Towards Monthly Moonshots

Google and others have used the term Moonshots to define highly ambitious technological projects and a mindset of big goals.

What is the history and the future of actual moonshots?

There were 6 manned landings on the moon.

There were 62 other successful moon missions with a combination of robotic landers, orbiters, sample return missions, flybys and gravity assists.

There were 60 failed moon missions. There were 36 launch failures and 21 spacecraft failures and a few partial failures.

There are now 23 funded moon missions. There are 19 unmanned moon and four planned manned moon missions over the next 5 years.

There are 9 proposed but unfunded unmanned missions and four other proposed manned moon programs in the 2030s.

There are four SpaceX Falcon 9 missions and one Starship mission (Dear Moon – Japanese Billionaire).

From 2024 onwards, the 2023 Starship mission and having dozens of fully reusable Super Heavy Starships will open the door to regular moon missions.

The historically best year for moon missions was 7 successful missions in 1967. There were four successful missions in 2007. There are five missions planned for 2020 and 6 for 2021.

Elon Musk has the goal of building 100 Starships every year.

If SpaceX is able to convert existing Merlin Engine plants to building Raptor engines, then they could build about one dozen Super Heavy Starships each year. SpaceX can build about 500 engines a year.

SpaceX could price moon missions with a fixed cost of $100 million. This price would cover loss of the rocket one out of every three landings. Moon missions would become safer and more reliable by building landing pads on the moon.

NASA is spending about $10+ billion for each SLS (Space Launch System) moon mission.

Even with $400 million for the mission portion and $100 million for the launch, $6 billion per year would be enough to fund monthly manned missions to the moon.

This would support the construction and operation of large manned bases on the moon.

The Zubrin moon direct plan describes the establishment of operations for producing fuel from ice with just two Falcon Heavy missions.

Fuel produced on the moon would mean sub-orbital hopping that explores the entire lunar surface.

The cost of unmanned moon flights would drop towards the $5-10 million incremental cost of a reusable SpaceX Super Heavy Starship.

Unmanned moon missions could become a weekly and even daily occurrence in the late 2020s.

58 thoughts on “Towards Monthly Moonshots”

  1. Any lunar colony powered by the sun (as in the illustration) would be a potential deathtrap since there’s no sun for two weeks at a time. Embrace LFTRs, Elon!

  2. It’s actually farther away. “Further” means “in addition to”. It’s their language, you’d think the Beeb would know the difference.

  3. Given the low temperature heat dump to space, and relatively high temperature of the oxygen being chilled, couldn’t one use liquid CO2 to gas expansion through turbines to generate the power to keep a station alive at night?

  4. OK, but I think my point stands – PV solar is much more mass efficient than Kilopower nuclear units (on the Moon), even counting Kilopower use during lunar night.

    And I made my estimate based on Earth rooftop PV panels – not the multi-layer, mass-optimized panels one would send to the Moon.

  5. If you have a nuclear reactor, you may as well use it for process heat, and do thermoelectric reduction. And/or thermoelectric hydrolysis. Though getting some help from the sun lets you use a smaller reactor.

    Btw, seems like a good place to mention H2Pro again. They claim over 98% efficiency of water electrolysis with mild heating.

    Also, if you’re using hydrogen for oxide reduction, the hydrogen is catalytic, so you don’t need to store it:
    (1) oxides + H2 –> reduced oxides + H2O
    (2) H2O –> H2 + O2
    (3) H2 cycled back to (1).

    But you’d still need to condense and store the oxygen.

    Btw2, if you start from water (ice) and carbon to make methalox, you’re actually left with an excess of hydrogen, which you can use to reduce metal oxides. I’ve suggested that a few times a while back.

    But it makes more sense to make methalox near the use points, at EML2 and LEO. Saves delta-v. And it’s been pointed out to me that hydrolox makes more sense for cislunar missions.

  6. My view is that solar heating with hydrogen involves very simple equipment, as does electrolysis. And water is easy to store.

    Set up a nuke to supply necessary base power and electricity for electrolysis, (Or an SPS, but you want at least some dead reliable local power.) produce water during the day, hydrogen during the night when condensing it is easy. Because storage for gaseous hydrogen will be VERY bulky.

    Or, if you’re Elon Musk, ship in some carbon, and produce methane and oxygen, so you don’t need deep cryogenic storage.

    Hydrogen will *eventually* reduce all the oxides, so long as you keep removing the water. But as you say, getting most of the way there is fine if it’s the oxygen you’re after. Then you can just stockpile the reduced metals until there’s some use for them.

  7. Like I said, you need something extra besides just the heat. It can be hydrogen, it can be electricity, or maybe some other process.

    I’ve looked at hydrogen reduction a while back. As I understood, it won’t reduce all the oxides completely. Works better for some than others. Maybe would work better at higher temp.

    Though if you only want the oxygen, not the pure metals, than it’s less important to get 100% reduction. Regolith is cheap.

    But hydrogen reduction gives you water. If you want oxygen, you’d still need to split it. So more energy input and losses there, and need extra trickery and reagents (or much higher temp) to split water thermally. E.g. S-I cycle needs sulfur and iodine, and a special reactor.

    It’s easier with electricity: you can set up the reaction to give oxygen directly.

  8. Eh, your crew is probably going to be far enough underground that the temperatures aren’t changing appreciably from day to night, and you’ve always got waste heat from life support and lighting to warm you.

    In space, it’s usually cooling that’s the problem, not staying warm, unless you’re talking a very small, underpowered rover.

  9. Actually, if instead of an inert gas you circulate hydrogen through it, it will reduce the metals. You can reuse the hydrogen, and make up losses from the hydrogen containing volatiles you bake out..

  10. Sweet.  

    Tell you what … it sounds like a perfect earth-bound experiment for an advanced high-school kid who needs a killer Science Fair project.  

    Would have to secure a pretty solid Fresnel lens though. Or as you say, a parabolic. But the rest is fire-brick and helium, ice-boxes (cold traps) and pyrex condensation tubing. Might be able to get a carbonaceous chondrite donation plus some simulated regolith from NASA, too.  Or maybe just some desert gully-wash sediment.

    Man, I wish I had these level of open-science-y-idea-discussions when I was a kid. Trying (and not really succeeding) to win the regional Science Fair in HS.  Got the Air Force special-commendation THREE successive years.  

    Sadly, my ideas just weren’t very good.  The AF loved ’em.

    But this one, could be done! And it’d finally be piece of current-focus research instead of all the lets-play-genetic-CRISPR-kit-researcher crâhp that goes for top-honors these days.  

    ⋅-⋅-⋅ Just saying, ⋅-⋅-⋅
    ⋅-=≡ GoatGuy ✓ ≡=-⋅

  11. The gasses never have to get near the lid, you introduce your inert gas near the window, it and the light enter the pot through an aperture, and then the gas exits with the volatiles to go to the cold traps. All the gas next to the window is stagnant inert gas, the contaminants can’t make it through the gas flowing through the aperture.

  12. I don’t think it’s a question of baking; it’s a question of reduction. Sometimes high temperature will reduce oxides, but there’s usually a catalytic or electrochemical way that’s cheaper in terms of energy–but not necessarily in terms of heat energy.

  13. ah, that’s true. 

    Let’s see. 

    B = 150×10⁹ m → baseline distance to sun.
    R = 696×10⁶ m → radius of sun.
    FL = 10 m → focal length of our fresnel lens
    k = 1200 W/m² → useable fraction of insolation, on Luna
    na = 2.0 → numerical aperture of Fresnel lens

    sd = spot diameter, meters (focussed)
    sd = 2R/B • FL
    sd = 2 × 696×10⁶ ÷ 150×10⁹ × 10
    sd = 0.0928 m

    sa = spot area, m²
    sa = π(sd/2)²
    sa = 0.006764 m²

    cr = collector radius, m
    cr = FL ÷ 2⋅na
    cr = 10 ÷ 2⋅2.0
    cr = 2.5 m

    ca = collector area, m²
    ca = π cr²
    ca = 19.6 m²

    fp = focussed power
    fp = k⋅ca
    fp = 23,560 W

    ssp = spot specific power, w/m²
    ssp = fp / sa
    ssp = 23,560 ÷ 0.006764
    ssp = 3,480,000 W/m²

    and from a lot of substituting above

    ssp = kB²/4na²R² and given k, B and R constants
    ssp = 13,900,000 / na² W/m²

    An interesting ‘problem’ is coming up with a transparent ‘lid to the pot’ that’ll stay clean with bombardment both of the incoming concentrated sunlight, and from the gasses emitted as the regolith is slagged. Day in and day out. My mind imagines it being ‘sprayed’ from inside by a continuously filtered inert gas like helium.  Good at wicking away heat AND all the valuable distilled moon-rock parts too.  

    Still, the arc method has advantages of being submerged in moondust. … Easier pot to build.

    ⋅-=≡ GoatGuy ✓ ≡=-⋅

    PS: kind of interesting to note the ssp = 13.9 MW/na² formula. It certainly tells WHY its so easy to smoke ants with a small magnifying lens!

  14. But with LUNOX you’re not after the volatiles. You’re after the oxygen in the metal oxides.

    A solar furnace can get you part of the way, but it won’t reduce the metals on its own.

  15. See my comment above about the ease of achieving cryogenic temperatures on the Moon even during the day, thanks to the lack of an atmosphere, and all the heat coming from predictable directions. Cooling is *easier* at night, especially on the dark side, but feasible even during the day.

  16. “What makes anyone think it would be easier on the Moon?”

    Lack of an atmosphere. Even on the side of the Moon facing the Earth, you can cool things down to cryogenic temperatures by means of passive radiation at night, by properly deploying insulation and reflectors; The part of the sky not occupied by the Earth is at about 4 degrees Kelvin. Getting things down to liquid nitrogen temperatures is easy peasy.

    You start by covering an area with vacuum insulation, basically just thin aluminum foil in layers. The top layer needs to provide specular reflection away from the area you want to cool, easy, because the only significant heat sources are ground heat, (You just insulated it away.) the Sun and the Earth, and they both follow predictable tracks across the sky.

    Then you support a similar elevated sky shade to keep the area you want cooled in shadow all the time.

    Heat then radiates away into the remaining sky that’s visible.

    Refrigerating during the night and especially on the far side of the Moon is even easier. Even without any special provisions, the surface on the far side gets down to about liquid Nitrogen temperatures.

    On Earth, superconductors require active refrigeration. And you have to deal with weather, including wind and lightning strikes.

  17. I would think parabolic mirrors would do the trick; Just focused sunlight would get you hot enough on the moon to bake volatiles out of your average moon rock.

    And given the lack of an atmosphere, it should be feasible to create cold traps by just dumping heat at night, and then insulating during the day.

  18. To a degree, yes, though solar panels would heat up and radiate into the shadows, and if they are packed fairly close together (to limit mass of power cables) that reduces the dark sky exposure, reducing the effectivenss of cooling in those ‘hot shadows’.

    Crater rims have enough thermal mass that for much of the day their shadowed areas would remain cold, but those shadows do shift over the 2 week day, making it problematic to use them except a relatively small area on the south side in the southern hemisphere or north in northern. So, yes, possible, with limitations.

  19. Well, no, that was kind of the whole point my post addressed!

    TLDR: Solar is far less mass intensive than kilopower IF you simply turn off energy intensive oxygen production for the 2 weeks of darkness. Produce and store enough fuel (storage tank, not heavy batteries) to run a turbine generator for the smaller nighttime power needs. Use the cold nights to do the cryo-chilling of oxygen far more efficiently.

    Storing heat from the day for the night is a fine idea; I considered adding it but was running long already. But for energy efficiency, the temperatures of heat being radiated away from oxygen cryo-chilling at night will mostly be far below that needed for a crewed station.

  20. In-situ resource production should have started in the 1970s.

    As soon as possible, SpaceX should start in-situ resource production. Just keep sending heavies with the tools and robots to produce materials and build shelter and other infrastructure.

    During this process will be the first people living on the moon, these will be the famous explorers/colonists. Next we will have to recruit for settlers to give their lives essentially to the development of the moon. At least this colonization won’t require the use of genocide!

    All the people advocating for a trip to Mars just to turn around and come back like we did on the moon in the 60s and 70s are idiots! We need permanent settlement of the moon as priority one, then once as that is established as a colony and refueling station, we should progress to colonize Mars. It’s only logical.

  21. You forgot battery mass to keep the colonists from freezing to death during the night. Also you need to add more solar mass to charge the batteries for the two week night. Mass calculations for solar would need solar for 4 weeks power generation and batteries for 2 weeks power. Compared to nuclear for 4 weeks… nuclear looks pretty good.

    And as I am wont to say, waste heat is a valuable commodity during the cold lunar night. Using batteries to make heat is just a sad use of batteries.

  22. We still need to find an economical reason to go there. My favorite is Platinum metals mining. A single low flying mineral assaying satellite would tell us if the concentration of Platinum metals is high enough to worth mining. While the moon is dead now, it was once wet and volcanic which means that there could have been chemical processes that could have concentrated platinum metals.

  23. Near a crater rim, you could have light and shadow simultaneously (not at the same spot, but close by).

    In other places, the solar panel can provide a shadow. Not as good as Lunar night, but still colder than sunny side.

  24. Kilopower units are projected to produce 10kWe from a 1500kg unit – I am unclear if that includes the radiator and support hardware, but assume it does.

    Ordinary solar panels to produce 10kWe (on Earth) would mass about 600kg. They’ll require some added hardware to support and aim them, but power per panel should also be ~1.3x higher on the moon (no atmosphere), so those likely about cancel each other.

    So call it roughly 2.5x as much power from solar vs Kilopower, per unit mass.

    That’s only in the daytime of course – and due to self-shading of a solar array, you get a bit less than 2 weeks of full power.

    However, separating oxygen from rocks is only half your problem – you also want to liquify that oxygen. The lunar night is the most efficient time to do that.

    So shut down the high-power industrial oxygen extraction for 2 weeks a month, and use the dark weeks to run low-power cryo-cooling to convert compressed oxygen to liquid oxygen. Or ‘store’ cold to use during the day – less efficient, but fewer compressed O2 tanks would be needed.

    The solar panel array could double as a radiator array with some increase in mass. A nuclear powered system would also need a large radiator array for cryo-processing – at least as much added mass, likely more.

    Cryo-processing (and a human-crewed station) still needs some power at night. Use a fraction of your solar power to produce fuel and burn it in a turbine during the lunar night. Or use a couple Kilopower units.

  25. PS… I really am just calling out the extraordinary-energy-and-likely-also-technology angle… Not picking on you personally!!!

  26. Not to be too goatish, but “But LOX can be produced from rocks wherever you land.” — really? Do you just squeeze the rocks really hard, or is there plenty of subterranean crystal oxygen just aching to be heat-freed from the matrix?

    Neither? OK, then I’m going to go out on a limb, and guess “plasm-dissociation of regolith” by mmm… plasma dissociators. Y’know, the ones anyone can buy at the Lunar ACE Hardware store. In stock. How many gigawatts are we talking about, pal?

    To me that’s a real energy-of-production gotcha. 

    If I had a plasma torch, well … wait.  

    “plasma torch” means something completely different in the vacuum of Luna. Ho’d this fly … OK, scoop up a bunch of regolith. Insert electrodes connected to REALLY high-power DC source. Nothing happens. Briefly touch them, initiating an arc plasma. Separate quickly to a hold-off allowing for a stable heating arc. The regolith rapidly melts … and the lower-volatiles turn to gas, to plasma.  

    Maybe the oxygen is separable right there?
    Dunno… methinks it’d recombine quickly with other elements.  

    But one thing’s for certain – you’d get a lot of interesting ‘species’ distilling off.  

    Maybe that’s really the gambit.  

    Distill when the sun shines.  
    Distill a lot!
    Beddy-byes when the Sun is asleep.
    Could work. 
    Might get a bunch of water, too.  

    Apparently, there’s a small-but-significant fraction of regolith which is partially hydrated.

    ⋅-⋅-⋅ Just saying, ⋅-⋅-⋅
    ⋅-=≡ GoatGuy ✓ ≡=-⋅

  27. Only half the Moon has no power for 2 weeks, while the Moon overall always has some, except during total lunar eclipse. Space mirrors may also work, but Criswell has pretty simple plan with no moving parts. Some part beamed back to Moon seems trivial. A refreshed look considering Musk rocket costs may make LSP quite attractive. Of course, I am proposing much more than making fuel, but that seems a good place to start. Getting started is the hard part!

  28. Yes, I mean the Sun. As for which is easier, it probably depends upon the scale, as I indicated. I include supplying Earth in the plan, or the scale is perhaps small enuf for nukes all the way, for fuel.

  29. “existing fusion economically.”

    You mean solar, right? Because right now existing fusion comes in megaton increments.

    It is much easier to set up nuclear power than it is to beam power or to set up a lunar grid.

    The only real issue would be creating enough radiator to dump hundreds of MW of waste heat.

  30. Funnily, I do believe SPS for the Moon has some merit.

    If you really don’t want nukes for whatever reason and you have no sunlight for 2 weeks every month, then you should definitely consider making your own artificial Sun, producing reliable electricity in space and beaming it down to the surface.

    This also applies to space mirrors, which could be simpler to make and handy over there too.

  31. I’m not knee-jerk anti-nuke, but find it hard to imagine competing with existing fusion economically. Power beaming Moon to Moon should be easier than Earth to Earth, except that we are currently on only the Earth. Same problem, Earth or Moon, is solved with such power beaming: intermittent supply. Now, the first steps may benefit from quick small nukes, but we need to plan to grow to 20-200 TWe.

  32. I agree! I support Criswell LSP, then L5 solar farm, lastly GEO sats, as per O’Neill/Glaser, for SSP designs. But what a promise! Start huge Space project to make bucks and solve global heating. Go no faster than possible, but GO!

  33. Having 2 weeks of shadow ain’t good for your solar powered batteries.

    They will need a reliable, compact power source over there and that’s nuclear!

  34. A superconductor electrical grid on the Moon is science fiction. We have a hard time setting up such a thing on Earth, over short distances. What makes anyone think it would be easier on the Moon?

    Raising rotating solar panels over a polar crater rim is slightly more feasible, but still sounds like something anyone would only do after having a lot of experience building stuff on the Moon.

    Nah, whatever humans build first is gonna be with resources available wherever they land (and over a few miles around), without involving any daring extraterrestrial architecture.

    Basically, LOX from regolith and then other raw elements, as we gain knowledge and more machinery arrives.

  35. Indeed. LOX is a big part of the mass everyone will be needing on the moon anyway. And over there, any pound of mass from Earth is worth a lot.

    Lunar polar ice is a longer term proposition, when we already have some infrastructure in place.

    But LOX can be produced from rocks wherever you land.

  36. Nit-pick: it is only the very top lip of the crater walls that are in perpetual light, and the collectors would have to be held above them and rotated. Now, the edges lower down that are lit half the time are very close together, so works pretty good for cable to local load, such as fuel production. But pretty small, and no real advantage over Criswell if beaming to Earth.
    “superconducting DC transmission lines will “grid” (or is that gird?) the Moon” was proposed by Shimizu company, obviously Japanese, long ago, to power micro transmitter in the center of the near side. Criswell’s plan seems better to me, at least for powering Earth. It can start much smaller, not needing the cable.
    And don’t forget the nice C compounds, maybe even N, mixed in the ice. O’Neill was ready to go with only O to be extracted, no idea there was anything like ice on the poles.
    Seems easier now, but should have been started long ago, at least checking it out.

  37. I was after a much simpler idea, in that the thing has to be paid for before the first use. Otherwise, I would have my own Space Solar Power system already!
    (edit: reminds me of the story where the salesman told the farmer that the tractor would pay for itself. The farmer told him to deliver it after that happened.)

  38. A reusable launcher and spacecraft are just like any other piece of capital equipment. How “cheap” they are depends entirely on how you want to amortize the investment, and how you depreciate the equipment for tax purposes.

    If you lose a piece of capital equipment to an accident, you charge it off in the year of loss, but otherwise I’d think that it would be best to amortize the capital expense per time, rather than per launch. That makes it kinda hard to generate an exact per-launch cost, but that’s merely an accounting issue. As a practical matter, if you want to look at the biz case, I suspect taking the capital expense and dividing by the expected number of launches is a pretty good estimate.

  39. Kilopower, Megapower, etc. To quote the film classic Starship Troopers:

    “Nuke em Johnny!”

    Probably easy to test experimental nuclear reactors on the moon. I’ve got my eye on Elysium’s molten chloride reactor.

  40. But, but Doug!

    I thought that in space, energy is free! Right?

    On Luna, there are an endless succession of proposals made by all kinds of really smart people, that tell of near-limitless energy resources by way of photovoltaic solar panels, and the “perpetually lit” crater walls of the poles. One doesn’t really need even that, if the ‘waste’ of not having light on a 28 day light-and-dark schedule isn’t all that imposing.  

    Put up rings of the things most-everywhere. Around Luna.

    Since wishdomite is easy to come by, we might as well expect that superconducting DC transmission lines will “grid” (or is that gird?) the Moon, from all the opportune solar power installations.  And once superconducting, there are no homic losses of course.  Ought not to be terribly hard to keep the things cold, either. 

    So, now that that’s solved, and with the recent Lunar probe microwave reflective data showing rather massive deposits of water-as-ice under the first few meters of regolith … well, oxygen, hydrogen, space-fuel … seems easy!

    ⋅-⋅-⋅ Just saying, ⋅-⋅-⋅
    ⋅-=≡ GoatGuy ✓ ≡=-⋅

  41. Agree that Starship could mean humanity beginning to move off Earth in significant numbers.

    But the energy needed electrolyze water to do suborbital hops on the Moon would be much, much greater than the energy needed to recharge a Tesla-like vehicle.

  42. Also, they don’t get cheap until after the initial cost is covered, after many reuses. Financing helps with this. So does a big project, such as Lunar Solar Power, which promises an overall profit, not just a profit for launch to an otherwise funded goal.

  43. …On the other hand, if we only get 10 reuses out of a Starship and 100 out of a SuperHeavy, the same mission will cost $113.15M. So, as usual, reusability is pretty much everything.

  44. “SpaceX could price moon missions with a fixed cost of $100 million. This price would cover loss of the rocket one out of every three landings.”

    Let’s figure this out in detail.

    Starship has 6 Raptors. Let’s guess that they cost $2M apiece, or twice that of Merlins. Let’s further guess that the manufacturing cost of a Starship is 4x the cost of the engines. That gives us $48M. If we assume that a Starship can fly launch 100 times, that’s $0.48M per launch. But if we plan to lose one in three lunar missions, that’s $1.44M per launch.

    We also need to apply payload processing, pad ops, and fueling costs. I get a prop cost of about $200K per flight. Let’s call payload integration another $200K, and maintenance (swapping engines, replacing heat shields, etc.) another $500K per mission.

    For SuperHeavy, we’ve got 37 engines @ $2M. If total manufacturing cost is 2x of the engines, you’re at $148M per SH. Amortize over 1000 flights and you get $0.148M.

    Fueling costs are double that of Starship: $400K. Stacking should be less: $50K. Maintenance is likely a wash (more engines, less other stuff): $500K.

    But we also need 12 refueling missions.


    SS lunar cargo amortized manufacturing: $1.44M
    SS cargo ops (with payload integration): $0.9M

    SS tanker manufacturing: $0.48M
    SS tanker ops (no payload integration): $0.7M

    SH manufacturing: $0.15M
    SH ops costs: $0.95M

    Total cost: $30.8M
    So $100M price would give you a 70% gross margin. Sounds about right.


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