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Obama at KSC
This crater within the lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin is one of NASA’s leading exploration sites that could aid in development of capabilities that would support a human mission to Mars. (credit: NASA)

Commercial Lunar Transportation Services: a speculation

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Recently, the Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger wrote an article that created some pushback from NASA. The article, titled “Quietly, NASA is reconsidering the moon as a destination,” claimed that NASA was considering a return to the Moon as a stepping stone for later human missions to Mars.

“Despite a declaration from President Barack Obama that the moon is not a planned destination for American astronauts,” Berger wrote in the April 3 article, “senior NASA engineers have quietly begun reconsidering it as a staging point for an eventual mission to Mars.”

I submit that there will be no human spaceflight program whatsoever beyond low Earth orbit without the substantial involvement of commercial firms in partnership with NASA.

Berger went on to state that William Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human spaceflight programs, believes the Moon has needed elements that could and should be processed to make a mission to Mars possible. “If propellant was available from the moon,” Berger quotes Gerstenmaier, “this could dramatically lower the mass needed from the Earth for a NASA Mars Mission.”

Gerstenmaier is referring to a report from the National Research Council (NRC) published last summer that recommended taking this approach. The report stated, in part, “It was clear to the committee from its independent analysis of several pathways that a return to extended surface operations on the moon would make substantial contributions to a strategy ultimately aimed at landing people on Mars.”

However, even casual observers of NASA’s human spaceflight program, as well as experts on the subject, know that the days Apollo-type programs will never return. In fact, the present thrust of NASA’s human spaceflight program, at least in terms of its support of the International Space Station, is commercial.

“As well as potential caches of fuel at its poles,” Berger wrote, “the moon’s surface would offer a key test bed for rovers, habitation modules and other technologies before sending astronauts deep into space with no hope of return for years. There would also be more opportunities for the burgeoning private space industry to participate.”

I submit that there will be no human spaceflight program whatsoever beyond low Earth orbit without the substantial involvement of commercial firms in partnership with NASA. NASA’s commercial cargo and commercial crew programs have demonstrated that the commercial partnership model can achieve very impressive results.

“It’s logical to go first to the moon, to demonstrate an ability to reach and use the lunar environment first before you go further in a manned spacecraft,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee responsible for NASA’s budget.

That view, of course, is not shared by President Obama. In a classic case of “not invented here,” he went on record five years ago of having no interest in supporting human missions to the Moon, as they were promoted by a previous administration. Thus, the concept of a human mission to an asteroid is the reference mission of choice from the Obama Administration for NASA’s human spaceflight program.

Berger’s article got a rather matter-of-fact response from NASA. David Weaver, head of communications, tweeted “Nothing new about NASA’s plan to use Moon on [a] Journey To Mars. Stepping stone approach involves operations in cis-lunar space.” No mention of lunar surface operations.

Berger apparently got his information from his contacts within the Johnson Space Center, and he was willing to back up his story. Three days after his original article, he published his piece “Yes, NASA really is reconsidering the moon, and here’s is why that’s important.”

“If humans are eventually to land and operate for extended periods on Mars, the capabilities required are best developed and tested on the lunar surface as well as in cislunar space.”

In fact, Berger got his information directly from Gerstenmaier himself. Berger quotes Gerstenmaier saying to him, “We have seen and done several studies that look at Mars missions as a logistics and resupply problem. These studies show that resources from the moon could be extremely beneficial for Mars missions.”

As NASA has done for decades, it relies on consulting organizations and independent institutions in an effort to get honest appraisals of its robotic and human spaceflight goals. Berger felt it important to quote a specific paragraph on page 37 from last year’s NRC human spaceflight report:

If humans are eventually to land and operate for extended periods on Mars, the capabilities required are best developed and tested on the lunar surface as well as in cislunar space. And they are best developed in such a way that significant milestones are accomplished early and at regular intervals in the program—milestones that meaningfully and progressively enhance the capabilities of humankind for space exploration.

The genesis of NASA’s commercial programs

A White House document titled “A Renewed Spirit of Discovery,” released with the rollout of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, stated that the space agency should “…pursue commercial opportunities for providing transportation and other services supporting the International Space Station and exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit.”

The NASA Authorization Act of 2005 stated the NASA administrator “…shall develop a commercialization plan to support the human missions to the Moon and Mars, to support low-Earth orbit activities…”

In November 2007, Robert M. Kelso, manager of Commercial Space Development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, presented “Commercial Space Development—What’s the Next?” at the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate Technology Exchange Conference. Kelso reported on the progress of the Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO) at Johnson Space Center, including the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program ongoing at the time.

Under “Options for Commercial Participation in NASA Missions,” Kelso illustrated the range of possibilities, from strictly commercial involvement to efforts entirely funded and managed by NASA. Centennial Challenges, NASA’s prize program, was shown as the total commercial approach. In the middle was “Lunar Exploration Science Campaign – Regular Small Missions to the Moon” as an example of a NASA/commercial partnership. Under the NASA-only model was the Lunar Precursor Robotic Program.

Kelso went on to list the various types of science, technology demonstration, and commercial missions to the Moon the agency was interested in considering. Commercial missions would include communication nodes and infrastructure, power and mobility infrastructure, cargo transport services, entertainment and education, and observatories. Significantly, under the technology heading were lunar descent/ascent module design, habitat design, and surface mobility.

Further in Kelso’s report was this question: “Return to the Lunar Surface Lunar Exploration Science Campaign—Next COTS Project?” This shows the possibility of a lunar COTS-type program goes back at least eight years. Kelso listed other business areas that could apply to this commercial partnership: lunar surface habitats, power on lunar surface, free-flyer science platforms in low Earth orbit, crew health, and lunar surface mobility.

For the companies winning these commercial lunar awards, the payoff goes beyond the monetary value of the NASA contracts.

Although Kelso’s document was a paper exercise, it was based on the evolving COTS model of NASA working as a partner with commercial interests. Considering the scope of the Bush Administration’s Vision for Space Exploration and its ambitious lunar mission hardware and architecture, it is surprising the commercial involvement was not more detailed in the Kelso report. Project Constellation had come under heavy criticism for having obscured what the program costs would be and the Congressional will to fund it was decidedly lacking.

With the end of the Vision for Space Exploration and Project Constellation, the only viable lunar commercial partnership program to result so far is the very modest Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST) program (see “Why not return to the Moon? (part 2)”, The Space Review, February 10, 2014).

If NASA decided to initiate a lunar commercial partnership program in order to achieve the above stated goals, it would no doubt be structured in much the same way as its commercial cargo and commercial crew programs. That is, NASA would contract with companies to develop and then provide cargo and crew services to and from the lunar surface.

This Commercial Lunar Transportation Services Program Office within NASA would, like previous commercial programs, request proposals and issue awards for phases within the program. There would be milestone awards by NASA to the companies as they develop their systems, and NASA would require the companies to make their own investment into the design and development of the hardware. Later contracts would cover the services of getting crews and equipment to and from the lunar surface, much as they do on the International Space Station.

For the companies winning these commercial lunar awards, the payoff goes beyond the monetary value of the NASA contracts. There are possibilities for other revenue sources, such as sending payloads to the lunar surface for non-NASA customers. The ISS, for example, has become a platform for commercial research and other applications, such as the deployment of CubeSats for Planet Labs. That could serve as a model of what might be achieved with dedicated missions to the lunar surface.

As NASA’s William Gerstenmaier has stated, if NASA is ever to carry out missions to Mars, the required hardware and capability would have to be demonstrated long before the more ambitious goal of sending crews to the Red Planet. The most practical means of doing so would use the Moon as the testbed. In today’s political and fiscal environment, that will only be achieved with commercial partnerships.