The Space Development Steering Committee has called for three new space programs that harness the powers of America’s entrepreneurial space companies—companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. One would be a public-private Moon program. Another would be a public-private Mars program. And the third of these entrepreneurial space programs would target the asteroids.
SpaceX already has a Mars program in the works. Blue Origin has a Blue Moon vehicle in the conceptual stage. And United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has a proposal for an entire Moon-Earth economy. With support from NASA, these programs could move farther, faster, and higher.
Now, Eric Berger, writing in Ars Technica, has revealed that two of these public-private space programs are finally being advocated by a pair of the very companies that can make them happen, SpaceX and Blue Origin. If SpaceX and Blue Origin succeed in making their case in Washington, America could be on the verge of a space revolution, a revolution that will make the Moon and Mars accessible on a nearly daily basis and at a fraction of traditional NASA costs.
Here are Berger’s reports on these startling approaches to the Moon and Mars.
SpaceX goes there—seeks government funds for deep space
Ideas: Vertical takeoff of rockets on the Moon. Cargo to Mars. Deep space comms.
ERIC BERGER – 7/13/2017, 1:30 PM
During the last decade, NASA has invested billions of dollars into programs with private companies to carry cargo and, eventually, astronauts to the International Space Station. These commercial services were powered by new kinds of contracts for the agency, because they offered a “fixed price” for services and required companies to put in their own funding to develop new spacecraft and rockets.
But the space agency has established a Maginot line of sorts around the planet when it comes to deep space exploration. For example, less than a year ago, NASA’s then-administrator, Charles Bolden, said he’s “not a big fan” of commercial companies building large, heavy lift rockets that will enable private companies to venture beyond low-Earth orbit. For Bolden, the lines were clear: we’ll support you near Earth, but leave deep space to the professionals. “We believe our responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that normal people cannot do, or don’t want to do, like large launch vehicles,” Bolden said of NASA.
Nevertheless, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other companies have pressed forward with their plans to develop large rockets capable of deep space exploration. And they’re making progress. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy booster, which has 90 percent of the lift capability to low Earth orbit as the initial version of NASA’s Space Launch System, is likely to fly in 2017—up to two years before NASA’s own big rocket.
Call for deep space
On Thursday during a hearing before the US Senate’s Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, SpaceX formally called upon the US government to support public-private partnerships in deep space. Tim Hughes, SpaceX’s senior vice president for global business and government affairs, testified. “The principles applied in past programs for low Earth orbit capability can and should be applied to deep space exploration,” Hughes said. He referred to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS program.
NASA, Hughes said, should now consider funding a COTS-like program to run “in parallel” to NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft for deep space exploration. “There’s a program of record right now that is NASA’s central focus for deep space exploration,” Hughes said in response to a Senator’s question. “But I think it can be readily supplemented with public-private partnerships to allow us to sustain a permanent presence in space.”
As examples, Hughes said NASA could set “high level requirements” for companies, such as demonstrating the vertical takeoff and landing of rockets from the lunar surface, delivering large amounts of cargo to the surface of Mars, or building a more reliable communications network between Earth and Mars. All of these projects, he said, would enable the United States to establish a permanent presence in space, rather than fly one-off missions.
Hughes also offered evidence that the COTS program has benefited both NASA and SpaceX to a large degree. For example, in 2011, NASA estimated that it would have cost the agency about $4 billion to develop a rocket like the Falcon 9 booster based upon NASA’s traditional contracting processes. A more “commercial development” approach might have allowed the agency to pay only $1.7 billion.
However, by setting a high-level requirement for cargo transport to the space station—and leaving the details to industry—SpaceX was allowed to design and develop the Falcon 9 rocket on its own, Hughes said. The cost? According to NASA’s own independently verified numbers, SpaceX’s development costs of both the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets were estimated at approximately $390 million in total. NASA got a better deal, and SpaceX got a rocket it could use to fly commercial payloads as well as NASA ones.
It is not clear how warm the senators were to SpaceX’s plan, which shares support in the commercial space community from others interested in deep space activities (such as Blue Origin, with its Blue Moon concept). “I think the COTS program has been a great success story for NASA and the commercial marketplace, and believe that the government should look at all options for public private partnership in advancing our nation’s exploration goals,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
However, some at NASA will likely resist the notion, as it would mean relinquishing some of the control they have over design and development of rockets and spacecraft under the agency’s traditional, cost-plus contracting methods. The beneficiaries of those contracts—including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and other established aerospace companies—are also likely to be less than welcoming toward NASA opening the door to competition in deep space exploration to new space firms.
Jeff Bezos says NASA should return to the Moon, and he’s ready to help
“It’s time for America to go back to the Moon and this time to stay.”
ERIC BERGER – 3/3/2017, 11:11 AM
Until the last year, Jeff Bezos has kept the plans for his rocket company, Blue Origin, largely under wraps. Since then, he has talked about doing suborbital space tourism flights, building an orbital rocket, and now he has begun to open up about ambitions beyond low Earth orbit. And unlike SpaceX and its Mars ambitions, Blue Origin has its focus on the Moon.
The Washington Post first reported on the “Blue Moon” concept Thursday evening, which Bezos has articulated in a seven-page white paper sent to NASA leadership and President Trump’s transition officials over the last two months. The proposal outlines a plan to build a lunar spacecraft and lander to deliver supplies to the South Pole of the Moon, where scientists believe there are abundant ice resources and almost continuous solar energy.
Later Thursday night, during an awards event hosted by Aviation Week, Bezos explained the philosophy behind this idea. “We are hoping to partner with NASA on a program called Blue Moon where we would provide a cargo-delivery service to the surface of the Moon, with the intent over time of building a permanently inhabited human settlement on the Moon,” he said. “It’s time for America to go back to the Moon and this time to stay. We can do it. It’s a difficult but worthy objective.”
In the document, Bezos said this enterprise could only be done in concert with NASA and that his company would help establish cost-effective tools to carry out the development of a lunar settlement. The spacecraft could launch on an Atlas 551 rocket built by United Launch Alliance. Alternatively, it could go up on NASA’s under-development Space Launch System, which could deliver considerably more payload, more quickly. Significantly, Bezos said he was also ready to put his own skin into the game. “I’m excited about this and am ready to invest my own money alongside NASA to make it happen,” the white paper states.
Ars has previously reported that the Trump administration is likely to make lunar exploration a priority over the Obama administration’s previous goal of humans on Mars in the 2030s. This seems probable for several reasons—costs, the geopolitical significance of the Moon, and water resources at the lunar poles that could provide the foundation of an in-space fueling system for rockets and spacecraft.
Although the Trump administration has yet to make any announcements about its intent for space policy, the recent activities of private space companies are telling. SpaceX has begun talking about lunar space-tourism missions around the Moon. Robert Bigelow, the founder of Bigelow Aerospace, has begun discussing the use of his expandable modules for habitats in cislunar space, near the Moon. And now Blue Origin is offering up lunar plans of its own.
NASA finally admits it doesn’t have the funding to land humans on Mars
“I can’t put a date on humans on Mars,” chief of human spaceflight says.
ERIC BERGER – 7/13/2017, 9:22 AM
For the last five years or so, NASA has sold the public on a Journey to Mars, a grand voyage by which the agency will land humans on the red planet during the 2030s. With just budgetary increases for inflation, the agency said, it had the resources for humanity’s next great step, to land crews safely on Mars, and to bring them home. The agency’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, and spacecraft, Orion, were sold by NASA administrator Charles Bolden as the vehicles that would get the job done.
There were plenty of naysayers. For example, a National Research Council report cautioned that the agency had too much work, and too little funds, to accomplish these goals in the 2030s with the SLS rocket—and that sustaining a “Mars program” into the 2040s would be a tremendous challenge. NASA’s remarkable response to this critical report was that it validated the Journey to Mars.
Now, finally, the agency appears to have bended toward reality. During a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics on Wednesday, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight acknowledged that the agency doesn’t really have the funding it needs to reach Mars (see video).
“I can’t put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is the other piece is, at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars,” said NASA’s William H. Gerstenmaier, responding to a question about when NASA will send humans to the surface of Mars. “And that entry, descent and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.”
This seems like a fairly common sense statement, but it’s something that NASA officials have largely glossed over—at least in public—during the agency’s promotion of a Journey to Mars. The reality is that the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft have cost a lot to build, and therefore NASA hasn’t been able to begin designing vehicles to land on Mars or ascend from the surface.
Agency officials have also been loath to mention the possibility of NASA astronauts landing on the Moon, because George W. Bush had an initiative to return to the Moon that President Obama canceled. However, Gerstenmaier opened the door to this possibility Wednesday.
Maybe the Moon?
“If we find out there’s water on the Moon, and we want to do more extensive operations on the Moon to go explore that, we have the ability with Deep Space Gateway to support an extensive Moon surface program,” he said. “If we want to stay focused more toward Mars we can keep that.”
It has been a long time since NASA, especially its chief human spaceflight official, talked openly about an “extensive Moon surface program.” However after six months of a new presidential administration, the agency realizes that its destination may well change. Therefore its leadership is keeping the decision about destinations open, be it the surface of the Moon or Mars.
The reality is that NASA may not be able to go either place unless something changes. The agency doesn’t have the funding to build a large lunar outpost if it must rely on the Space Launch System—which will only fly about once a year, at a cost of more than $1 billion. Mars landings, clearly, would cost even more with the big, expendable rocket approach requiring five or more launches per mission.
Another, less costly option is having the freedom to rely much more heavily on partly or completely reusable launch and in-space transports systems being built by SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance. Politically, so far any reliance on commercial companies for deep space exploration has been a non-starter in Congress. But that could change, as Vice President Mike Pence has been making some noise about increasing commercial partnerships at NASA. “The truth is that American business is on the cutting edge of space technology,” he recently said.