in Congress don’t trust the administration to appropriately utilize those funds for beyond LEO development especially since President Obama has pretty openly rejected the notion of returning humans to the Moon as “been their done that”:-)


    • billgamesh says:

      “The SLS should be able to deliver at least 30 tonnes of water to low lunar orbit. ”

      Flying 30 tons of tap water to the Moon does not make much sense when there is several million tons of ice at the lunar pole. I am not convinced.

    • Warren Platts says:

      Storing water and then converting it to LH2/LO2 is going to be very energy and time consuming. A lot of trouble to go through when ULA estimates that boiloff losses from a passively cooled L2 depot would be less than the station-keeping requirements.

      Also, I think maybe the SLS flight rate could be increased if it’s mission were simplified to the launching of propellant only. If SLS was a one-trick pony whose only job was to loft 3rd stages containing 120 mT of LH2/LO2 each, a pretty aggressive Lunar program could be enabled IMO using “commercial” crew and reusable components for the rest of it.

      • Storing water for long periods of time in space (days, weeks, months, or years, centuries) shouldn’t require any energy at all.

        And using solar energy to convert water into oxygen and hydrogen is done at the ISS all the time. That’s how they produce their air.

        Liquifying hydrogen and oxygen is energy intensive. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of solar energy in cis-lunar space.

        And NASA has already invented crycoolers that can store liquid hydrogen for several months or years.

        Marcel F. Williams

        • Warren Platts says:

          Passively cooled cryodepots don’t require energy either, nor do they require energy for cracking and liquefaction. ISS has a 1kW system that evidently cracks about 6 kg of H2O/day. A system that could produce 10’s of tonnes of LH2/LO2 on a just-in-time basis would be measured in megawatts. Also, you’re forgetting that the optimal mass ratio for LO2:LH2 is 5:1–not the stoichiometric 8:1 of water. It doesn’t make sense unless one’s goal is unaffordability itself–something to invent in order to discredit the very idea of propellant depots IOW….

          • Of course, the use of a lunar orbiting fuel depot could be avoided by simply being able to launch two SLS vehicles within a few days of each other.

            But if the SLS launch rate was limited to just one launch every 6 months then you’d have up to 6 months to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen at a fuel depot placed in lunar orbit — not just a few days.

            Or you could simply launch the depot with the fuel already stored, using cryocoolers to re-liquify the ullage gasses.

            But excess oxygen produced at an orbital depot could also be utilized if the arriving lunar vehicle was already partially fueled with liquid hydrogen.

            But once fuel is being manufactured on the lunar surface, the orbital fuel depot would no longer be needed and could probably be moved to a Lagrange point to help fuel future Mars missions.

            Marcel F. Williams

    • Robert Clark says:

      I like the ULA proposal that uses the Centaur for a horizontal lander. This would give a lander less than half the size of the Altair. Note also since you would not be developing a whole new stage from scratch the development cost would be much reduced.
      In regards to the objection to using a “ballon” tank type stage for the lander, note that it doesn’t even have to be the Centaur. Both the Delta III and Delta IV rockets also have hydrolox upper stages of comparable size to the Centaur, but they do not use ballon tanks. These would also provide currently existing stages that could be used for a lander.
      Either of these would result in a mission size less than half that of Constellation. Note in this latest NASA study by using two 105 mT- capable SLS launches for a total of 210 metric tons capacity to LEO, this is a mission size actually larger than Constellation. In point of fact by using the hydrolox landers half-size to the Altair, it can be done just using a single launch of the 70 mT interim SLS to launch in 2017.
      An argument made in defense of the Altair is that this large lander is needed to deliver large amounts of cargo to the lunar surface, ca. 15 mT. But I was startled to find that a Centaur stage can even deliver more! If you’re making a pure cargo flight without crew capsule just to be one way to the lunar surface, then the Centaur can deliver more than 20 mT to the lunar surface.
      This is under the architecture to be comparable to how the Altair was to be used of the lander providing the burns both to insert into low lunar orbit and to perform the landing. But if you only required the lander just to do the landing itself, than it can be more than 30 mT payload for the Centaur. The other choices for a half-sized lander derived from the Delta rocket second stages not being as weight optimized would not be as high, but they would still be higher than the Altair.

      Bob Clark

  19. Robert Clark says:

    On SpacePolitics.com now is being discussed an interview by Lori Garver where she said the medical community would not sign off on an asteroid mission lasting hundreds of days. Then since a Mars mission under current plans would be even longer that would mean they would also not sign off on a Mars mission even if we could afford it.
    This is further support for the idea of getting the propellant from the Moon. You could have virtually unlimited propellant that could allow the trip to be done in weeks rather than months.
    If this really is the view of NASA that their current Mars missions actually can not be implemented for medical reasons then that should be openly discussed so that realistic alternatives can be developed.

    Bob Clark

  20. Robert Clark says:

    Paul, I looked up the field tests conducted on Earth of the RESOLVE ISRU testing program. They didn’t take place in arctic conditions and from what I was able to determine they did not do the extensive tests of having robotic excavators and robotic conversion of ice into hydrolox propellant under human direction with 3 second time delay.
    Such tests would go a long way to proving the viability of this taking place on the Moon.

    Bob Clark

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