Point and Counter Point on Asteroid Mining…

In the July 29, 2013 issue of Space News there is a point and counter point article by Ambassador Roger Harrison and myself.  Ambassador Harrison takes the negative premise and I take the positive.  Here are links to the abbreviated versions in Space News.

Ambassador Harrison




I would like to present the expanded version of my comments that we originally did as it more fully develops the ideas involved in extraterrestrial mining.  One thing to note is that this was originally going to be published in a defense oriented publication so my style here was to appeal to that demographic.

The Case for Extraterrestrial Mining and Infrastructure Development

Recently a respected colleague, Ambassador Roger Harrison, invited me to work with him on a point counterpoint missive regarding the pros and cons of extraterrestrial mining.  Ambassador Harrison took the counterpoint while the positive argument it is left to me.  The ambassador kindly wrote his first, allowing me, like General Lee at Chancellorsville to counterpunch.  Like General Hooker’s position on May 2nd 1863, Harrison’s position looks unassailable. Rather than the superiority in troops and logistics that Hooker had, Harrison marshals facts and figures as if they were divisions.   Like Lee, let us examine these facts and figures and search for weaknesses or flanks to be turned.

Harrison’s stipulations provide me room to maneuver but he has anchored his position with the economic argument. The strongest argument is that asteroid mining costs will be astronomically high and inexorably fixed.  His example is NASA’s billion dollar plan to return 60 ounces of material from an asteroid.  He concedes that private enterprise may do this 10x better but that even if you grant this, the cost still far outweigh any profit.

Harrison’s detailed arguments are impressive, like the positioning of Hooker’s corps.   Beyond the small arguments of radiation damage, temperature swings, and equipment longevity, his heavy artillery targets the fact that asteroids orbital geometries render opportunities to return materials to the Earth few and far between, making the time cost of money excessive.  Harrison also makes the argument that capital costs are extremely high, reducing the investment net present value.  Finally, he confidently asserts is that it is an illusion that we are running out of resources, there are plentiful supplies, just ready to be wrested from the Earth.

As a further argument in depth Harrison suggests that the cost of some resources, such as diamonds, are controlled by cartels and that even if you solved all the other problems, in the end politics would intervene to buy your loyalty to scarcity in order to maintain profits, negating the transformative value of vastly increased resources.  Like Hooker in the afternoon of May 2nd, Harrison makes the conclusion that there is no escape from his overwhelming argument.  His lines have been dressed, the troops are in place, and like Hooker waiting for Bobby Lee to break his teeth on his lines, the ambassador is confident in victory.  However, are things as they seem?

Cost and Scarcity Argument

The terrestrial mining industry is the obvious analog for in space mining. Mining today is not a pick and shovel operation.  No longer can a grizzled prospector with a good eye easily find an economically viable ore body.  Today mining begins as a complex and expensive adventure of discovery using sophisticated geophysical instruments in search of what is hoped are billions of dollars worth of resources.  After the resource is quantified then several years and billions of dollars are spent in the capital phase of mine development.  Table one gives an indication of the capital cost and timelines for just a few large projects ongoing today:

Minas Rio (Brazil)



Pueblo Viejo JV (Dom Republic


 Pascua Lama (Chile/Argentina)



Cerro Casale (Chile)



Donlin (USA Alaska)



Los Prelambres (Chile)



Quebrada Blanca II (Chile)



Average (billions)


Table 1: A Selection of Large Mine Projects Today

These project costs are representative of the major players such as Barrick Gold and Anglo American.  Following the footnotes reveals that energy, labor, and infrastructure costs have escalated dramatically recently.  Political costs are also rapidly rising due to the greater environmental effects of the mines.  These problems were outlined by Dan Wood, of the W H Bryan Mining & Geology Research Centre, the University of Queensland, Australia in a Distinguished Lecture before the Society of Environmental Geologists entitled Crucial Challenges to Discovery and Mining – Tomorrow’s Deeper Ore Bodies;[8] the opening is reproduced here.

It is stating the obvious to observe that there is no shortage of metal in the Earth’s crust, only of known ore. Unfortunately, ore is becoming increasingly more difficult to define with any certainty. For many metals, what is now considered ore is trending to lower grade and it is becoming more deeply situated. Moreover, as the declining discovery rate over recent decades has shown, it is becoming more difficult to discover an ore body now than it was 30 – 50 years ago.

Compounding the problem for mining companies and their explorers, this is all happening at a time when the demands for many mineral commodities are at all-time highs, and increasing. Without doubt, the world’s exploration teams will require a significantly improved future discovery performance if the present inventories of mineral-commodity ore reserves are not to be seriously depleted as the demand for mineral resources escalates over the coming decades…

Wood goes into the political arguments related to the increasing desire of states to retain more of the earnings from mining of their national resources and increasing costs incurred by environmental activist groups lawsuits. Wood provides crucial insight into the problems confronting terrestrial mining today as demand skyrockets.

GDP growth and the increasing global resource demand is addressed in a report, Iron Ore Outlook 2050, commissioned for the Indian government.[9]  The GDP of the major powers (U.S. Europe, China, India, Japan) is forecast to rise from $48 trillion in 2010 to $149 trillion by 2050.  The report’s substance is that with this massive increase in global GDP, a scramble for global metal resources is inevitable and this report advises India on strategies to obtain their share.

If the trend lines of increasing cost, lower quality ore, and rising demand continue, there are three potential outcomes.  The first is the global collapse forecast for so long by the Limits to Growth school of thought as economically recoverable resources are exhausted.  The second and more likely scenario is a global war over resources driven by increasingly fierce national economic competition.  The third, and most desirable, is to increase the global resource base by the incorporation of the resources of the inner solar system into the terrestrial economy.  What is clear is that increasing cost, scarcity, and political trends point to a time when it may be less expensive to mine resources in space than the Earth. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when, and how.

Architectures for Space Mining

I grant Ambassador Harrison that if we were to take the path toward extraterrestrial mining that he presents as his strawman, the likelihood of success would be small for the reasons that he states.  However, his scenario is based upon decades old approach to the problem.   The argument is a time cost of money proposition related to the time factor and cost of operating at any asteroid.  Due to orbital dynamics the best case is just about a two year cycle of mining and then returning material to Earth.  Planetary Resources seeks to mitigate this by returning an object to the Earth for mining.  However, this has its own time cost of money and large political issues as well.

We need look no farther than our own Moon to see a means to escape this quandary.  Following are some ideas for architecture implementation that lay to rest the idea that any such effort’s costs will be astronomically high and inexorably fixed.

Lunar Resources of Asteroidal Origin

A 2011 Science Daily article provides the succinct answer for the Earth, and by extension, the Moon regarding asteroidal resource availability.

Ultra high precision analyses of some of the oldest rock samples on Earth by researchers at the University of Bristol provides clear evidence that the planet’s accessible reserves of precious metals are the result of a bombardment of meteorites more than 200 million years after Earth was formed.[10]

The Moon was subjected to this same bombardment and it is reasonable to extend the idea that these same metals are there. This thesis is developed in my chapter for the book “Return to the Moon”.[11] Thus, I stipulate that a large, highly fractured multibillion ton resource of a metal asteroid exists within 25 km of the lunar north pole.  The Apollo samples confirm that the lunar highlands have high concentrations of meteoric metals.

Building the Infrastructure, Profitably

Common to the development in large scale mining today is the provision of unrelated infrastructure.  Barrick and Goldcorp are building a $300 million dollar power plant to provide power to their operations at he Pueblo Viejo gold mine in the Dominican Republic.  The same will be true on the Moon.  I choose the lunar north pole as a base of operations because along the rim of the crater Whipple, which is on the rim of the crater Peary, there are four areas totaling approximately 10 km2 that are at a “peak of eternal light”.  At least seasonally and perhaps all year this area is in sunlight 100% of the time.  This eliminates the need for nuclear power, at least initially. Using aerospace grade solar cells I can provide about 545 watts of power per m2.  After conversion losses this is about 500 w/m2 of AC power.  This gives a potential of 500 megawatts per km2.

With the SpaceX Falcon Heavy (F9H) I can place about 6,000 kg of payload on the Moon.  This is enough for a 125 kilowatt powerlander, along with a laser communications system, a petabyte of computer server, and at least 10 small (30 kg each) advanced rovers.  The F9H cost is $83m, and the cost of the lander with the desired payload is about $500m.  I can immediately generate revenue from the use of the laser communications system.  Utterly secure, 25 gigabits/sec communications with an unhackable data server would easily be worth $150-250m/year in revenue to the U.S. government, based on the cost of the Advanced EHF and other wideband military satellites.  The yearly cost to support this is $1-2m dollars, thus my first infrastructure payload for mining is already generating strongly positive cash flow.

Many of the issues that Harrison pointed to do not exist at the lunar poles.  Thermal gradients are small, hovering around -40c.  The dust and grit are there, but not any more than at a terrestrial mine.  The rovers use microwaves to sinter landing pads for more powerlanders.  Another four launches and units and $1.5b later (multiple units cost drop dramatically in aerospace), I now have .6 of a megawatt of power on the Moon, along with a lot of equipment that since it is modular, can be reconfigured on the fly for different tasks.  Since we are 356,000 km from the Earth, we can operate 24/7 using a mix of autonomy and telepresence.

Changing the Game (The Stonewall Jackson Effect)

Using swarming technology the 50 rovers work as a group on various tasks.  The landers propulsion systems are removed and structural parts not needed by the powerlanders anymore are reconfigured into a single stage to orbit system that can lift or land more than 30 tons of payload.  We use the fifth propulsion system tanks to store water.  Some of the rovers are designed to scoop up regolith laden with water that is only 8.5 km from the base site.  This water is processed and transferred to the tank of lander 5 where it is electrolyzed.  Some of the rovers are configured to carry this hydrogen and oxygen to the SSTO lander, which over a month’s time, is filled up.

Now another payload from Earth is delivered, a 12 ton payload that meets the SSTO lander in lunar orbit.  Additionally, the five ton F9H upper stage is grabbed by rovers reconfigured to this task and attached to the SSTO lander.  The SSTO lander now lands a total of almost 17 tons of payload.  The payload mix is radically different as well.  The payloads are large 3D printers configured for metals and basalts, an induction furnace, fuel cells, large electric motors, computers, and many other parts needed to build larger surface systems, including advanced robotics designed for multiple tasks.  The entire cost of this payload is no more than the half billion for the powerlanders as we are not shipping assembled systems but subsystems and parts.  These modular parts will be assembled into systems on the Moon via telepresence.

The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the Future

Now we have the equipment to build large surface systems for regolith processing, water harvesting, and metals processing.   Mass drivers can be built and payloads returned to the Earth.  To this point we are beginning the mining process and providing investment return. This is done by integrating technologies that are just now starting to change the world here, and by thinking differently about how to do mining.  Another key element is to move as much infrastructure development in situ rather than shipping everything up from the Earth as each kilogram saved lowers costs. The lunar north pole location allows continuous shipping of finished high value metals and products.  The diversity of resources on the Moon is far greater than on an asteroid, bringing further opportunity for profit.  Proximity to the Earth brings other opportunities for applications bringing near term profit.

Have we proven the economic viability of extraterrestrial mining?  Not quite, but we have shown that we can envision a way to lower cost and bring early cash flow by moving the crux of the asteroid mining proposition to the Moon, which is the final refutation astronomically high and inexorably fixed costs position.  In terms of cost, the numbers for lunar industrialization and mining are very comparable to a large terrestrial mine project.  The architecture ideas put forth have comparable cost and provide an investment return within 48 months of project start.

Thus like Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville, we have declined a direct confrontation, yet provided a victory over the status quo, by showing that solutions are possible that have not been thought of by the generals of the political science world. It will take a book to develop these thoughts properly and perhaps it is time to do so.

What about the asteroids?  I agree that without extensive infrastructure development, mining the asteroids is an extremely expensive proposition today.  However, the development of a lunar infrastructure to mine asteroidal materials there and develop an industrial base is a major step in the right direction to lower these costs.  It is a fallacious argument that our move into space is a question of the Moon, Mars, or asteroids.  These destinations are mutually supportive and their economic development will transform our global civilization as much as the development of the new world 500 years ago.

[7] ibid

[10] University of Bristol. “Where does all Earth’s gold come from? Precious metals the result of meteorite bombardment, rock analysis finds.” ScienceDaily, 9 Sep. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.

[11] Return To the Moon; Apogee Book Series, ISBN-10: 1894959329


67 thoughts on “Point and Counter Point on Asteroid Mining…

  1. If you are writing a book use man-hours for your currency instead of dollars. The figures will still be true in 20-30 years time where as the number of dollars will not. An extra line on your spreadsheet converts the man-hours back to money. The multiplying factor changes each year and can easily be updated.

    Good luck.

  2. You’ve shown (admittedly ignoring some costs) that a moon mine can be established for the cost of a terrestrial mine. But you have not shown that this mine would have anywhere near as much output as terrestial mines. One of the costs you ignored (a very substantial one) is catching these payloads from the mass driver and then delivering them to the surface. I believe a LEO market is necessary to make these operations profitable, which requires either expanded government activities (effectively a subsidy) or space tourism ($500-1000/kg launch costs).

    1. Daniel

      Thanks for the comment. You are correct, I have not. There is a two step process for lunar mining. The first is the establishment of what I call a foothold, a location that becomes a logistics base wherein the costs are minimized for transportation from the Earth. This is obviously at one of the poles with my preference being the north pole. The polar regions are always accessible from orbit and in the north there are areas are permanent light which will lower the cost of power. This location would also end up being a manufacturing hub as the way that we will do mining on the Moon will be dramatically different than on the Earth. Since the lunar polar region is also in the highlands, which is older terrain, there will be a lot of meteoric metal as well as water. Thus an early ISRU will be to obtain both metals and water locally for local consumption. The key is to minimize the logistical pipeline as this is where the largest costs are. This is entirely doable with technologies that are thousands of years old.

      Meteoric metal will be plentiful, tens of kilograms per ton of regolith that can be obtained with nothing more complicated than a magnet. With nothing more complicated than a parabolic mirror this metal can be melted and poured into molds sintered into the lunar regolith. The first products, flat slabs, have a plethora of uses, from structures, shielding, to landing pads, roads, and railroads. Obviously you need vehicles, lifting devices, and electrical power, which would be provided early in the infrastructure buildup phase. Much of that would be robotic or telepresence.

      The key of course is cost control but that is the same as for a modern mine anywhere in the world. My presentation here was to show the scale of expenditures for a mine on the Earth and if you follow the links, you will find what the expect to make in profit from the mine.

      On the Moon, the key will be to leverage as much as possible the buildup of local infrastructure to lower the cost of transport. It is a fools game and an invitation to failure to state that we cannot do anything until launch costs fall to some unobtainable (without the lunar resources) launch price. I seek to avoid the chicken and egg problem by attacking transportation costs from the other end, where the leverage is far higher than from the Earth.

      1. Yes I accept the value of ISRU, and that the upfront capital investments would be on the same order as terrestrial investments. But it has not been shown that this mines production levels would be comparable to earth mines (a randomly chosen iron ore mine has $1.5billion capital investment, with 44million tons annual production), or how landing these resources on earth surface would be affordable.
        Therefore our only customers (outside of potential niche resources) are space-based, and here is your chicken and egg problem. The reason expensive earth mines are possible is the global market is well developed and/or customers enter purchase contracts prior to the mine development; therefore reducing risk which enables financing. This still applies in space; you need a customer before committing billions in capital is viable. Currently there are only 1 category of customers to rely on, satellites; and I can’t see this market being large enough on its own to justify a multi-billion dollar capital expenditure.
        Potential customers:
        Space agencies/HSF programs: this is boom or bust. There are some fleeting hope at NASA that they will align their budgets/planning more with commercial businesses, but personally I feel the chance of NASA entering a contract buying bulk-commoditys in space to be pretty low. Basing your business case around a single volatile government customer is foolish.
        Commercial customers: Growing organs, drug development and chip manufacturing? I don’t know the potential sizes of these markets, but considering how desperate NASA seems in encouraging them to use the ISS I am doubtful of this market size. Do you know of any in-depth studies of the potential size of these markets at different launch costs? We will have a better idea of this market potential when Bigelow finally gets his station operational.
        Tourist market: http://www.futron.com/upload/wysiwyg/Resources/Reports/Space_Tourism_Market_Study_2002.pdf
        Perceived to be the most promising market, the size scales dramatically with launch costs. At $10million a ticket annual orbital tourism is projected at ~30 customers. This $300million is mostly eaten up in launch costs, and the hotel only needs to fit 7~ or so people at a time. The hotel operator thus might purchase ~200tons upfront, with minimal ongoing purchases. For this market to be large enough to generate hundreds of millions profit for a moon mine, you need tickets to be closer to 250-1000k each. I think current efforts to reduce launching costs have higher odds of success then a space program that makes sense.
        Solar Power: I’ve recently been convinced that space solar is infeasible, only to discover that space solar is feasible! Using simple mirrors one could cost-efficiently provide earth-based solar plants with light throughout the night. An even more valuable market would be farms whose crops are at risk of frost. Could a few hours of light from a ‘heliostat sat’ save a farmer millions of dollars from crop failure? This idea doesn’t seem to be in mainstream thinking while the more complex microwave solar sats are… I’m not an engineer so maybe you can inform me why this is. But personally I think this is the most promising immediate market for a lunar mine.

        1. First the market issue. There is no difference in supplier contracts which are contingent contracts, between an Earth based mine or one off planet. I agree with you at least conditionally that the initial investment in an off planet mine is greater than for a terrestrial mine of the same output. We do know the relative concentrations of economically valuable metals such as platinum group metals.

          An extrapolation that I make, which is becoming more and more reasonable based upon remote sensing data, that there are large chunks, in the thousands of tons to higher of impacted meteoric M class objects. This allows me to start thinking about extraction costs. One of the key differences between an Earth based and off planet based mine, using meteoric metals, is that my waste products (basically iron, nickel, and cobalt) are exceedingly valuable at the mine site itself for infrastructure build up. This is where the thinking about mining off planet diverges greatly from a terrestrial mine.

          An off planet mine will combine mining with local production of useful products that can be used by the mine. I can see everything except electronics and some power system components being made locally out of the “waste” metal from the output of the mine. This includes single stage to orbit vehicles made from locally obtained Aluminum as well as Aluminium/oyygen propellant. You have to quit thinking about a lunar or asteroid mine as being a terrestrial mine transposed to these locations. All of the objections about the cost of transport alone will drive this shift and with the advent of advanced 3D printing and the vacuum of space, the vertical integration of such mines will be far higher than their terrestrial counterparts.

          This opens the door to revenue from other activities, which is what terrestrial mines do as well at every opportunity.

          Think different about this issue.

          1. I’m only comparing a space mine to a terrestial mine because that made up a fair chunk of the article. But your main customer can’t be yourself..what you are describing is a cost-effective way to colonize space, it’s not a business plan. $5-50billion upfront costs, at 10-20% interest rate over who knows how many years prior to these revenue streams coming online. Finance is the exact same in space as it is on Earth, and at current launch costs you don’t have the customers to generate sufficient revenues.

            1. Daniel

              I agree, again that is not what I am discussing. What I am discussing in implementation. I you look around today with terrestrial mining you see that they do a lot of stuff that is not directly applicable to the mine. In South America Barrick Gold built a $210 million power plant, ostensibly for the mine, but the excess power is being provided to the grid at a profit. Roads, housing, all these things are done that have wider benefit than just the mine. You will also find that a copper mine very often tips over its profitability by providing platinum group metals and gold as side items. What I am discussing is that how we think about putting together an extraterrestrial mine must change, at least in the early days until sufficient off planet infrastructure is built.

        1. Only conditionally. There are a lot of factors that govern accretion of meteoric metals on the Moon that are not active on the Earth and some for the depletion that are different than on the Earth. When I first started researching this subject 15 years ago the accepted wisdom that only about 1% of the meteoric metal that impacted the Moon remained because it was thought that the velocity of the material from the impactor had enough velocity to escape the Moon’s gravity. However, with the advent of hydrocode modeling, which is based on the modeling of nuclear blast effects, it turns out that this is the case only for high velocity impactors.

          I go into this in detail in my chapter in “Return to the Moon” which I should put out as an ebook. I go into it in some detail in Moonrush, which I also need to turn into an ebook now!

          Suffice to say that there are some locations on the Moon, and we have a few indications of this now from remote sensing, that there will be concentrations of meteoric metals in certain locations. We already know from the Apollo 16 samples that a flux of up to 1% meteoric metal has been found. Since the Apollo 16 landing site is in the lunar highlands region, which is older terrain than the post late bombardment period Mare regions, it stands to reason that the most likely concentrations of these meteoric materials will be in the lunar highlands. It just so happens that this covers both lunar poles.

          Thus with technology no more complicated than a magnet we can recover a lot of meteoric metal. Since the concentrations of the really good stuff (the PGM’s) is in the grams per ton range, that means that there is a LOT of “waste” iron, nickel, cobalt, and other valuable metals in that matrix. Thus, whether you are mining water or metals, you are going to get a LOT of metals. Those metals can be used in situ for a LOT of products, including buildings vehicles, roads, and other heavy equipment. Thus my statements about a far different breed of mine on the Moon, driven by high transportation costs. Those rare metals are valuable here on the Earth, as is the water. However, If I were to stake my position today, it would be that the value of the Moon is as an integrated manufacturing and mining center. The Moon will be our most important off planet industrial center in the solar system. That is my prediction.

          Yes we will sell mined products, including the PGM’s Thorium, uranium, and other metals but the real value is in the industrial infrastructure.

    2. I don’t think delivering to the surface is that difficult considering that this is unmanned and non-fragile cargo. For instance the PICA-X material SpaceX uses for the Dragon only weighs 5% of the returned mass. At lower altitude the heat shield can even double as the parachute.

      Bob Clark

  3. It seems the advantage of the Moon vs asteroids is there can reasons to go to the Moon.
    Moon is a destination for many.
    And reason people don’t go to the Moon is presently the high costs.
    Or it seems that if we had two moons, the one we have and one which was say, 100 km in diameter. The 100 km rock would more attraction to go to because it’s a lower delta-v to go to and leave.
    But if 100 km had no minable water [or other means to make rocket fuel] and our bigger Moon does, then it’s not as clear that 100 diameter rock would be first destination. And if 100 diameter had minable water it seems one would mine the 100 diameter in order to go to the larger Moon.
    Or if were to bring a space rock to high Earth orbit which had easily minable water, and therefore low cost of rocket fuel, you are making going to our Moon easier- or the delta-v cost barrier of going there have been largely removed.

    The key to mining the Moon is depends upon if there is minable lunar water.
    And minable lunar water depends *mostly* on the amount of rocket fuel one can sell per year. It’s about quantity.
    Shipping lunar rocket to lunar orbit, can triple quantity [market size]- because it takes rocket fuel to lift rocket fuel to lunar orbit. And if payload or people use lunar rocket to land on the lunar surface, they buying the rocket fuel [as part of higher price] it took to bring up the rocket fuel plus the rocket fuel itself.
    So one way trip to the Moon buys lunar rocket, and if crew or something returns to Earth that is another party to sell the lunar rocket fuel.
    So lunar rocket fuel at surface must have low enough cost so that one ship it and sell it in lunar orbit [at competitive price as rocket fuel shipped from Earth]. And if you do this, then you can also ship lunar rocket to Mars orbit- sell at competitive price to rocket fuel sent from Earth. So you can sell lunar rocket fuel for use for other destinations other than lunar surface.

    If one can leave Earth and return to Earth using SSTO reusable chemical rocket, this would make getting to space a lot cheaper. Cost of an Earth launch would be somewhere around $100 per lb.
    And can’t go much lower due to cost of rocket fuel.
    Likewise the costs of lunar rocket fuel controls the cost of leaving and landing on the Moon. If rocket fuel were same price on the Moon as currently on Earth. Launch costs from lunar surface to lunar orbit would be about $1 per lb. Or around price of terrestrial air freight.
    And of course going anywhere on lunar surface is same price or cheaper than terrestrial air freight. And one could do things much cheaper other than with chemical rockets. So in century or longer future lunar transport is cheaper than Earth transport.
    And in this long term the Moon is cheaper place to generate energy for use.

    And decades before this, the Moon could be where solar panels are shipped to Earth orbit to provide cheap solar energy to Earth. To do this, you need to get to point of rocket fuel costs [or some other means of transport] to be 10 to 100 times more expensive earth rocket fuel costs.

    And near term [within a decade or two of start of lunar water mining] lunar rocket fuel will be
    somewhere around 1000+ times of earth prices of rocket fuel [earth oxygen and fuel components being less than $1 per lb].
    In beginning of lunar mining of anything what anyone could need will cost more than 1000 times the price on Earth. And it will 10,000 times [or more] the cost if you need it shipped from
    Earth. Buying large quantities of stuff made on the Moon, will drive costs down significantly.
    So buying lunar 100 meters of 3/4″ cable may be more than 1000 times the Earth cost, but buying 100 km of cable may be lowered by more than 1/10th or 100th the unit cost.
    But regardless of even vast quantity, one reach a limit- unless one gets severe economic disruption [huge panic] prices of any commodity should remain 10 to 100 times more than on Earth.
    One needs time, and significantly lower Earth launch prices before lunar prices will be less than 10 times Earth prices. Or one could say, that the Moon needs to be more “economically independent from Earth”- and this will take time.
    So steel is $400 per ton on Earth, one shouldn’t see lunar steel below $40,000 per ton [$20 per lb] unless it’s decades after early lunar settlement. Of course being able to buy steel manufactured items at less than say $500 per lb [wire, pipe, plate, sheet, bolts, I-beams, rail, etc] in quantities less than 2 couple tons would be cheap. And buying 100+ tons, would lower cost of whatever is manufactured and also price of lunar iron ingots.

    Since prices for commodities on the Moon are higher, the only sense to ship them to Earth is to expand your the market size. And probably *at least* thousand of tons per year- of whatever it is. The possible exception is precious metals and lunar dirt [and He-4 if you like].
    Lunar regolith is of course easy to mine. Though it’s more of a gathering or picking up rather than “mining”- just getting bucket of water from a lake isn’t normally associate with concept of mining.

    Currently lunar regolith is more expensive than gold, and one could be eager to ship it, even if prices were less than price of oz of silver. Though can only get this cheap if lunar rocket fuel is cheap enough. [Silver is currently 18.86 troy oz [$280 per lb]- not going to happen if rocket fuel is over $250 per lb at lunar surface.]
    So one could flood the market, then due to cost of lunar fuel, not be able to ship it to Earth
    at a profit- therefore isn’t. It seems to me that one could avoid flooding the market and still ship tens of tons of lunar dirt per year. Meaning lunar samples could be kept around the price per weight of gold.
    I think it’s better if was less than 1/2 price of gold, and probably will work out to around these prices. I think there could a lot of need for lunar samples at such a price, and think every school in the world should have some- at a reasonable price [somewhere less than gold].
    And I would like it if lunar samples were like baseball cards [with small sample]. And interesting like baseball cards- variety.
    And of course lunar samples can be studied by scientists/lunar geologists privately and part of institutions/labs. So having them less rare than diamond jewelry, would be good thing- and having unique lunar stones used as jewelry and art pieces would also be good.
    There is nothing good about having a scarcity of lunar material on Earth.
    And there will be “historical” value of some types of lunar samples [Apollo being obvious, but more than Apollo, as history is made] which retain or increase in value, even as new lunar sample become cheaper than silver- just like baseball cards or old paintings.

    As for PGMs and gold and other precious such mined on the Moon. A lot gold on Earth is kept
    in vaults. I see no reason why one can’t have vaults on the Moon.
    Gold is also useful for things. Don’t see why can’t use gold for things on the Moon- gold like everything else should worth more on the Moon.
    Of course if there is little market for it on Moon- someone does not set up buyer counter on Moon and buy any all these precious metals at better price than you get by paying to have shipped to Earth, then you should export it to Earth.
    But is this really what is going to happen in a free market?

    1. “It seems the advantage of the Moon vs asteroids is there can reasons to go to the Moon. Moon is a destination for many.”

      This mainly has to do with mining water and making rocket fuel.
      Which I think is easiest to mine and has most demand in space.
      One of most significant aspect of having rocket fuel in space is
      you can easily reuse spacecraft.
      The Earth dream of SSTO is very easy if leaving and landing on the
      Moon. If you reuse one lander 10 times then the cost of lander is
      significantly reduced.
      I think you mine lunar water and make lunar rocket fuel at a small scale.
      And don’t you make roads or rails as that suggest a larger scale than what I mean.
      I would put reflectors on the mountains and everything else at crater
      floor. With reflectors you bring light to see, so maybe less than 50 watts of sunlight per square meter. You can bring sunlight to keep stuff warm- so somewhere around 400 watts per square meter. To heat regolith you need above freezing temperature and near vacuum pressure- so sunlight which around +1000 watts per square meter. +1000 watts
      per square meter of reflected sunlight can also power solar panels to make electricity.
      Being in crater also gives access to cold temperatures- so cooling passively oxygen to make liquid oxygen [or even hydrogen gas to hydrogen liquid]. If using active refrigeration, one can at least passively store these cryogenic liquids.
      A way of mining a crater could be uniformly raise temperature of entire crater by very modest amount. What happens if make a crater which was 50 K, and increase the top surface to 150 K? And then let it cool down again?

      Or say in crater with 100 square km. You going to mine 1 km of it. But first you heat up the other 99 square km. So you have picked best 1 square km. Then you start by spending say a week, heating up the areas which have water ore, but not as much as you think is in this one section you going to mine. Will heating up rest of crater enrich the amount water you will get in your 1 square km?

      Anyways, it seems by using reflectors you manage your environment and have all your processing operations on flat land and within 1 km distance.

        1. Anyone know the velocity of H2O gas molecules at 200 K?

          “There is little advantage in heating the areas you are neither mining nor living in.”

          The surface of the Moon in permanently dark crater is somewhere around 50 K.
          The only thing which cause things to lose heat quickly will be conduction will the cold surface. The only surface which needs to be kept cold is areas you want to be cold- areas to store cryogenic rocket fuel and the area you are mining.

          The hot surface lunar in daylight cools by about 100 K [from 120 C] in a couple hours, and loses heat much slower below 300K. The night side of the Moon over the 2 week night cools to 100 K. Part of reason it doesn’t cool below 100 K is that beneath the surface there is a higher average temperature, and other reason 100 K doesn’t radiate much energy [about 5 watts per square meter].
          So you want to keep the mining area above the evaporation temperature of H20 and any other volatiles you mining. But you have cold ground within a foot of warmer ground. So you have 50 K ground near 300 K ground- so your wheels don’t have to get very cold- could use rubber tires- though bucket which picking up cold regolith would get very cold- and you want it to be cold.
          Just saying that on the Moon one can manage temperatures much easier than you can on Earth.

          1. “So you want to keep the mining area above the evaporation temperature of H20”

            Should be “So you want to keep the mining area below the evaporation temperature of H20”

  4. Lots of assumptions in your verbose post. Lunar water is only one product, though one of the top three of a lunar ecosystem. Remember that GEO orbit in energy terms is closer to the surface of the Moon than it is from the Earth. That is a key market. There are markets as well in between the start and the time we spin up the Moon.

    The keys are energy (on the Moon), robotics, and lowering the cost of Earth to Moon transportation. Launch from Earth is only part of that equation.

  5. “Lots of assumptions in your verbose post. Lunar water is only one product, though one of the top three of a lunar ecosystem. ”
    I think if lunar water is not minable- which is roughly can not be mined and sold at around $1000 or less per lb at lunar surface, which then allows rocket fuel to made for about $2000 per lb, it seems to me asteroids are the next best option.
    I mean In terms where to start, but once there is minable water someplace in space environment, then it opens up all other destinations.
    Of course NASA could go anywhere in terms of exploration, but I mean starting commercial activity which opens the space frontier.

    Water is key because it related to energy- provides a means to store energy chemically. It’s largely to do with making oxygen for rocket fuel. There are of course different ways to get oxygen.
    But seems that having water [not in a hydrated form] is easiest [cheapest] way to get oxygen.
    It’s not clear to me, that lunar water is minable. Therefore I believe that the Moon needs to to be explored before any mining can be done on the Moon. And it seems to me, that NASA should be exploring the Moon to determine if there is minable water- otherwise why does American public spending tax dollars on this governmental agency? The failure to aggressively explore the Moon to determine whether the Moon has minable water- seems provides concrete evidence that NASA lacks any clue of it’s purpose as government agency.

    What is needed in space environment is rocket fuel. The Apollo LEM was essentially a rocket fuel tanker truck which was crewed. Having gas stations on Earth, allows people to travel.
    Having gas stations in space will allow us to go into space.
    NASA exploration doesn’t require NASA to make rocket fuel in space- NASA can ship the rocket fuel it needs from Earth. But since rocket fuel is needed, NASA should exploring space to determine if and where rocket fuel can be made in space.

    1. What is needed in the space environment is commerce. The fuel helps to lower the cost of undertaking that commerce. What we need to do is figure out ways to leverage the commerce that is already there, namely the GEO sat market. That is where the advantage of lunar water will be felt first. THAT IS IF we change the way we do GEO satellites.

      1. I think GEO satellites assisted greatly by a operational fuel depot in LEO.
        I think any depot operating in space environment will affect whether or the degree
        that lunar water is minable.
        I think Manned Mars program will influence whether lunar water in minable.

        But what is needed is for the Moon to be explored in a way which allows potential
        lunar water miners to decide whether mining lunar water could be profitable.
        And someone starting lunar water mining need some assurance that location
        which is decided a upon will a better location rather than the poorest location.

        And locations of mining lunar mining may be rather limited area- knowing about the Moon
        at 40 km resolution in terms potential lunar water deposit is not very helpful in making such decisions. What is needed is way to quantify at a 1 km scale- being able to point to 1 km square section of the Moon and deciding this might be best place to mine lunar water. Though what needed to be known is the characteristics associated with lunar water- ice cystals mixed into regolith uniformly? Layers of concentrated lunar waters which could be at or near surface or mostly beneath a meter or so of the surface. Etc. Etc.
        Or in other words to get commercial lunar water, NASA needs major program that explores the Moon. For political reason this program should be fast and cheap- somewhere around 20 to 30 billion from start to finish. This could be started once we have President who is vaguely interested in space exploration.
        To be a realistic in terms of costs, the design of NASA lunar program must have an exit strategy and a clear specific purpose. So not the dream of lunar scientists who want to know everything possible about the Moon. Sorry. That can come later.
        Nor can the lunar program be focused on base building. Nor ISRU. I think if Bigelow wants to build bases for NASA he should focus on Mars bases. Though commercial lunar miner may or may not need some bases. Building a lunar bases assumes you have already explored the Moon. Base building has to pick a lunar pole and a crater.
        Once NASA has enough information to make such decision wisely, it should then “decide” not to build the base.
        Maybe NASA could practice on making such a decision process on the Moon, and that use that practice run for deciding how and where they going to put a base on Mars.
        Mars needs bases to explore it. We have little idea of what to explore in regards to Mars- I suggest finding underground environment. Underground environmments would something useful for future human settlements on Mars. Plus, you might find alien life.
        Plus liquid water. Anyways with the Moon we could know what we looking for and focus
        on finding it.

        1. We already know, from the Mini-RF experiment, where the water is to 1 km. I already know driving routes to these locations from the permanently lit areas.

          Water mining in and of itself, is insufficient to enable a profitable lunar enterprise. The work that has to be done to build the infrastructure to access the water will provide multiple spin off products and technologies.

          1. “But with a resolution 10 times better than the radar aboard the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, Mini-RF allows us to see details of the crater’s interior. In particular, the circular polarization ratio (CPR) measures the polarization characteristics of the radar echoes, which give clues to the nature of the surface materials. The inset figure shows a “same-sense” radar image of the crater (left) next to a colorized CPR image of the crater. Red pixels have CPR values greater than 1.2. The CPR values inside the crater are almost all greater than 1, whereas the CPR values outside the crater are generally low (much less than 1). Regions with CPR greater than 1 are relatively rare in nature, but are commonly seen in regions with thick deposits of ice (such as Martian polar caps, or the icy Galilean satellites). They are also seen in rough, blocky ejecta around fresh, young craters, but in that occurrence, scientists also observe high CPR outside the crater rim.”
            “The NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (LRO) Miniature Radio Frequency (Mini-RF) instrument has enabled these analyses on the Moon at a global scale. Mini-RF has accumulated ~67% coverage of the lunar surface in S-band (12.6 cm) radar with a spatial resolution of 30 m.”

            LRO is an exciting and important mission, but we need much more than this. Though LRO is continuing and getting better data.

            It seems LRO is doing the necessary task finding various areas which one would then select as landing areas for further exploration to determine if lunar water is minable.

            But it does seems to me that at 30 meter resolution which can’t distinguish between rough terrain and water, that we are at the point which one could plan, and invest significant amounts of money to begin mining or that LRO will get to the point of being able to characterize a potential 1 km square site to mine lunar water.

    2. We can deliver water to the surface of the moon for about $100,000 per kg ($220,000/lb). So for drinking and washing purposes lunar water at $100,000/lb is viable.

      To be a useful fuel at GEO lunar water will have to be several orders of magnitude cheaper.

        1. Delta-V Moon surface to GEO = 3.92 km/s Isp =455

          => A kg of water at GEO needs 2.4 kg mining.
          $30k / 2.4 = $12.5

          So cost of lunar water has to be less than $12.5k / kg
          The cost of the rocket is on top of that.

          1. => A kg of water at GEO needs 2.4 kg mining.
            $30k / 2.4 = $12.5

            Who says that the fuel to get to GEO must be water? Aluminum or magnesium/LOX would work just fine. Or you could use a reusable delivery tanker with a mild mass driver to lower the delta V. To get to water mining you are going to have to build up infrastructure and while you are mining you will get more metal than you get water, especially in the highlands regions of the poles.

            1. If the propellant was magnesium/LOX you still have to mine and refine the magnesium. Both sets of ISRU machinery come from Earth.

              Having three sellable products is likely to bring forward the cost and mass break even point.

              1. Both sets of ISRU machinery come from Earth.

                This is the fundamental fallacy. A bootstrapping ISRU operation that starts with tons of tons of processed per month, which requires nothing more than a magnet and a couple of rovers and power can create most of the hardware needed for more involved ISRU mining. Fairly soon nothing more than motors, computers, control and communications systems will be all that is needed to be shipped up from the Earth to build machinery for more involved operations.

                Energy is the limiting factor in extraterrestrial industrial development, not the transportation system.

            2. The important fact though is that you don’t want the fuel at GEO. You want it at LEO to get to GEO. Then considering the Moon’s low gravity, we already have various non-chemical propulsion methods that will work for the Moon, that won’t work for the higher gravity and dense atmosphere of Earth. For instance, the Navy’s new rail gun already could be used to launch payload from the lunar surface to orbit.

              Bob Clark

              1. The important fact though is that you don’t want the fuel at GEO. You want it at LEO to get to GEO. …

                Delta-V lunar surface to LEO is 5.93 km/s
                Delta-V low lunar orbit to LEO is 4.04 km/s (or 8.0 km/s low thrust)
                from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta-v_budget

                The CAT is ion thruster that uses water as propellant.

              2. Andrew, I think you used the line in the table from LEO to a soft landing on the Moon:


                But look at the line in the table that goes from the lunar surface to LEO. It’s 2.74 km/s. This is essentially escape velocity from the Moon. You would use aerobraking to stop in LEO. But for this application you would allow the cargo to undergo reentry to the Earth’s surface.

                Bob Clark

              3. Which value you choose depends on the destination.

                If you are moving fuel you want it to stop in LEO – to refuel the transfer vehicle.
                If you are moving platinum you want it to land on the Earth.

                Andrew Swallow

              4. “If you are moving fuel you want it to stop in LEO – to refuel the transfer vehicle.”
                From the Moon and going anywhere, LEO, GEO, Mars orbit. And non-crew to Earth surface, one should go to EML-1. Assuming one is making rocket fuel on the Moon.
                Low lunar orbit to EML according to wiki, is 0.64 km/sec. Going back and forth from Low lunar to EML-1 should be quite efficient for low thrust and high efficient rockets.

                From EML to Mars depends on whether it’s cargo or crew. Cargo could go past moon and near the Moon, and add the delta-v to get to Mars. It could also go near Earth, and apply delta-v to get to Mars. Low thrust to Mars isn’t going to be helped much by passing close to Earth, though chemical propulsion high thrust will get some Oberth effect.
                If you want to send crew to Mars using non-hohmann transfer [any trajectory that gets to Mars fast], and you going to high thrust, then you want to go from EML to near Earth distance and apply the delta-v to get to Mars.

                The problem with sending lunar rocket fuel to LEO, is one can significantly lower the cost to ship from Earth to LEO, if you shipping a significant quantity of rocket fuel to LEO from Earth in a year time period.
                Any new rocket being made could essentially ship rocket fuel to LEO for free, as a means of proving the rocket can reliably launch payloads into space.
                And/or rocket maker can make a rocket which designed solely to ship fuel to LEO- as part business model of the company. In other words, design a rocket that will launch every month or week, and launch to same destination every time- with nothing resembling payload intregation, or finding customers to buy launch from launch maker. All one has to do, is build the rockets, and launch the rockets and fast as is possible- and if they fail- no problem, keep building them and launching them. Though perhaps if you get two rockets failing in a row, you do a serious review of the problems. Such a system, may get payloads in the range of $500 to $1000 per lb delivered to LEO and be quite profitable.

  6. Thanks for the very informative post. I especially like your conclusion that once we have the Falcon Heavy, transportation costs are vastly lower than what is generally assumed using a Constellation or even Apollo style approach. Note this would also be the case for manned flights. That is, a return to the Moon can be done for a fraction of the $100 billion cost of Constellation.
    If only we can get Elon past that blind spot that the Moon is uninteresting…

    Bob Clark

    1. If only we can get Elon past that blind spot that the Moon is uninteresting…

      The Moon may not interest Elon but SpaceX is short of money. They will arrange transport to EML-2 or low lunar orbit.

      I suspect that one of the aerospace companies would licence a 4 engine lander from NASA. Each engine 5000 lb-f and Isp 321 s.

  7. Dennis, I’m a strong supporter of returning to the Moon as you are. But that is not the view of the present administration. And I would say the situation became worse with Garver’s departure since she was such a strong proponent of commercial space.
    So, as they say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. BUT … as a mole. NASA has said even if the asteroid retrieval to L2 doesn’t come to fruition they would still consider missions to and presumably a station at L2. For the station they would want to be able to send propellant up to a depot. For this they would of course need a lunar lander/ascent vehicle. Then we could advocate for this, and once they agree to it, THEN do studies on adding a crew capsule to it.
    NASA also wants a solar electric propulsion (SEP) craft to bring the asteroid to L2. Ideally this could launch as early as 2017, with its arrival with the asteroid at L2 in 2021. On the other hand I saw you discuss the OASIS plan of using SEP’s to send cargo to cislunar space.
    Then instead of arguing against ARM we could argue in favor of it, specifically for the SEP. THEN we would note it can also be used for bringing heavy cargo from LEO to cislunar space, and then to the lunar surface using low cost reusable SSTO lunar landers.
    But an even more interesting advantage of having this SEP is that it could be used to send heavy cargo to Mars. A big problem with a manned Mars mission is not only would you have to have a rocket to get the crew there, it would also have to carry the propellant to get back. The alternative is to do in situ propellant production which is still regarded negatively by the old guard.
    Then by having SEP we can send the large amount of propellant to get back beforehand, and just use a small manned rocket to get there. The interesting thing is with the SEP coming online in 2017, and the SLS and Falcon Heavy being available by then, we might actually have a route to send a manned mission to Mars this decade.
    This then would be a NASA goal that space advocates on all sides could support.

    Bob Clark

      1. The comments of the administrator about the asteroid retrieval mission recently discussed on Spacepolitics.com engender even less enthusiasm about it.
        We HAVE to come up with better ways of using the resources NASA has and is projected to have.

        Bob Clark

  8. Because of the radiation danger NASA might be forced to consider means of getting shortened travel times to Mars:

    Mars rover confirms dangers of space radiation.
    Future manned missions to Mars will need internal shielding and advanced propulsion systems to shorten transit times, minimizing exposure to space radiation, scientists say.
    by William Harwood May 30, 2013 3:06 PM PDT

    Chris Moore, deputy director of advanced exploration systems at NASA headquarters, said shorter transit times and improved shielding will be needed to protect future deep space crews.
    “To get really fast trip times to cut down on radiation exposure we’d probably need nuclear thermal propulsion, and we’re working with the U.S. Department of Energy to look at various types of fuel elements for these rockets,” Moore said.
    But it’s a long-range technology development activity and it will probably be many years before that is ready. But it is part of our design reference mission architecture for sending humans to Mars…. That could probably cut the (one-way) trip time down to around 180 days.”/


    An expensive and far off development using nuclear propulsion that is already controversial and would still only make the travel time 6 months(!)

    This is a big reason why I argue for getting the propellant from the Moon. We would then have virtually unlimited amount of propellant to drastically cut the travel time – no new, expensive, (potentially) dangerous, far off propulsion systems required. In fact an all-hydrogen Saturn V size vehicle launched from low lunar orbit or L2 could make the Mars trip in two weeks.

    Then a manned Mars mission is simply dependent on setting up a propellant production base on the Moon. Since as I argue manned/cargo lunar flights can be done at costs of a few hundred million per flight, making multiple flights per year possible, constructing such as base and therefore mounting a Mars mission can be done in less than a decade.

    Bob Clark

    1. We should go send crew to Mars in about 3 months.
      2 weeks is unrealistic and unnecessary.
      6 months is barely any improvement.
      What we need for 3 months or less is lots of
      chemical rocket fuel.
      I think it’s better to buy 2 billion dollar worth of rocket fuel
      shipped to High earth, than spending 2 billion developing nuclear
      First, one could spend 2 billion of developing nuclear propulsion and get nothing.
      One could spend 10 billion on developing nuclear propulsion and get nothing.

      If buy 2 billion for shipping rocket fuel, you get the rocket fuel shipped.
      And the buying of launches will lower the cost of other launches- lowering
      the costs of Mars manned program.

      So, start now, with LEO depot. Use depots to explore Moon. Use depots to
      go to Mars.

  9. Orion spacecraft’s budget and tech concerns mount ‘Incremental’ work puts schedule, costs at risk, report says.
    Aug. 16, 2013

    In all, NASA expects to spend $16.5 billion to develop a crew-ready Orion.
    But the program’s flat funding each year increases the chance that costs will grow or flights will be delayed.


    Something’s wrong when the development cost of just acapsule rises that high.
    Really, it will soon become apparent that commercial space is the only way NASA will be able to accomplish manned spaceflight going forward.

    Bob Clark

  10. Time to Move Beyond “New Space”?

    by edward wright

    Is article related to this topic. I posted a comment on it. But I haven’t fiqure out
    how to do that, apparently.
    Quote from article:

    “It’s time to move beyond “new space” and return to the sound economics and hard-headed pragmatism of old-timers like G. Harry Stine. Only then will it be possible for visionaries like Tito and Wingo to realize their dreams.”
    My comment to article was:
    Article:”This is the result of putting the cart before the horse. We have failed to do the necessary work to reduce space transportation and operation costs, which is necessary before we attempt ambitious commercial projects in space (especially deep space) — a point that was hammered home time and time again by hard-headed pragmatist G. Harry Stine, in his many columns and books such as Halfway to Anywhere.”

    And I said: “I don’t think we have to lower the cost, before mining the Moon.
    But I do think the Moon needs to be explored
    to determine whether there is minable water, before the moon can be mined.

    I don’t believe NASA or government in general can lower launch costs by being involved to making cheaper rockets.
    I think the government could lower costs doing things which reduce amount of time [therefore costs] of launching rockets from a launch site.
    I think NASA can lower costs by developing a fuel depots to make them operational- establishing that part of rocket launches is the use of fuel depots in order to get payloads beyond LEO.
    Rather than NASA focusing on reusable launch craft, it should focus on reusable spacecraft.”

    Basically we can’t lower costs significant unless there is more market demand for rocket launch.
    Also article linked from instapundit:

    I think the suborbital business could be killer app in terms lower launch cost- because the market could develop into a very big market. And one thing a suborbital market might develop is better
    spaceports. And cheaper, fast, and more capable spaceport seems like a key element in lower launch to orbit.

    1. Basically we can’t lower costs significant unless there is more market demand for rocket launch.

      Exactly. It has been the Space Frontier Foundation types who have driven themselves in the ditch by pushing that meme of low cost launch before orbital commerce. This only works if someone is putting up the money to develop the system, which they won’t until the market is proven. We have been going around in that circle forever and it is time to break it.

      I think the suborbital business could be killer app in terms lower launch cost- because the market could develop into a very big market. And one thing a suborbital market might develop is better spaceports. And cheaper, fast, and more capable spaceport seems like a key element in lower launch to orbit.

      Suborbital is not directly applicable to driving orbital commerce in my opinion.

      What we need is more orbital commerce.

      This is the comment that I made over there, it looks like for some reason it disappeared…

      …….We saw the same thing back in 2004. When the Bush Vision of Space Exploration was publicly announced, there was a lot of talk about how it would enable commercial lunar development and settlement — an idea was heavily promoted in books such as Moonrush by Dennis Wingo…..


      The Bush plan would have, in the O’Keefe era. Mike Griffin’s NASA with its emphasis on building a rocket to no where destroyed that ability to surfboard on the government’s risk reduction and infrastructure emplacement.

      You state that before space commerce can happen we must have reusable low cost launch, but in doing that you repeat a fallacy that has dogged cheap access to space for a long time, which is investment capital. Not even Elon Musk is starting with a reusable system as the capital cost to develop it is too high for private investors and you neeed look no farther than SLS for the misdirection of the government investment.

      Today we have a $300 BILLION dollar a year commercial space market in GEO and that is where Elon is looking to make the lion’s share of his commercial money over the next decade.

      I have said this many times that if I reduce the cost of launch by 50% I cut the cost of a GEO system by 20%. If I cut the cost of the spacecraft by 50% I save over 40% of the total cost of the system. That is why we continue to focus on reducing that cost. As the cost of the space system comes down that will drive orbital commerce, which will drive demand for launch, which will eventually lead to the justification for the investment for an RLV.

      That is the real world.

      1. “Suborbital is not directly applicable to driving orbital commerce in my opinion.

        What we need is more orbital commerce.”

        I think to lower fuel cost, suborbital could improve “assist launch”. So motherships and/or things like Mag Lev that add as much as 1 km/sec or more.

        But at moment suborbital has not started flying passengers. And I think suborbital needs to flying distance of more 1000 km before I think it will have significant effect upon getting into space.
        So I think we can get a better idea of where it’s going after we hit more than 100 suborbital passengers flown.

  11. I would say that the decisions to lower prices is based upon the idea of increasing market share.
    And we currently could have higher prices on launches because lower prices would not increase market share. SpaceX or Lockheed will not deliberately decide to make less profit.

    This is related to why I think lunar rocket fuel must reach around $2000 per lb at the lunar surface, because to increase market share, lunar rocket fuel must be exported to lunar orbit [or beyond]. One has the capacity to triple market share by exporting lunar rocket. You make more profit selling lunar rocket fuel at $2000 than at $4000 if at $4000 it’s too costly to export. Now if $4000 isn’t too high a price to export it- then it will be $4000.
    So this is just assuming one player. With competition and increased market share, lunar surface price will lower further.
    If LEO was a large enough market, then instead exporting to Lunar orbit, lunar rocket fuel at the lunar surface may need to be low enough to ship it to LEO and competitive with rocket fuel shipped from Earth surface. So instead of around 2000 per lb at lunar surface, it would have to be around $500 lb.
    If had market of 10,000 tons of rocket fuel per year at LEO, as a guess that equal a market of about 100 tons at high Earth/lunar orbit. So if only had a market in LEO, 10,000 tons per year would equal only having a 100 ton per year at lunar orbit. It also means if you had 100 ton market at lunar orbit, there is also 10,000 ton market in LEO, there would probably be an attempt to capture the LEO market.
    Or 200,000 lb at lunar requires 400,000 lb. So 400,000 times 2000 is $800 million.
    If consider it 2 1/2 lbs to get 1 lb at LEO. 10,000 tons is 20 million lbs times 2 1/2.
    So 50 million lbs at $500 is $2.5 billion. So roughly considering you pay more have this more higher production, the increase to grossing 2.5 billion from 800 million per year, would make attractive enough to want to lower lunar prices. Of course you are also lowering lunar orbit price from somewhere 4000 per lb, to about 500 [or less per lb] and lowering the $2000 per lb to about $200 per lb at lunar surface. That’s the downside, but such lower lunar and lunar orbit rocket fuel prices, could also cause more demand for them. And if have competition, either you do this, or the competition does it- and whoever does it wins. If there wasn’t competition, then you would probably be tempted to delay taking this step [or wouldn’t be a need to do it].

    If NASA explore the Moon to determine whether there is minable lunar water, and then goes on to a Manned Mars. Then lunar water/rocket fuel maker also have Mars orbit as a market. Which one might ship water instead of LH&LOX- Mars high orbit has less solar energy than the Moon [at eternal peaks] but compared LEO or lunar surface with 1/2 day and night- it’s 1360 divided by 2 or 680 watts per square meter. And high Mars orbit has about 600 watts.
    Plus Mars orbit is cheaper to send solar panels from Earth as compared to lunar surface.
    Another aspect regarding Manned Mars is you need water at earth escape velocity- which can be lunar water [at $2000 per lb plus lunar water price, say 500 per lb. Which much cheaper than shipping it from Earth. So, say $3000 per lb.]
    Then one has other factor of leaving from High Earth rather than LEO to go to Mars. One thing is you get lunar water cheaper. But also it’s cheaper in terms delta-v to get to Mars and cheaper to stage from High earth, such as Earth/Moon L-1. Plus high earth is better in regards to international involvement. So if staged from L-1, Manned Mars can buy lunar rocket fuel to get to Mars.

    Now, if making rocket fuel at Mars orbit, one use rocket fuel to return to Earth, and one can supply rocket fuel needs on the Mars surface.

    But the way I would suggest NASA do this, is not count on Lunar rocket fuel for Manned Mars.
    Instead depend upon Earth shipped water and rocket fuel.
    So send earth water to Mars high orbit, have a private company operate a gas station in Mars orbit, which splits water into rocket fuel. And such rocket fuel will used for crew return and rocket fuel needed on Mars surface.
    Also have private gas station at L-1. You could also ship water to it and it split, but probably just ship rocket fuel it. And ship water to it for crew consumption on way to Mars. And stage
    Manned Mars at L-1.
    Before Manned Mars. NASA should design and build and operate a fuel depot at LEO. Unless private sector can do this quicker than NASA can do it. NASA then uses fuel depot in LEO for everything it launches [makes some attempt to do this]. And once it has demonstrated that this can be done routinely. During this time, NASA should start Lunar exploration- first robotic, followed with Manned.
    So having operational LEO depot should be on critical path of Lunar exploration of the Moon.
    Having a depot at L-1 should on critical path to Manned Mars, but should be started during Manned Lunar program.
    So, let’s see, suppose SLS actually flies. So first flight or second flight could be LEO depot, if NASA hasn’t already put one in LEO by this point in time.
    Assuming one has already explored the Moon, one could use SLS to fly bigger pieces for Lunar program, but of course one doesn’t need SLS for lunar program. If SLS continue to exist, one can also use it for Manned Mars.
    But in terms of total tonnage for lunar or Mars, most of payload, should lifted by private sector [it will be cheaper- and foolish to try to fly SLS a lot so it somehow becomes cheaper].
    But since the tendency seems to be we needed a back up for crew to ISS, one could look at SLS as back up for Lunar and Mars programs. Or it can serve the purpose of not having one or two companies being on the critical path for these programs. Particularly in regards to crew flights and for large components or unique components made at NASA.
    But in terms of Mars Program, it seems a very high percentage of payload will be like cargo or fuel shipment to ISS- as currently is case with ISS, it will be more so with Manned Mars.

  12. Dennis, on Spudis’ lunar resources blog he discusses a new NASA study on return to the Moon. I noted, irritatingly, that it still used Altair sized landers.
    As you said the VSE proposals did not need launchers of above 70 metric ton size. Perhaps we can only get a small lander and small mission size by asking those who worked on the VSE proposals for their ideas on how to achieve a return to the Moon.

    Bob Clark

  13. Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

    Now, a hydraulic jack is a lever. You pump a small cylinder which liquid pumped goes into a large cylinder and large cylinder can lift a large weight. 1 psi in 1 square inch cylinder goes into
    1 foot square cylinder, and 1 psi over 144 inches of area can lift 144 lbs. If instead of 1 foot square it’s 10 ft by 10 ft, it can lift 14400 lbs. So with a large enough cylinder with 1 psi, you can lift a car or a house. Lifting massive weighs is done all the time, when ships travel thru the Panama Canal. The locks are a large rectangular box in which water from higher elevation is allowed flowed into.
    So a question is can make large levers to lift rockets? And can such a lever lift the rockets fairly fast?

    For over a decade I have been trying to explain something I call a pipelauncher.
    Which is a large lever. [I usually liken it to a boat or balloon.]
    It is a pipe with one end capped.
    If take a length of pipe which has enough buoyancy, cap one end, throw into the water, water enters into the open end of pipe, and this causes the pipe flip vertical.
    The open end points down and the capped end is on top.
    So use a big enough pipe which capped and you get what I call, a pipelauncher, which can use to launch rocket to speeds of hundreds of mph.

    If have rocket on top of the cap end, the air pressure inside the pipe will at some pressure, and if one doubles that pressure, the rocket will accelerate a 1 gee.
    And the pressure inside the pipe can be relatively low.
    So a 20′ diameter pipe could be too small. But I will use such size as example.
    So area of 20′ diameter is radius squared time Pi. So 100 times 3.14. 314 square feet of area. 1 psi per square foot is 144 psi. So 20 diameter area has 45,216 lbs of force. And 10 psi is 452,160 lbs of force.

    If had a long pipe [hundreds of feet long] and it was 20 feet in diameter. And the hundreds of feet of pipe was most submerged, and with a rocket parked on top of it, and the entire weight of pipe and rocket was 452,160 lbs, the air pressure inside the pipe would be 10 psi.
    And if you were to increase the air pressure inside the pipe to 20 psi, and keeping this pressure constantly at 20 psi, then the pipe and the rocket would rise at an acceleration of 9.8 m/s/s. And would continue such acceleration until it “ran out of pipe length”.

    So 10 psi gives 452,160 lbs of force and 20 psi gives 904,330 lbs of force.
    If the pipe and rocket combined weighed instead was 904,330 lbs the air pressure
    inside the pipe would have to be 20 psi, and you need 40 psi to accelerate at 1 gee.
    Or if both pipe and rocket weighed 452,160 lbs and constantly added 40 psi then it would accelerate at 2 gees [19.6 m/s/s].

    To have a small pipe withstand say 300 psi is fairly easy or commonplace, the pipe used for plumbing of a house probably withstand such pressure, but large diameter pipes such high pressure would require a very strong pipe.
    There is formula used for pipe diameter, Barlow’s Formula. There is a calculator, here:

    The strength of common steel is about 40,000 psi strength yield, and aluminum alloys
    can get to around 40,000. And steel alloys can 100,000 psi strength yield or higher.
    So if use 40,000 yield and give a low safety factor of 1.5 [I believe 1.4 is commonly used with rockets]. Put in 20 feet diameter: [240 inches outside diameter] and 1 inch wall, you get 300 as bursting pressure and 200 psi for max operation pressure.
    Or instead put in 40 feet diameter and it’s 200 burst and 100 operating psi.
    [Now I wouldn’t suggest using 1 inch wall and maybe one should use safety factor of 2 or more perhaps. Even 1/2 inch wall thickness may difficult thickness to weld and also one much keep in mind that difficult to ensure that all welds are as strong as the material welded- this particularly a problem if considering using of very high strength yield steel].
    And continuing comparison 2 feet diameter pipe 1″ walls is 3300 burst and 2200 operating psi.

    When I first considered the idea of pipelauncher, I knew the challenge was get a large enough diameter pipe. And of course the other problem making the pipe long enough. My solution at the time was to get commonly available pipe of 2 feet [used for pile driving or gas pipelines] in diameter and weld them together into a larger pipe.
    I wanted a very sturdy structure and I wanted some impressive speed, like 300 mph.

    But it seemed no one generally thought 300 mph was fast enough to bother with [which I found annoying]. But I come to conclusion the fundamental problem with such design was in assuming a rocket could handle 3 gees of acceleration. The faster acceleration means one use shorter length of pipe, and I thought since rockets commonly endure more than 3 gees, that 3 gees acceleration might be reasonable launch acceleration.
    Another fundamental problem with that design is I think it’s overly sturdy. But I no doubt few would agree with such an assessment.

    A question is where is lift of pipelauncher coming from.
    It’s obvious.
    But seen a dog circle a small rug before lying down? That’s descriptive of my approach to it.
    I had a concern about the pipe bending. Any long pipe will bend.
    But there are some serious advantages inherent in a pipelauncher that will cause it not to bend, but I have been going in circles for years dimly wondering about it.
    Does it push or does it pull?
    My first design shows my lack of resolution of this question- had some level of uncertainty.
    If you understand that it’s *all about* air pressure [which is glaringly obvious] then one could be less concerned about a pipelauncher bending or buckling.
    You see I would have explained it to myself and others as buoyancy rather simply air pressure, but actual cause is simply air pressure, buoyancy is the result rather than the cause.

    Now, a reasonable question could be, if it’s all about air, why involve water.
    This is a more complicated question, than it might appear to be.

    But a simple way to approach such a question is you need a big lever.

    You could dig a big hole in the ground [or ice]. So have 1 km deep and vertical
    hole, have piston, adds lots of air, and get a similar thing.
    A mass driver. A cannon.
    Or a “Hyperloop” which goes vertical.

    One fundamental aspect is it’s better to launch rockets over uninhabited water.
    And a deep hole near any coast has problems. There are water tables.
    Though one could mange such a problem- particularly if not very deep.

    So, one have to dig the hole.
    How much does it cost to dig a hole say 20 feet in diameter and 1000 feet deep? One may want larger diameter and deeper but start with something more modest.
    Or instead of a hole one make a pipe 20 feet diameter and 1000 ft high. Which is less expensive?
    A hundred story building or a 100 story basement?
    Normally, we see building that mostly go up.
    An advantage of a hole, is you could lower rocket down hole. Where with building you need a door or you can lower it from the top.
    If fond of a high building it has to be able to withstand wind, earthquake and other things.

    With a pipelauncher you don’t need to dig a hole. Nor are foundations needed. And pipelauncher can lowered under water in worse storm imaginable and not have any worries.

    The ocean or rivers offer cheapest means to transport tonnage. It’s cheaper than rail and rail is cheapest [other than pipelines] way to transport tonnage on land.
    And pipelauncher can be made in a shipyard, which is a better place to build large structures
    than on some grassy field somewhere.
    A shipyard has all the infrastructure needed, cranes, electrical power, workforce, etc. It’s a place designed to be where you build big stuff.
    Availability shipyards makes a pipelauncher cheaper to make than a launch tower. And you can use any shipyard in the world. So you have a existing large selection of talented workers and can choose what you think are the best. And the best can probably build almost any kind of pipelauncher in less than 6 months. Wiki:
    Liberty ship in WWII were built in a couple months:
    “The first ships required about 230 days to build (Patrick Henry took 244 days), but the average eventually dropped to 42 days. The record was set by SS Robert E. Peary, which was launched 4 days and 15½ hours after the keel was laid, although this publicity stunt was not repeated: in fact much fitting-out and other work remained to be done after the Peary was launched.”
    And Liberty is more massive and complicated than a pipelauncher:
    Displacement: 14,245 long tons (14,474 t).
    Length: 441 ft 6 in (134.57 m)
    Beam: 56 ft 10.75 in (17.3 m)
    A pipelauncher would be longer and could be wider, but it’s empty shell.

    Other than pipe and capped end, a pipelauncher needs launch tower to hold
    rocket, and need a way to make a lot of warm air- Liquid air and kerosene.

    If one drops a one cubic meter of liquid air into water, you get nearly instantaneously:
    “One volume of liquid nitrogen will expand to produce 696.5 equivalent”
    Though obviously air temperature would be below the water’s temperature before dumping about ton liquid air on it- might be near freezing, but will not be below freezing.

    So with one cubic meter of liquid nitrogen makes 696.5 cubic meter of air
    at room temperature at 1 atm. And the liquid oxygen part of liquid air gives lots of oxygen to burn and has similar expansion rate.
    Liquid air is about $50 per ton and need [depending on pipelauncher] somewhere around 100 tons and about 1 ton of kerosene.
    A pipelauncher should be and would be a fraction of fuel cost of a rocket
    to provide same amount acceleration to the rocket.
    A pipelauncher could roughly the same mass of rocket, but despite doubling the mass to be
    accelerated, it can use less energy.
    And building a pipelauncher can be cheaper than cost of any rocket [a different number than whatever launch price is] which would be launched from it.
    It’s far bigger than the rocket, but it’s structure is simpler and it’s “engine” or air heater is simpler- less than 1/10th the cost of any rocket engine and it is reusable, or more so, than any jet engine.

    One needs more infrastructure than a launch pad to launch rocket.
    The pipelauncher is merely a variant of a simple launch pad. But whether the launch pad is oil platform, or concrete pad with tower, a pipelauncher should be cheaper to make than either of these. Plus pipelauncher adds some velocity to the rocket.
    So pipelauncher cost could be correctly seen as the tip of iceberg in terms of total cost- or the cost of Sea Launch’s oil platform is probably less than 1/10th of it’s total costs.
    But if added the cost of pipelauncher to the existing cost of Sea Launch, it would be an insignificant cost and they would get more payload to orbit. Perhaps they don’t need more payload capability to GEO. Perhaps it’s too risky. But It would a cheap way to get larger payload. If got them one more customer per year, it could be worth it.

    So I think a pipelauncher can be means to lower suborbital or orbit launch by 25% in near term, and perhaps 50% in longer term. Or if one thinks of the absolute limit of chemical rocket launches from Earth to be around $100 per lb to LEO, I would say a pipelauncher could lower chemical rockets lowest limit to $50 per lb.
    Though I think there are other ways of assisted launch to lower a chemical rocket’s $100 per lb limitation [limitation due mostly to cost of rocket fuel], but I think a pipelauncher is the cheapest, and therefore more economical in a relatively low launch rate that we currently have.

    The reason I think one could be as much lower cost by 50% would due to improving the capability of pipelauncher [in numerous ways] and the ocean environment is fundamentally a better location logistically as compared a launch pad on the land. Plus it seems for a commercial spaceport the ocean is a better location.
    In terms of suborbital, a mothership may be viewed as better option as compared to pipelauncher. You want people, and airport are convenient for people, and there already airports. Etc.
    Any mothership will cost more than pipelauncher, but for small payloads and short distances one can see many advantages to a mothership.
    And it seems to me that SpaceShipTwo would get more of an assisted launch than
    one can easily get from a pipelauncher.
    BUT a pipelauncher can give a assisted launch to much larger rockets than is conceivable with any mothership. And the cheapest of pipelauncher could make some want lower there cost by not buying/renting a mothership. So if one wants to do suborbital without a mothership or one wants a more powerful rocket to carry more passengers and/or further distance, a pipelauncher could better choice than a mothership. Plus a pipelauncher would be slightly cheaper, if a suborbital rocket can withstand higher gees. Or if passengers actually want start their adventure with large acceleration, a pipelauncher might worth going to a body water to get to.

    Anyways, I think exploring the moon to discover minable water is a more significant way to lower costs of getting into space, but other than increases the size of the market in space, I think private spaceports and assisted launch is another way to lower launch costs.

  14. ” Japan suspended the launch of its next-generation solid-fuel rocket on Tuesday just seconds before lift-off after engineers discovered a technical glitch.

    Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had planned to launch the Epsilon rocket from the Uchinoura Space Centre in Kagoshima, southwestern Japan, using just two laptop computers in a pared-down command centre.”

    I think it’s encouraging, that Japan is trying to reduce rocket launching costs.

  15. On SpacePolitics.com now is being discussed an interview by Lori Garver where she said the medical community would not sign off on an asteroid mission lasting hundreds of days. Then since a Mars mission under current plans would be even longer that would mean they would also not sign off on a Mars mission even if we could afford it.
    This is further support for the idea of getting the propellant from the Moon. You could have virtually unlimited propellant that could allow the trip to be done in weeks rather than months.
    If this really is the view of NASA that their current Mars missions actually can not be implemented for medical reasons then that should be openly discussed so that realistic alternatives can be developed.

    Bob Clark

    1. Bob

      Very interesting. These medical issues will force a redesign that will add mass and thus cost. One of the interesting issues to me as that with a low solar cycle and a portent that the next one may indeed be a maunder minimum, the Galactic Cosmic Ray (GCR) flux will be a significant source of radiation problems.

    2. Interesting. But it makes sense.
      I think NASA should plan on Mars Manned taking 3 months or less- 3 months of less one way travel time from Earth to Mars. And I think they plan crew staying on Mars surface for at least one year- and generally not be in a rush to get them back to Earth, but also always have abort option of an immediate earth return.
      The idea if having crew remain on Mars for a long time, does have much to do with long terms studies of 1/3 gravity- though one would get this. But main thing is sort of like one way Mars, but you probably have firm plans to return crew within say, 4 years. So some plan of returning +1 year, and depending on circumstance have option to extend to 4 years. Four year would “extended mission” in robot missions.
      NASA crew should only be sent if they willing to do 4 years on Mars surface, but for various reasons it might only be +1 year [or shorter in emergency abort situation]. And to go beyond 4 years requires a formal evaluation and where all parties are in agreement.

      I think NASA should send crew to Mars in 3 months or less, because they shouldn’t want to waste the crew’s time, an they want crew to be in best health at arrival at Mars.
      It is expensive to send crew fast {3 months or less] to Mars, but in terms of entire program cost, and considering the valuable and importance of crew, it makes economic sense to send them there as fast as is reasonable. And if you assume getting crew to Mars is valuable, it makes economic sense, to have them on the surface as long as is reasonable to have them on the surface of Mars.
      You in a sense buying a fast mars trip, with long and productive stay on Mars. Or if were to give crew a choice of 6 month there, 6 month on surface and 6 month return or 3 months there +1 year on surface and 6 month [or less] return, then I think crew would pick the latter.
      And part of 4 year stay, could be to allow and 3 month or less return- one of things crew on Mars surface be doing is “building a fast Earth return”. What also occurring is if crew stays 4 years, they building a better base for crew which arrive within 1 or 2 year after the first arrival. First crew can train second crew, second crew can add a different viewpoint of operations as seen from Earth, and fresh look at Mars operations.

      But I think it’s unlikely NASA could send crew to Mars in less than 1 month, though may be possible at around or less than 2 months. So less than 3 month and somewhere between 2 to 3 months Earth to Mars trip times.

      And NASA does not need Lunar rocket fuel to go to Mars [it can ship rocket fuel from Earth- it be good idea to ship rocket fuel from Earth even if rocket fuel would seem to cost 50% more than lunar plans to make the rocket fuel]. But once lunar rocket fuel is being made on the Moon. Then NASA should tend to favor buying lunar rocket fuel- as the more ;lunar rocket fuel bought, will lower the price of lunar rocket fuel. And thereby enable human settlement on Mars [not just NASA bases on Mars].

        1. “NASA has no interest in promoting human settlement on Mars.

          NASA wants to make Mars into the planetary version of the Antarctic research facilities….”

          I think you might be right, but public will not support it.

          A valid supportable reason for a NASA Manned Mars program, is to explore Mars so as to enable future human settlements.
          Having the main goal to find life or past life on Mars, would be something which is indication that NASA only views Mars as a very expensive [and dangerous] Antarctic research facility.
          Though I think if NASA gets it’s act together and does a Manned Mars Program, that NASA exploration of Mars may dominate NASA activity for couple decades.

          So it seems very reasonable to me for NASA to plan a Lunar Manned program which may last about 5 years, but it seems to me unreasonable for NASA to plan a Manned Mars program which will be finished within 2 decades.

          It seems a reasonable guess that we aren’t going to get Manned Lunar or Manned Mars under the Obama administration.
          And another guess it seems reasonable we will get a “backlash” from the Obama administration constant effort to degrade US standing in the world.
          So one could get some push for Manned exploration after 2016.
          I think there is some dim hope of NASA doing something regarding depots within the time period of Obama Administration- if so, history may see Obama as doing more for space exploration than any other previous administration. Despite Obama’s disinterest in space.

          So, say we finish up manned lunar exploration by 2025, we could see beginning of Manned Mars on same year, and Mars crew landing by 2027. And NASA being on Mars beyond 2047.
          And after lunar exploration could see commercial lunar mining actually start mining lunar water by 2026.
          As you indicated, it will probably be bootstrapped- start small low cost and build capability. Rather than some party throwing tens of billions and ramping up large production in a short time period. And so it could after 2028 before there enough lunar rocket fuel for NASA’s needs [hundreds of tons at L-1].

          Before crew get to Mars surface, there will be lots of cargo brought brought to Mars orbit and surface. To get to Mars fast with chemical rockets, will require lots cargo payload to L-1. After crew land on Mars there should as much or more payload deliver to Mars orbit and surface. And readying to sending second crews to Mars will require lots of cargo to L-1.
          And during this time, lunar miner will need launch to the Moon.
          Or a lot market demand for rocket launch within a few years, in which one could have Heavy Falcon flying, plus other rocket launch start up.
          This should lower launch costs- so Falcon or whatever might be less than $1000 per lb to LEO.
          By the third crew to Mars, it seems it could use lunar rocket fuel.
          But it seems as possible that more lunar rocket fuel will be used to get to the Moon rather to send fast crews to Mars. And/or a large amount of lunar rocket fuel is sent to Mars orbit- and lunar rocket fuel could be supplying rocket fuel on the Mars surface.

          With launch cost $1000 per lb to LEO, with fuel depot in LEO, L-1 and on Lunar surface, it could be cheaper to go to send crew to Moon and return then it is to send crew to ISS at the moment.
          To make rocket fuel from water, requires electrical, which means if making rocket fuel, which means one has lots of electrical power available- if pay more for the electrical power than rocket fuel makers are paying for the electrical power- so you have available 10, 100, or 10,000 times more electrical power than you dream about getting at ISS.
          So in such environment NASA earth launch is cheaper and getting beyond LEO and back is cheaper.
          And since it’s cheaper, then Mars might become like Antarctic research facility- even sending NASA administrators or Senators by 15-20 year mark.
          But problem is there a lot of the solar system to explore. And with cheaper to do it, such thing exploring Mercury and/or Europa may become more appealing.

  16. Excellent article Dennis,

    Re exporting metals to Earth: transportation costs place a bottom floor on how much you can sell your metals for. Barring something radical happening, that entails you must sell your metals for $1K to $10K/kg at a minimum. There are precious few elements that are worth that much.

    In addition, since you’ll be running a frackin’ space program, you really need to bring home the bacon–on the order of $10B/year at a minimum is what I would expect. Hence the problem with PGMs: the market is just not big enough to absorb what you need to be producing. @ $50K/kg, you need to be producing around 200 mT/year.

    Look at the list of terran mines above: they are mostly gold mines, and there are no PGM mines. The reason is that even on Earth, even if large ~ppm deposits of PGMs were found, they would not generate the returns they think they need. Take, e.g., the Donlin gold mine in Alaska. The reserve is about 2 g/t, and they’re hoping to be able to mine about 20 million mT/year and thus produce about 40 mT Au/year worth about $2B/year @ $50K/kg. But the entire world’s production of Pt is only 200 mT/year (compared to 2500 mT for Au); thus a sudden increase of 40 mT/year could be expected to crash the price.

    REEs? Most of them aren’t that rare, and even the ones that are rare aren’t worth that much. E.g., lutetium is worth maybe $10K/kg, but the world’s annual production is only 10 mT/year!

    Which leaves gold itself. Which is why I wonder it is never discussed much WRT space mining. Especially after the LCROSS results that reported a 2-sigma upper limit of 3,000 g/t Au! Any concentration anywhere near 3 ppt would be an absolute bonanza. LCROSS was a careful study, and deserves to be taken seriously. The researchers refused to publish what the expected concentration of Au was, but if we conservatively assume that sigma = 1.5 ppt, then the expected value would be 1000 g/t, and the 2-sigma lower limit would be 100 g/t–still a concentration of Au virtually unheard of on Planet Earth.

    Differential electrostatic dust transport can explain the existence of evident electrostatic placer deposits in polar craters on the Moon; preliminary numerical simulations seem to indicate this could work. Also, careful studies of Apollo 12 samples show that the concentration of Au in the regolith is less than the average concentration in pristine rocks found at the same location. Conservation of matter demands that the balance had to go somewhere. The Au profile of the core taken is also consistent with the electrostatic transport theory. There is a relatively rich layer (2.5) ppb right at the surface consistent with a population of gold particles dancing around the surface, a depleted layer that extends a few cm down, that then plateaus back to 2 ppb for the rest of the core (pristine rxs averaged 5 ppb).

    Moreover, on Earth, gold is typically found in association with both silver and mercury, and the Hg and Ag spectral peaks fairly leap out at you–no need for a computer to see those! The Au peaks are hard to see for two reasons: Au isn’t particularly emissive in the first place, and it is masked by other signals (e.g., the Hg peak completely subsumes one of the Au peaks). Moreover, the silver peaks can’t be the result of contamination by solder from the spacecraft: (a) there’s not enough of it to account for the peaks; and (b) the first Ag peaks do not appear until 1 to 3 seconds after the impact, indicating the silver was excavated from the ground. Also, hardly any Al–a major spacecraft component–was detected which indicates that the LAMP instrument was working properly; note that although Al is a common constituent of lunar material, it is almost all found in oxidized form, and would, therefore, not be preferentially transported by electrostatic levitation.

    Also, recent numerical simulations indicate that the PSRs will be electrostatically alive–except for small, relatively deep craters–the exactly the same size of the anomalous craters discovered by Spudis et al. in the north polar region that have the high CPR on the inside and low CPR on the outside. This would result in another order of magnitude concentration. Also, we know practically nothing of the Far Side. If Asphaug and Jutzi’s impact theory for the Far Side highlands turns out to be true, and the impactor just happened to have the bulk concentration of gold of the inner solar system, then that would cause another order of magnitude increase in gold concentrations.

    In addition, all the water necessary for propellant, life support, and processing would be found in the exact same crater as the gold. No need to develop ALLOX rockets. But here’s the beauty part: since you’re selling gold bullion, there’s no need to even ship it to Earth! Simply refine the gold electrolytically to .9999 purity, pour gold bars to London Good Delivery standards, stamp each one with a unique serial number and have them independently assayed, and you’re in business. Store them in a secure vault (and on the Moon this should be easy), and the bars can be bought and sold electronically by buyers, ETFs, and traders on Earth!

    I see on the Donlin mine that they’re investing $6.7B for a return of $2B/year. Thus, for a Moon mine planning on producing 200 mT/year, by applying the same ratio, the Moon mine would justify a $33B initial capital investment. In round figures, if we assume a concentration of 1,000 g/t, then 200K mT/year of ore would have to be excavated. Note that according the LCROSS data, there is no overburden to speak of. Thus only about 550 mT/day of ore would have to be processed on average. Thus, Daniel’s point above that a Moon mine that cost the same as an Earth mine would not produce as much finished product is false. It all depends on the ore concentration. A Whipple Crater gold mine could remove 100 times less ore than the Donlin mine, and yet produce 5 times more gold per year.

    Bottom line: There’s GOLD in them thar craters!!!

    1. Warren

      Considering that the current spot price of Platinum is $1530 per oz which translates to ~$54.6 thousand dollars per kg, I am comfortably over your margin and that does not include the other PGM’s such as Palladium ($719 per oz or $25.6k per kg), or Iridium ($775 oz or $27.6k per kg), Rhodium ($1,010.00 per oz or $36,071 per kg).

      Divide that by five and it is still good.

      As per revenue, what you expect may not be what is needed as the costs can be spread in very different ways than a terrestrial mine.

      Look at the list of terran mines above: they are mostly gold mines, and there are no PGM mines.

      Huh? In this you are completely wrong. From the South African mines in the Merensky Reef to the mines at the Stillwater complex in Montana and at Norlisk in Russia, there are many PGM only mines.

      Especially after the LCROSS results that reported a 2-sigma upper limit of 3,000 g/t Au

      Because more than likely that is from the materials on the bird itself rather than what is native on the Moon. The argument for PGM’s is based upon the known fraction of PGM’s in Ni/Fe/Co/PGM (class M) meteorites, and gold is a very minor part of that assay. If there were gold I would keep it on the Moon to be used for electrical conductors and not shipped back to the Earth.

      In addition, all the water necessary for propellant, life support, and processing would be found in the exact same crater as the gold.

      Though I am skeptical of this I would welcome it should it be the case. At this time we must build our case on more verifiable valuable items and water of course is one, but at this time the evidence for gold is very sparse and the evidence for PGM’s is rock solid.

      1. Hi Dennis,

        Re platinum mines: yes of course there are platinum mines, but what we don’t see are new multi-billion dollar platinum projects (although this could change if South Africa continues to implode). To explain what I mean, consider the Donlin gold mine they’re constructing in Alaska. What if everything was the same, except for the fact that the ore was 2 g/t Pt instead of 2 g/t Au? Would that change the economics? Here is a fairly recent article on Planetary Resources where the guy claims that a 250,000 oz (8 mT) addition to the Pt market caused a 25% decline in price; meanwhile, labor unrest last year in South Africa caused a 250,000 oz shortfall, that followed by a 20% rise. So if a new Donlin-sized mine suddenly dropped an extra 40 mT/year onto a market that’s only 200 mT/year, that would definitely cause a drop in price.

        And even if it didn’t drop the price, it’s only worth $2B/year. Meanwhile, the Donlin mine costs $6.7B to start up. Is it really possible to start a mine on the Moon for only $6.7B? I doubt it. We’re looking at 10’s of billions at least, which means you need to be bringing in 11 figures/year in order to recoup that investment. It simply can’t be done with PGMs. Here are the total world production as of 2011 and using your prices above

        Pt 195 mT @ $54.6K/kg = $10.6B
        Pd 215 mT @ $25.6K/kg = $5.5B
        Rh 23.8 mT @ $36.1/kg = $0.9B
        Ir 9.3 mT @ $27.6/kg = $0.3B
        Total = $17.3B

        Compare to gold:
        Au 2660 mT @ $49.1K/kg = $130B

        And this is only half the story since a lot of PGMs are consumed in industrial applications, whereas most gold ever mined is still laying around: about 160,000 mT worth about $8 trillion USD–this is all potentially part of the market. So no matter how much gold was mined from the Moon, within reason, it would only scratch the surface of the price, and not put a major dent in it. Also, gold production on Earth has pretty much peaked out: discovery of new reserves is not keeping pace with the rate of production, so gold mined from the Moon would merely be making up for declining production on Earth.

        As for evidence for gold electrostatic placer deposits on the Moon being scarce, it is highly speculative I admit, but there is a consilience of several lines of evidence that all point in that direction. It is a fact that pristine highland rocks have higher gold contents than surrounding regolith. This gold had to go somewhere, and numerical simulations show that gold could be preferentially transported in Lunar conditions. Indeed, electrostatic separation is a major industrial process on Earth. It works. Thomas Edison invented the first one to separate out desert gold. My own BOTE calculations show that 300 g/t Au in the right craters is entirely reasonable. It could be much higher, depending on what the Far Side is like.

        As for the LCROSS results being the result of contamination from the spacecraft, Shultz et al. (2010) in Science considered that possibility, but concluded that “a source of Na or Ag in the Centaur, sufficient to produce emission lines, however, has not been identified.” Also, many other metals were apparently detected, such as Zn, Mn, Mg, V, Fe–but hardly any Al. No chromium was reported, though Centaur propellant tanks are made of more than 10% Cr. As I mentioned above, the Ag lines did not appear until after 1 second after the first lines appeared, indicating that it was from excavated material. While these results shouldn’t be taken as the gospel truth, they deserve to be taken seriously and should be followed up in future missions IMHO.

  17. “If there were gold I would keep it on the Moon to be used for electrical conductors and not shipped back to the Earth.”

    I would agree one would keep it on the Moon. Gold has value in city 2000 miles away from you, likewise gold would have some value on the Moon.
    In other words, suppose you had choice, buy gold in the moon, or buy lunar gold which has be shipped to New York or Hong Kong. If shipping costs were going to predictably lower in decade and you saving for retirement in decade, why not buy the gold at the lunar surface and deliver it 10 years later? [or never actually delivered as it it higher value [due to lower costs to ship it] can be traded later].
    But since gold will not “wear out” you could use the gold as wire in the meantime, instead having it stored as fairly useless bricks.
    But there probably some use for platinum on the Moon, so instead being stored as bricks it can used for other purposes- and sold/transfer to scrap or *brick use* later.

  18. Dennis, you recall that comment I made that the high, mult-billion dollar development cost of the Orion capsule is actually more than if it were made of pure cut and polished diamonds. The value of diamonds is a benchmark for something of high value for its weight. To recover minerals profitably from extraterrestrial sources we need minerals of high value. Could possibly diamonds be found in off-world mining?
    Diamonds on Earth come to the surface by volcanic processes that carry material from deep underground, actually even from the mantle. But Mars also had volcanism deep in its past. Then could we find diamonds on Mars?!?
    The fact that the Martian volcanism is very old is no impediment to diamonds being there since also on Earth diamonds are found in association with archean volcanic features. So how to find them on Mars? On Earth diamonds are found most commonly in volcanic features called kimberlites. But they are rare even in kimberlites. A big task in diamond exploration is to find identifying characteristics in kimberlites that might make them more likely to contain diamonds.
    One feature that has been found in association with diamonds in kimberlites are glass spherules:


    Spherules? Could these be analogous to the “blueberries” seen at the Opportunity landing site???
    It is likely in any case that prospecting from several different sites would have to be done to locate valuable sources. This could begin by sending multiple small rovers of the Mars Pathfinder type or even smaller to multiple locations. Even better would be to return samples from multiple sites.
    Such Mars sample returns have been regarded as the holy grail of Mars science for years. NASA has estimated the cost in the range of $10 billion. But I was surprised when I ran the numbers that it could be done for two orders of magnitude cheaper than that. This would mean that we could afford to send multiple such missions to widely separated sites globally.
    In an upcoming post to my blog I’ll discuss such low cost Mars sample return missions.

    Bob Clark

  19. I have become annoyed by the cost estimates that NASA has given for important, big missions. We’ve recently found that 90%(!) can be cut from the development cost of both orbital launchers and spacecraft by following a commercial approach, reducing billion dollar developments to only a few hundred million. Also, as I discussed in the comment above a Mars sample return mission can be launched on a single medium class launcher, resulting in a mission cost in the few hundred million dollars range, not the $10 billion claimed.
    And to return to the Moon we were presented with the $100 billion Constellation program. When I ran the numbers however, I found you could do it for three orders of magnitude cheaper than that, at least for individual missions. This means we can make flights to the Moon as common as flights to the ISS, maintaining in fact a base on the Moon.
    This mindset of always going for the most expensive option occurred again recently when NASA released a study discussed on Nasaspaceflight.com of how NASA could return to the Moon without the Constellation program. The study used again a 45 metric ton lander, the same size as the Altair lander in Constellation that resulted in such a huge mission size, which led to it being canceled. It’s like they never heard of the Apollo lander that was only one-third the size. In fact in this study by using two SLS launches, the mission size turns out to be even larger than Constellation!
    This phenomenon of NASA always going for the most expensive option is so odd that I’ve come up with some theories to explain it. The first one is that NASA is always consulting with the big defense contractors and has personnel that move back and forth from NASA to and from these contractors, so that when they realize NASA is proposing a “big” mission, they always attach a big price to it, irregardless of whether or not it actually has to be done in such an expensive fashion.
    The second theory I’ve come up with is that NASA is infiltrated by aliens and by making these expensive cost estimates they guarantee that humans will never expand far onto space.
    Any others?

    Bob Clark

    1. A commercial entity makes its money from selling widgets. The cost of designing and manufacturing the widgets reduces profits. Companies are therefore under heavy pressure to reduce costs. NASA does not sell widgets, it does however charge the government for designing widgets. When the widget is complete the developers are fired. Short cheap development cycles are not in the personal interests of the people.

  20. If it hasn’t been mentioned, I’d like to point out a couple of things:
    – Water is the low-hanging fruit. It should be relatively easy to harvest, reduces our own transportation costs, initiates and sustains a reusable cis-lunar infrastructure, there is already a demand for propellant at LEO, and one can readily conceive of an emerging market for more (e.g. circumlunar tourism, orbital servicing, etc)
    – ISRU metals can be initially used to make the bulky parts of an expanding telerobotic workforce for yet more water-harvesting operations. With the shipment of small high-tech and precision parts, the telerobotic workforce could be expanded immensely.

    Water for propellant is the initial market that gives us the ongoing cis-lunar transportation infrastructure:
    – LEO-to-GEO/MEO boosting,
    – Interplanetary science boosting
    – (Other) government manned lunar science missions
    – Circumlunar, then lunar tourism, growing to settlement to service the lunar tourism industry, family visits, business trips…The Moon becomes just another place.

    Upon the transportation market, materials markets would emerge including:
    – lunar surface structures for those working and living on the Moon,
    – water shielding for in-space habs and an Aldrin Cycler,
    – metal structures for large communications complexes,
    – metal and glass structures for in-space hotels.
    – rare metals.

  21. Congratulations to Orbital Sciences for another successful launch.
    The cost reduction in development costs paid by the government amounts to about 90%(!) for both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, for both launchers and spacecraft. Imaging then what we could accomplish if the commercial space approach were applied also to BEO flights.

    Finally, someone at NASA has acknowledged the saving possible under commercial space:

    The Commercial Leverage Model and Public/Private Partnerships.
    Daniel J. Rasky
    Director, Emerging Commercial Space Office
    NASA Ames Research Center
    Founder & Director, Space Portal
    NASA Research Park
    Moffett Field, CA 9403
    September 11, 2013

    Bob Clark

  22. Former shuttle manager Wayne Hale also argues in favor of using commercial
    space for BEO missions:

    Keynote speaker at von Braun Symposium says NASA needs to ‘try new
    By Paul Gattis | ****@al.com
    on October 08, 2013 at 4:08 PM
    The current Space Launch System – a heavy lift rocket under
    development at Huntsville’s Marshall Flight Center intended for deep space
    exploration – could soon fade away like other programs, such as
    Constellation in 2009.
    “The current plan is fragile in the political and financial maelstrom that
    is Washington,” Hale said. “Planning to fly large rockets once every three
    or four years does not make a viable program. It is not sustainable.
    “Continuing to develop programs in the same old ways, from my observations,
    will certainly lead to cancellation as government budgets are stretched
    thin. It is time to try new strategies.”
    The symposium, before the government shutdown, was set to bring together
    NASA officials with those in commercial enterprises. For example, a panel
    discussion on Wednesday is scheduled to address the topic of privately
    funded space activities.
    If we truly believe space exploration is an endeavor worthy of our passions,
    we must dig deeper, try harder, strive higher.
    Hale encouraged NASA to learn from commercial spaceflight companies such as
    SpaceX and Cygnus, private companies which have docked unmanned spacecraft
    with the International Space Station.
    “If we truly believe space exploration is an endeavor worthy of our
    passions, we must dig deeper, try harder, strive higher,” he said. “We must
    redouble our efforts to be innovative and creative; we must think outside
    the box. We can start by adopting some of the energy and creativity by the
    new players in our industry.”


    Bob Clark

    1. It should be possible to introduce monthly milestone payments into FARS based projects. Over 20 years ago British mortgage contracts had clauses that allowed payments as more of the house was built.

      I accept that the mortgages only had 3 or 4 payments where as COTS used monthly payments for 3 or 4 years. COTS also kept tight high level managerial control by awarding new contracts every 1.5 to 2 years. Neither of these two controls are beyond the wit of clever lawyers to specify but they may have to get very crafty with the FARS rules.

      For instance a 5 year government project could issue a series of 2 year contracts to the same firm. Or have major stage reviews that allow the contract to be terminated. These reviews are when the next set of monthly milestones are agreed.

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