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Centaur upper stage
The use of existing launch vehicles and other components, like the Centaur upper stage (above), could enable human space exploration at costs a tiny fraction of typical government programs. (credit: NASA)

Exploration and the private sector

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For decades, it’s been widely accepted that human space exploration—missions beyond Earth orbit to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere—lay in the exclusive domain of government agencies like NASA. The cost of performing such missions, estimated by multiple reports to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars over decades, was far beyond what private entities could be expected to afford. The financial and technical risks, not to mention risks to human life, also appeared to put exploration beyond the reach of private entities.

“But at every stage that we’re involved, there’s room for commercial partnerships,” said NASA’s Williams.

That calculus may be changing, however. Buoyed by the success of its program to develop commercial cargo capabilities to support the International Space Station, NASA is increasingly open to working with the private sector in its human space exploration plans, a message of partnership communicated at a conference in California last week. And, should government falter in its human space exploration plans, one leading executive believes that it’s possible for the private sector to carry out such missions for a tiny fraction of the cost.

Pro-commercial and pro-NASA

During a panel of the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2014 conference Saturday in San Jose, California, the spirit of partnership between the public and private sectors in space exploration was on full display. A ten-person panel, titled “The US Space Enterprise Partnership: A Roundtable on Strategies, Capabilities, and Goals” and with representatives from NASA, the FAA, and a variety of companies, tried to tackle that idea of greater partnership between government and industry.

“Historically, people have talked about the US ‘space program,’” said Jeff Feige, chairman of the board of the Space Frontier Foundation and moderator of the panel. His organization, though, has long trumpeted the rejoinder that “space is a place, not a program,” he noted. Is it time, he asked, to talk about a partnership between government and industry versus a government-led program?

“First principles would say that government does what industry is not ready to do yet,” said Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “But at every stage that we’re involved, there’s room for commercial partnerships.”

Entrepreneurial “NewSpace” companies are getting on board with that idea of partnership. “We have, in this industry, a sort of love-hate relationship with the government,” said Rich Pournelle, senior vice president for business development at NanoRacks, quoting industry investor Esther Dyson. Many figures in the industry have been critical of NASA, he said, while at the same time seeking government business.

“I think we’ve sort of moved beyond that model,” he continued. “I think the thing that the X PRIZE really changed was that, up until that point, if you were pro-space you had to be pro-NASA.” Now, he said, industry sees multiple avenues in space rather than just working with NASA.

“I think there is now an assumption in some government quarters that being pro-commercial space means that, in some sense, you’re anti-NASA,” added Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace, “which, I think, is absolutely incorrect.” What’s needed is a discussion about the various roles and responsibilities of government and private actors in spaceflight.

Indeed, at an event run by an organization that was once best known for being sharply critical of NASA, industry panelists took great steps to praise the agency and even suggest it needed more resources to carry out its missions. “What if we came together as a community and talked to our representatives and our senators about the fact that the $16-billion budget for NASA is ridiculous? It’s so low,” said SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. (NASA’s 2014 budget is about $17.6 billion.) She later said NASA’s budget should be in the range of 22 to 25 billion dollars.

“What if we came together as a community and talked to our representatives and our senators about the fact that the $16-billion budget for NASA is ridiculous? It’s so low,” said Gwynne Shotwell.

Shotwell and other panelists argued that the industry needed to do a better job describing what they, and NASA, are doing, in order to secure that additional funding for NASA and play up the benefits of partnership between government and industry. “There’s a certain missing gap in how we get the message out,” said Pournelle. “I think we can all do a better job with this.”

“Congresspeople in districts that don’t have traditional NASA contractors think, rightly or wrongly, that if NASA’s budget goes up, that money will all be directed to the people who are getting the money now,” Greason said, and thus have little at stake in supporting such increases. Taking the approach of more commercial partnerships, he said, could open up opportunities for non-traditional companies to work with NASA. “That helps broaden the base of support and provides the argument that we should use to argue for more money.”

Jeff Greason discusses his ideas for low-cost human space exploration at the NewSpace 2014 conference in San Jose on July 25. (credit: J. Foust)

The private sector going it alone

For all the talk about public-private partnerships, though, Greason was willing to at least to entertain the concept of a plan B: human space exploration done without government resources.

“I am a passionate believer in the value of a government space program. I’m a definite believer, even as a libertarian-leaning person, that exploration is a legitimate role for government,” he said a keynote speech on Friday at the conference. “Having said all of that, the truth us that I’m tired of talking about the ways NASA could be doing better because there’s no evidence they’re going to. I wish that was different.”

That motivated him to see if there was a way that private entities, using existing vehicles and technologies, could carry out initial human exploration missions to the Moon or Mars. He went in a skeptic. “If you had asked me six months ago if it really practical to think about non-government entities doing exploration as opposed to economic use, I would have said, ‘I don’t know,’ which would have been a polite form of, ‘Probably not.’”

Nonetheless, he decided to start crunching some numbers. “Basically, I sat down to try and convince myself it couldn’t be done,” he said in an interview before his talk, “and I failed.”

“It all gets sized by what you use for an Earth departure stage,” he said of mission architectures. “If it’s not a hydrogen upper stage, it just doesn’t play.”

His approach is based on scaling down certain aspects of exploration mission plans, such as the size of crews of missions, and to be more tolerant to risk than a typical government program. It also makes use of existing launch vehicles and other components. “If you look at most past exploration efforts,” he said in his speech, “most historically have used the ships we’ve got” rather than build entirely new designs.

Key among those designs is the use of an existing upper stage for an Earth departure stage. “It all gets sized by what you use for an Earth departure stage,” he said of mission architectures. “If it’s not a hydrogen upper stage, it just doesn’t play.” That includes the Centaur upper stage used on the Atlas V and the Delta IV Heavy’s upper stage. Those can be launched without a payload and go into orbit nearly full of propellant.

Those upper stages would then serve as the Earth departure stages for missions, with the payloads launched on other vehicles. Another key element is a capsule that would be used to return crews to Earth. “Minimum-sized missions need a minimum-size capsule,” he said, noting that current capsule designs are too heavy to work for this approach. A two-person capsule, he argued, could be done with a mass of about 2,000 kilograms—the same as Gemini—and packaged inside the aeroshell used for the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

One issue with the use of cryogenic stages is boiloff of their propellants in orbit. Rather than develop advanced “zero-boiloff” tank technologies, Greason said, it would be simpler to place a refrigerator module at a staging area, like Earth-Moon L1. That refrigerator could be placed at L1 along with a habitat module on a single Atlas V 551 mission.

A second Atlas V 551 could deliver a lunar lander based on a Centaur upper stage, something United Launch Alliance has studied with Masten Space Systems. A crew would then launch on a commercial crew vehicle, like a SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon, transit to L1 on a separately-launched Centaur with a return capsule, and perform a round-trip mission to the lunar surface.

The cost of such an architecture is debatable, he said, depending on the cost model used. The cost of launch, though, he estimated to be $720 million to set up the system and perform the initial mission. Since the refrigerator, hab module, and lander can be reused, subsequent mission would require only the crew transportation and propellant, bringing the launch costs down to $270 million.

If, he said, you estimated the development cost of the system to be on the order of twice the launch cost, “you’re talking about the first manned return to the Moon and back for something like two or three billion dollars,” he said. “I don’t know where we’re going to get two or three billion dollars to do that mission, but that is about two orders of magnitude cheaper” that a government program.

The same philosophy could be applied to a Mars flyby mission. An Atlas V would place the transit spacecraft into orbit, with the crew arriving on a SpaceX Dragon and a Delta IV Heavy launching the departure stage. An electric propulsion system would generate additional thrust to provide enough delta-V to send the mission on a Mars flyby mission. The launch costs, he said, would amount to $620 million, or about a $2-billion total cost using the same rule of thumb as for the lunar mission architecture.

The same approach, he said, could be expanded to allow for human missions to land on the Martian moon Deimos, and eventually land on the surface of Mars itself by building up enough hardware. This concept could also allow for the development of a Mars cycler, creating a reusable habitat for regular missions to Mars and back.

There are, Greason acknowledged, some issues with this approach. One is the phasing of the launches in order to get the various components in the right orbit at the right time. For the Mars flyby example, the Delta IV Heavy would launch last, and would have to do so in a tight window. “That’s hard, absolutely,” he said, but he said that planetary missions have frequently launched within constrained launch windows.

Another issue is exposure to radiation on the trip to Mars and back. The baseline approach, he said, assumes the radiation exposure risks are tolerable. If not, and additional shielding is needed, Greason said a cycler design would be preferable, keeping from launching shielding mass on every mission.

The Mars approach in particular is similar to what Inspiration Mars originally proposed early last year for a minimal two-person Mars flyby mission lasting 501 days (see “A Martian adventure for inspiration, not commercialization”, The Space Review, March 4, 2013). Their original concept made use of existing or planned spacecraft and launch vehicles, like the Falcon Heavy. Late last year, though, the effort shifted gears, concluding that the mission needed to make use of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft under development by NASA (see “Inspiration Mars: from nonprofit venture to space policy adventure”, The Space Review, November 25, 2013)

“Part of what I’m trying to do is to shake people out of their rut,” Greason said. “I hope we don’t live in the world where NASA doesn’t get their act together… But if they don’t, I don’t think we have to just quit.”

“That was one of the things that prompted me to look at this,” Greason said in an interview. “I do not any special insight into Inspiration Mars beyond what was published, so I can’t say what avenues they may or may not have explored.” He suggested that his approach, which emphasizes the use of large liquid hydrogen upper stages as Earth departure stages, might be a difference between his concept and what Inspiration Mars examined.

Another issue, he said, was trying to fund human space exploration missions despite reducing their costs to on the order of a few billion dollars. “I am not a finance whiz. I can’t tell you where we’re going to get the two billion dollars,” he said. He noted, though, that some of the top-grossing science fiction movies in history, like Star Wars and Avatar, made more money that needed to carry out one of those missions. “I know I can’t figure out how to do this, but I can’t help but think that, somewhere on this planet, is somebody who can figure out how to make as much money going to the Moon as we made going to Avatar.”

Greason said he hopes this concept opens the door to further discussion, as people refine the concepts and cost estimates and come up with ways to fund the mission, while he devotes himself to his day job of running XCOR.

“Part of what I’m trying to do is to shake people out of their rut. I don’t think we as a community have seriously started asking ourselves, ‘What if NASA doesn’t get their act together? What would we actually do?’” he said. “I hope we don’t live in the world where NASA doesn’t get their act together. I hope we live in the world where they do. But if they don’t, I don’t think we have to just quit.”