A CommercialPrivate Lunar Base

Well, this is intriguing:

…source information acquired by L2 this week revealed plans for a “game-changing” announcement as early as December that a new commercial space company intends to send commercial astronauts to the moon by 2020.

According to the information, the effort is led by a group of high profile individuals from the aerospace industry and backed by some big money and foreign investors. The company intends to use “existing or soon to be existing launch vehicles, spacecraft, upper stages, and technologies” to start their commercial manned lunar campaign.

The details point to the specific use of US vehicles, with a basic architecture to utilize multiple launches to assemble spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The details make direct reference to the potential use of propellant depots and fuel transfer technology.

Additional notes include a plan to park elements in lunar orbit, staging a small lunar lander that would transport two commercial astronauts to the surface for short stays.

The architecture would then grow into the company’s long-term ambitions to establish a man-tended outpost using inflatable modules. It is also understood that the company has already begun the design process for the Lunar Lander.

If this is true, it’s going to make it harder for NASA to justify SLS. Or even being in the human spaceflight business at all. We’ll soon see, perhaps. December isn’t far off.

[Update a while later]

I decided to change the post title, because it isn’t clear that this is intended as a money-making venture.

17 thoughts on “A CommercialPrivate Lunar Base”

  1. GLXP cant get a rover to the lunar surface, and Branson cant get his “spaceship” to fly. Commercial human flights to moon ? No way.

    1. As G. Harry Stine pointed out, most people view the world in linear terms and don’t understand exponential growth curves.

      In the early stages, exponential growth always looks like linear progress at a very low rate.

  2. Very intriguing. I speculated just last week that there would be private base at L1 or L2 by 2019; so this is nice to hear. :)

    Isn’t a Dragon with SuperDraco more than powerful enough to be a Lunar lander? If a Red Dragon can take off from Mars, the Moon should be easy. So why develop a different lander when one already exists?

    Also, what’s the business case for landing on the Moon? Water fuel? Or maybe Bigelow could support more space stations at lower prices if he could get water, air, and fuel from the Moon rather than Earth?

    1. A single SuperDraco has 50% more thrust than the LM descent engine, although it would need a huge nozzle extension for better vacuum efficiency. But if sticking with hypergolics, it might make more sense to use a 1,000 lbf thrust version of a Draco. With an array of smaller engines, instead of gimballing and throttling you could just pulse them as needed, and since they’re smaller they’re also much shorter. The LMDE was 7.5 feet tall, whereas a 1000-lb thrust Draco with the same area ratio should be about 2.5 feet tall, saving five feet of vertical height and letting you use shorter legs with a narrower footprint.

      Of course there are other changes you could add, depending on which design path you want to follow. If you stick with a two-stage configuration then it would make sense to actually put most of the habitable internal volume in the descent stage so you don’t have to drag back into lunar orbit. Even if you keep most of the volume in the ascent stage, it would make sense to add an actual airlock so you don’t have to depressurize the entire vehicle to exit, and perhaps the best way to do that is to have a hatch at the bottom of the ascent stage which drops into an airlock built into the descent stage, with the astronaut just dropping out of the bottom of the descent stage through another small hatch, getting rid of the entire ladder and porch business.

      If you go for a single-stage, fully re-usable lander, the wet mass will probably be 35% higher than the two-stage version, but if you re-using everything but the fuel the payback should be worth it. And of course you could make a lander with a Bigelow section that inflates on the surface once the astronauts smooth out the soil with a sand-trap rake, which perhaps makes slightly more sense than having a Bigelow module that’s not directly connected to the lander, forcing the astronauts to suit up and go through two airlocks to transfer equipment, along with such a trip everytime they realize they left their pencil in the lander or something.

      1. Your comments about inflatables reminds me of the other ‘oddity’ in this report. Why are they building an inflatable Moon base? ISRU would give you so much more space.

        But I guess the answer to that is “You gotta have somewhere to live that’s bigger than a Lander when you first arrive.” A rammed-earth brickmaker and regolith shoveler can make bigger habitats once you’re already on the surface.

      2. Well, a Bigelow module would have the advantage that it doesn’t depend on the material properties of the regolith to make a man-rated pressure vessel, yet also packs to a small size for launch, delivery, and deployment, and it sets up quickly. But for an extended stay it would need to be covered with several feet of regolith for radiation shielding (which implies that it should have gently sloping sides). Of course the downside is that the module can never be depressurized or everything in it will be vacuum packed and buried, but then again, each module would also be its own landfill when we’re done with it. ^_^

        It avoids a few unknowns in the initial attempts to build a base, which should make the plan look less risky, yet provides much more volume than any aluminum cylinder that we’re likely to send, especially using commercial rockets.

      3. Oh, cool. :)

        I was also just thinking that if you went with roughly 1,000 lbf engines that are about 2.5 feet tall, the fit quite nicely around the lower airlock hatch, so you could put a shelf or bench over them and have a place to sit to take off your lunar spacesuit, and the backpacks could sit there against the wall and get refilled with consumables. That might also keep most of the dust down in the descent stage. With the engines and descent stage structure around that airlock, and with the still-fueled ascent stage above it, it might even offer some measure of partial radiation protection.

        Some of the same reasoning might apply to a two-stage Dragon, which could use its forward docking port to attach to the descent module, which would have the airlock, and the upside-down capsule configuration lends itself to a downward view. But to get back to orbit on its own is going to require about a 2.1:1 mass ratio, and since a Dragon already has a heat shield it doesn’t make much sense to rendevous with another Dragon. So if you up the Dragon’s mass ratio to 2.8 it could do a direct ascent and trans-Earth injection.

        Scaling the LM descent dry mass along with the mass of such a Dragon, I think you come out about 88% lighter than the Apollo stack prior to trans-lunar injection. You could improve this a bit by designing an extra stage or trunk for Dragon that has a docking adapter, unused during launch, TLI, and LOI, but left in lunar orbit for rendevous to propel the return flight, but that’s getting a bit clunky, and having a Dragon on the moon, upside down, with a service trunk still attached (so the ascent fuel doesn’t eat up all the internal volume), is weird enough, not to mention forward firing thrusters for the ascent.

        1. I don’t know about a strap hanger landing? At this point you are no longer talking about a dragon, but a whole different animal (and you’ve ruined those fire breathing nostrils!)

          Since you’re abandoning the descent stage, go all out. Make the whole vehicle a descent stage, with just an open cockpit ascent vehicle with no port at all (they get to it by climbing the outside of the lander.) This eliminates the need to dock in orbit, it’s just an EVA.

        2. You know, I once suggested the space-suit ascent for a Mars mission (it’s a huge savings). According to my numbers, max-Q would be the same as riding a Harley down the highway. Gotta love that thin atmosphere!

    2. I should add that if you use an array of engines and a vertical airlock in the descent module, the logical place to put it is right in the middle. Since the lander will be dependent on an Orion or Dragon to deliver and retrieve its crew, the lander doesn’t have to control the docking. That means you can get rid of the LM’s top hatch and docking equipment and just dock with the bottom of the descent module to get the crew aboard, then dock with the bottom of the ascent module to get them back. That also means that you’d be using a standard docking collar to mate the ascent module to the descent module, which means you could re-dock the ascent module with new descent modules for subsequent missions. That also means that there aren’t any structural requirements for the top of the ascent module because nothing ever attaches there, lowering the vehicle’s weight and center of mass. If the crew lands laying down instead of standing up, the ascent module’s windows can move way down and the entire top could be inflatable, and that would actually give them a window facing the bottom docking port. It also cuts a whole lot of structural weight from the ascent module because the ascent module no longer has to transfer the thrust loads from the service module to the heavy descent module during trans-lunar injection. And if the bulk of the ascent module is inflatable, it packs a whole lot tighter during launch.

  3. Remember that it’s the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17 in a few weeks time… let’s just hope NASA doesn’t make a formal announcement before then just to “spike” the prospects of a commercial venture.

  4. Just saw this article by legendary Apollo manager Chris Kraft mentioned on the NasaSpaceFlight.com forum:

    Space Launch System is a threat to JSC, Texas jobs
    By Chris Kraft and Tom Moser | April 20, 2012 | Updated: April 20, 2012 8:20pm 
    We’re wasting billions of dollars per year on SLS. There are cheaper and nearer term approaches for human space exploration that use existing launch vehicles. A multicenter NASA team has completed a study on how we can return humans to the surface of the moon in the next decade with existing launch vehicles and within the existing budget. This NASA plan, which NASA leadership is trying to hide, would save JSC and create thousands of jobs in Texas.

     Since Kraft is opposed to the SLS and he says this plan uses existing launch vehicles, it can’t use the SLS or the Falcon Heavy. It must then use something similar to the Early Lunar Access plan that uses orbital assembly, perhaps using two launches of the Delta IV Heavy.
     Like the suppressed report that suggested orbiting propellant depots could accomplish the goals of the SLS at lower cost, this report will eventually also come out. So who’s got the inside scoop?

       Bob Clark

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