A 6-10 Person SpaceX / Bigelow Lunar Station for $2 billion per Year

Bigelow Based Lunar Station Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow Based Lunar Station
Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

A collection of papers just released at the journal New Space makes the argument that thanks to advances by SpaceX. Bigelow Aerospace and others, the United States is in a position mount a return to the Moon and construction of a permanent base housing 6-10 people at the lunar North Pole in approximately 10 years and for a lower annual expenditure than we currently spend on the International Space Station.

No attack on ISS, the papers argue in fact that the Space Station is existence proof that a series of structures encompassing a similar volume and requiring roughly the same average annual cargo support could be built and maintained through utilizing Bigelow expandable modules, Falcon Heavy launch vehicles and lunar optimized Dragon spacecraft for crew.

One of the papers, titled Lunar Station: The Next Logical Step in Space Development (pdf), dives into the flight logistics, postulating the development of a Falcon Heavy Tanker, which would serve as a LEO fuel depot, refilled by low cost Falcon 9 reusable rockets. Lunar transport would be carried out by another Falcon Heavy which would launch to LEO, retaining the second stage for trans-lunar injection after being refilled by the Falcon Tanker.

Launcher Comparison Chart Credit Pttman, et al

Launcher Comparison Chart
Credit Pttman, et al

The proposal makes a number of assumptions, with one being that the 10 F9R flights required to refill the Tanker could be carried out at $10 million per flight. SpaceX recently estimated the early re-flight cost of Falcon 9 rockets at 30% off the current commercial price of $63 million, which at roughly $45 million is quite a bit more than the authors estimate, but on the other hand, SpaceX has suggested that the ultimate price could fall as low as $6 million per launch. Furthermore, the study also used a discounted estimate of Falcon Heavy’s performance at 40 metric tons to LEO, whereas the currently published number is 53, with SpaceX suggesting it may be revised significantly upwards later this year.

As for the Space Launch System, the authors are careful not to dismiss it altogether, but merely point out that even at the estimated flight rate of 3 per year for the Block II variant (a level which NASA says is only achievable in a “surge” capacity) it would still take 15 years to place the Lunar Station’s estimated 150 metric tons on the lunar surface, along with a 30 MT annual resupply requirement to keep it in budget at $2 billion per year, due to the projected SLS costs of $1.5 billion per launch.

Following what has become the evolved model ISS operations, the lunar base would be operated by an international consortium of “public, private, and international partners.” And like ISS,  what begins as mostly governmental enterprise would eventually come to host a growing list of commercial and institutional operations, with work spreading from the presumed ice resource rich permanently shadowed areas of the poles, to other areas of interest on the Moon.

According to the authors, the distinguishing difference between the proposed Lunar Station and other possible plans, which inevitably include NASA’s unmentioned Journey to Mars, is that the Lunar Station could be built on time frame which is actually relevant at a mere five years, and under a budget which is demonstrably affordable, all by following a model we are already using.

Note: These paper are going nowhere for the moment, but moment is passing quickly. One of the principle benefits of using a model of exploration based on refillable fuel depots, particularly in LEO, is that virtually any spacefaring nation can participate. Russia, Europe, Japan, India and yes even China are all fielding boosters which could make meaningful contributions without driving up the costs or imperiling the schedule.

Oh and one other thing. A NASA purchase order for “X” number of low risk flights of propellant to LEO  at “Y” dollars is the quickest, easiest and surest way to usher in the era of reusable launch vehicles once and for all.


Posted in: Moon, SpaceX

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