A study by NexGen LLC looked at a lower cost approach to explore the moon and Mars.
Thestudy’s primary purpose was to assess the feasibility of new approaches for achieving our national goals in space. NexGen assembled a team of former NASA executives and engineers who assessed the economic and technical viability of an “Evolvable Lunar Architecture” (ELA) that leverages commercial capabilities and services that are existing or likely to emerge in the near-term. They evaluated an ELA concept that was designed as an incremental, low-cost and low-risk method for returning humans to the Moon in a manner that directly supports NASA’s long-term plan to send humans to Mars. The ELA strategic objective is commercial mining of propellant from lunar poles where it will be transported to lunar orbit to be used by NASA to send humans to Mars.
This plan can affordably
* Get humans back to moon by 2020-2023
* Get a permanent manned lunar base by 2030-2035
Based on these assumptions, the our analysis concludes that:
• Based on the experience of recent NASA program innovations, such as the COTS program, a human return to the Moon may not be as expensive as previously thought.
• America could lead a return of humans to the surface of the Moon within a period of 5-7 years from authority to proceed at an estimated total cost of about $10 Billion (+/- 30%) for two independent and competing commercial service providers, or about $5 Billion for each provider, using partnership methods.
• America could lead the development of a permanent industrial base on the Moon of 4 private-sector astronauts in about 10-12 years after setting foot on the Moon that could provide 200 MT of propellant per year in lunar orbit for NASA for a total cost of about $40 Billion (+/- 30%).
• Assuming NASA receives a flat budget, these results could potentially be achieved within NASA’s existing deep space human spaceflight budget.
• A commercial lunar base providing propellant in lunar orbit might substantially reduce the cost and risk NASA of sending humans to Mars. The ELA would reduce the number of required Space Launch System (SLS) launches from as many as 12 to a total of only 3, thereby reducing SLS operational risks, and increasing its affordability.
• An International Lunar Authority, modeled after CERN and traditional public infrastructure authorities, may be the most advantageous mechanism for managing the combined business and technical risks associated with affordable and sustainable lunar development and operations.
• A permanent commercial lunar base might substantially pay for its operations by exporting propellant to lunar orbit for sale to NASA and others to send humans to Mars, thus enabling the economic development of the Moon at a small marginal cost.
Historically, the human mission cost beyond Earth’s orbit have been dominated by launch cost. However, the cost reduction revolution started by SpaceX with their Falcon launch vehicles and being matched by ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle development will usher in a new era for human exploration. Launch cost is dramatically being reduced and may become a fraction of the mission cost rather than the dominating cost factor. For this study, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy were used as representative of the new trend in launch costs because of the violable prices on the SpaceX web site. SpaceX currently operates the Falcon 9 that has a payload of 13.1t to LEO at 28.5° at a per launch cost of $62.1M ($4750/kg) as per there Web site. This compares to the Saturn V that delivered 130t at $46,000/kg. The economy of Falcon 9 is based on the large number of planned launches per year; as of 2016 there are 21 launches currently sold. In addition, SpaceX is actively developing a reusable Falcon 9 that should further reduce costs.
In addition, SpaceX is developing the Falcon Heavy using 3 modified Falcon 9 cores and the Falcon 9 second stage. Falcon Heavy has an advertised payload to LEO of 53t at a cost of $90M ($1700/kg).
NexGen Space LLC (NexGen) was partly funded by a grant from NASA’s Emerging Space office in the Office of the Chief Technologist.
The evolvable lunar architecture, which leverages commercial partnerships, that was assessed by NexGen was a 3-phase, step-by-step development of a lunar base. To the maximum extent possible, it uses existing and proven technologies in the current phase of development, and in parallel developed key technologies necessary for the next phase. The key decision point for transitioning to the next phase was driven, in part, by a few key technology developments.
This step-by-step approach allows for the incremental development and insertion of reusable elements in a low-risk phased manner that minimizes cost and risk.
There were three phases to the NexGen Evolvable Lunar Architecture (ELA):
Phase 1: Human Sorties to the Equator/Robotic Scouting of Poles
Phase 1 was designed with three independent activities taking place in parallel:
• The robotic segment would focus on characterizing the amount and nature of the water in the lunar poles, to enable later prospecting, and to identify the optimal site for a lunar base.
• The human transportation segment would focus on developing and demonstrating the key systems for returning humans to the Moon, including the in-space transportation (a reusable crew capsule for transporting humans to lunar orbit and returning them safely to Earth), and a lunar lander.
• The technology segment would develop the technologies needed in Phase 2, such as propellant storage and transfer.
The Key Decision Point (KDP) to begin Phase 2 is the successful demonstration of human landing at the equator and with the successful demonstration of propellant storage and transfer capability needed for transferring human systems to a lunar polar orbit in Phase 2.
Phase 2: Sorties at Poles and ISRU Capability Development
The focus of Phase 2 is human sorties at the lunar poles, and developing the key capabilities and technologies needed for Phase 3. This is a stepwise transition phase that includes:
• Development of lunar surface ISRU capabilities and technologies to mine the lunar ice, and convert the water into propellant
• Development of a large reusable LOX-H2 lunar lander, including reliable cryogenic LOX/H2 engines and propellant depots.
• Completion of the robotic scouting mission, and selection of the site for the permanent lunar mining base.
The KDP for Phase 3 is when lunar water ISRU, cryogenic LOX/H2 storage and transfer, and a large reusable lunar lander are all available. The reusable lunar lander will have the ability to transport propellant to the L2 depot and return, to transport large structures from lunar orbit to the lunar surface, and safely transport humans to/from the lunar surface.
Phase 3: Permanent Lunar Base transporting propellant to L2
The focus of Phase 3 is the operations of a large-scale mining lunar water, cracking of the water into lunar propellant, storage of the propellant, and transfer of 200 metric tons of propellant per year to a propellant depot at the Earth-Moon L2 station. To achieve this objective, a permanent lunar base for a crew of 4 is first developed using the lunar ISRU and reusable lunar lander. The purpose of the crew is to operate, maintain, and repair the mostly automated ISRU equipment.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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