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Space Exploration Part 1

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

This blog analyzes the current NASA space exploration program, the changes proposed by the Trump Administration, the current capabilities of the private space industries, and the authors previous work to make sense of the various space development options available.

Part 1 gives background material known only to an industry insider, shows where the current cost estimates lie, and answers the Moon or Mars first questions.

Part2 shows how to Return to the Moon for a permanent presence at reasonable cost and shows what is really going to take to put a permanent base on Mars.

Part 1 - What direction should the US Space Program take?

The U.S. space program has lacked a fundamental mission since President G.W. Bush left office and President Obama cancelled the Constellation Program on February 1, 2010. President Bush had announced his new Constellation space exploration plans in a speech at NASA Headquarters on Jan. 14, 2004. Key to the new vision was the intent to “implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond,” with the goal of extending our “human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations.” This plan for a human return to the moon to be followed by an expedition to Mars was reviewed in 2009 by the well-respected Augustine Committee and they determined that NASA’s current and future budgets were woefully inadequate to successfully complete Constellation, so President Obama promptly cancelled it. The Augustine committee was dead on, but the Democrats after Kennedy never had much love for Space, so NASA’s budgets have dropped it down to about $20B since Bush II left office. This was enough to develop meaningful hardware, but Congress dictated in 2010 that NASA develop the Space Launch System or SLS (called the Senate Launch System among us rocket scientists) and the Orion crew transport. Both of these systems could nominally be used to return to the moon or go on the Mars, but their development left no funding available to build the infrastructure necessary to return to the moon or go on to Mars.

As a qualified rocket scientist what do I think? I worked on designs for the lunar landers as part of Constellation and those designs were coming together well. Unfortunately, NASA is not a low-cost systems producer and it was obvious as early as 2007 that NASA’s appetite far exceeded their budget. A lot of good work was done but it was never going to result in hardware. What has changed in the last twelve years? Unfortunately for NASA very little, they still don’t understand systems engineering, and that causes them to continue to design hardware that is ill-suited, and too expensive, for their fundamental missions. Most of my career I was a Systems Engineer. A good systems engineer understands who the real customer is and what would satisfy that customer. If the real customer is Congress and meeting existing budget constraints would satisfy that customer, then the systems engineer studies the costs breakdown for the proposed program and finds the changes in elements and schedules that would reduce development and/or operating costs. NASA has never really understood systems engineering (their systems definition is always provided from above). Every time I have modelled exploration programs the total program costs are dominated by launch costs. This is because NASA is hung up on large expendable launch vehicles because they are quicker and cheaper to develop than reusable launch vehicles. Unfortunately, when you then launch and operate the program elements, the launch costs are so high with the large expendable systems (~ $ 800M per flight) that the program is unaffordable. I watched this happen during the NASA Space Exploration program in 1989 and the NASA Constellation program in 2009. In both programs we had the technology to build a reusable launch system, but it would have meant delaying the program start for about five years to develop and qualify the new Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV). With schedule constraints imposed by politicians NASA didn’t have the extra five years to develop the reusable systems.

However, private industry has embraced systems engineering and is actively working the most fundamental issue, reducing launch costs. You can see this primarily with Space-X and Blue Origin, but other smaller manufacturers are moving in the same direction. The fact that private industry has embraced systems engineering is huge and tells me that private companies will begin to dominate as humanity move into space.

So how is this going to happen? Should we go back to the moon first, or go on to Mars? My position is that we do neither first. The best approach is to first go to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and build major infrastructure that supports off-planet missions, before attempting the moon and Mars. You can develop and perfect your low-cost RLV going to LEO. There are plenty of ways to make money delivering traffic to LEO (tourism and zero gravity manufacturing are especially lucrative), and you can stockpile stages and propellants in a LEO depot, so that you never need to develop that large expendable rocket to reach the moon or Mars. Private industry has figured this out, but NASA may never have the opportunity.

Very recently (2019) NASA has been challenged by the Trump administration to return humans to the moon and push humans on to Mars by 2033. The implication is that if NASA doesn’t shape up, the administration will start enlisting private contractors to do the job (SpaceX and maybe Blue Origin would get contracts outside of NASA control?). I suspect this move was motivated by two things. First, is Elon Musk’s announced plans to use his two stage “Starship” to land people on the moon in 2024 and on Mars in about 2027 (precursor unmanned ships to Mars in 2025). Second was the publishing in February 2019 of the “Evaluation of a Human Mission to Mars by 2033” by the IDA SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY POLICY INSTITUTE 1701 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Suite 500 Washington, DC 20006-5805. Figure 1 below shows the estimated development costs from the document.

Figure 1 Estimated Development Costs for NASA’s 2033 Mars Mission (2017 B$)

These numbers are noteworthy especially when you remember that SpaceX developed the Falcon Heavy, which has approximately the same throw-weight as the SLS, for about $600M, and the Dragon crew-carrying capsule plus man-rated the Falcon 9 for less than one Billion dollars. Furthermore, Elon’s announcement tells NASA there could be a crowd waiting to greet the NASA astronauts when they first land on Mars, so in effect, if SpaceX appears to be on schedule, NASA can kiss their congressional development funds goodbye; while the very extensive IDA evaluation of NASA’s current plans tells NASA, that unless their currently scheduled funding is increased, they will not have the money to develop the infrastructure to orbit Mars for a year in 2033. The current estimated costs out of the IDA Report for NASA’s Exploration Systems through 2037 is shown in figure 2 below.

Figure 2 Total Cost Estimates for NASA Exploration Systems thru 2037

IDA evaluated Total NASA Exploration costs included technology development, lunar landings, and orbital training costs; and those total estimated costs are included in the cost summary estimates in figure 2 above. This figure shows that total expenditures for the missions and hardware leading up to astronauts on Mars is just over $217 B. NASA’s projected budgets for exploration over this period would fall short of this total even if everything went according to plan. Therefore, I think the administration is warning NASA to make changes (farm out major developments to industry partners, seek international partners, etc.) to significantly reduce costs. We shall see.

While NASA sorts itself out we see Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos becoming more and more central for future space activities. I just want to emphasize that while billionaire space enthusiasts are a godsend, the driving force here is really successful development of the technologies to build and operate the vehicles and systems that provide low-cost access to Low-Earth-Orbit. Fortunately, those technologies are developing and spreading world-wide, so we can expect a revolution in space transportation like that experienced by transport aircraft back in the 1930s. Overall, things are looking up.

In the rest of Part 1, I discuss whether we should go back to the moon first or go on to Mars first. In Part 2 I discuss how we should go back to the moon and what we should do there. Finally, in the rest of Part 2 I discuss affordable ways to go to Mars and what we should do there.

After our initial extended stop in LEO there are numerous reasons to go back to the moon first, and only one reason to skip the moon. Assuming we have limited funds to move into space as shown in figure 2, we should skip the moon only if it is going to be a big money sink and use up all the resources we are going to need to get to Mars. Looking at some of the Return to the Moon proposals I can see one that could become a money sink. For instance, NASA’s current baseline requires a $6.6B Gateway Station and a three-stage lunar transport (all three stages delivered to the Gateway separately) that only delivers one metric ton to the lunar North pole. I guarantee that if their current $20B lunar plan is funded, NASA will not get to Mars until the second half of this century. There are two competing plans for lunar return that are not money sinks and would aid in a future Mars mission. Those are covered in part 2 of this blog.

Why go to the moon first? We can get to the moon in four days or less and get back to Earth in the same time. That means if something breaks, or people get very ill or injured at our lunar base, help is only four days away. A launch window for a Mars mission occurs every two years and two months, and a round trip minimum energy orbit takes about 1200 days depending on the launch date. This means a Mars expedition is totally on its own and if they have to abandon their surface facility for any reason, they might have to spend two years in orbit with little radiation protection and zero gravity while they wait for the launch window home to open.For this reason alone, it makes lots of sense to build and use all of the critical systems first on the moon where failures are not necessarily fatal. In both cases all the equipment needs to operate in a vacuum or near vacuum within a radiation environment that is fatal over the long-term. The moon is actually a more severe test environment because during the fourteen-day lunar night the temperatures reach minus 173 degrees C and the lunar dust is much more abrasive than Mars dust. If a human outpost can operate successfully on the moon for a couple of years we have proven that we are ready for Mars. The fact that mining the lunar surface for platinum group metals and rare earth metals appears to be very profitable is also pertinent to going to the moon first.

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Jon Kahn
Jon Kahn
07 sept 2020

I am a retired engineer who spent his first 12 professional years in Space (at NASA and as Max Faget's apprentice at Space Industries). I grew up with the Apollo astronauts' kids for my classmates in grade school, all while worshiping the manned space program. It took decades, but I finally came to the same conclusion as George Giles. If we want to truly look at the big 'system engineering' picture of the most efficient way to explore space, we must admit that it does not involve transporting our fragile biological bodies, which have evolved for a very different environment. It is only a matter of time (centuries at the most) before we have developed AI fully capable of surp…

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