Editorial | Can we go up our way back to space?

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If the market grows sufficiently, an industry dedicated to lunar-LEO tankers could evolve

Troadstead. It enables, disseminates and helps pay for new technologies and skills. It promotes science, the arts and communications across oceans and cultures. It is a requirement for the development and supply of agglomerations and towns. Like technology and physical expansion, trade is a defining characteristic of humanity. It is impossible to overstate its importance in the history and development of mankind.

So how do you get commerce, and all its ancillary benefits, to start on the new frontier of space? After finding things to trade, such as lunar or Martian science or lunar water, trade is most likely encouraged by minimizing the initial and ongoing costs of space transportation and operations. This requires the most efficient use of any available means of transport. One way to increase efficiency is to use a concept that the trucking industry calls the “return trip”.

Donald Trump’s administration has challenged NASA to aggressively return astronauts to the moon and prepare to travel to Mars. President Joe Biden’s administration appears to support the pursuit of this vision. A young administration facing a precisely balanced Congress between bitter political parties is unlikely to want to spend its limited political capital bickering over space policy. It encourages continuity.

There also seems to be a new sense of reality at NASA. While Senators appear to have avoided any attempt to undo the much overdue and over-budgeted Saturn Class 5 space launch system and free up the resources it consumes for more useful purposes, NASA is doing what ‘it can to minimize the lost opportunity costs of SLS. The payloads that Congress established for the SLS have been moved to cheaper commercial rockets. NASA chose SpaceX’s largely self-funded spacecraft-based lander for the human landing system. Boeing has been urged to improve its dismal performance in handling the SLS – although there are few signs that this is actually happening. Nonetheless, it becomes possible to believe that a “lunar gateway” station, and perhaps even early visits to the lunar surface, could actually happen – if not by 2024, at least in the decade of the 2020s.

In an early lunar transport architecture dependent on the consumable SLS, the astronaut’s capsule alone will return to Earth – usually with a small amount of reserve volume and mass. Later, when reusable spaceships travel between Earth and its moon and supplies are transported in one direction, the empty or partially filled vehicles will be used again. Since empty vehicles produce no value beyond return for reuse, anything that allows space to be used or sold on them is a net gain for the transportation provider. In the trucking industry, goods “returned” in this manner often pay extraordinarily low rates, subsidized by the primary purpose of moving the outgoing goods. Importantly, the outgoing cargo can be completely independent of the incoming return.

The first first-generation vehicles will be severely limited in volume and mass, but even then the return may be relevant. Returning crew pods could carry small items stored “under the seats”. These could include lunar samples desired by companies or scientists, or even wealthy individuals, in addition to those wanted by NASA. Low-mass ornaments or jewelry, such as glass beads from ancient volcanic lunar “fire fountains” and other collectible mineral grains, the value of which comes only from being obtained on the Earth’s moon, are objects of great value possible. Rare and high-value heavy elements or rare earth elements collected from asteroid impact sites could be used in orbit or on Earth.

Tiny but abrasive and chemically reactive lunar dust particles can damage equipment and human lungs, so all samples should be properly stored in sealed containers. After arriving on Earth, they must be cleaned before they are distributed to non-scientists.

Later, if the second-generation lunar crew transport vehicles were reusable, the return transport opportunities became much more attractive. After dropping off crew and supplies at a moon base, cislunar supply vehicles would return empty, or with smaller return cargoes, to low earth orbit or elsewhere in cislunar space. At this time, backhaul could become a real market.

The International Space Station and future semi-commercial stations, the lunar gateway, application satellites, and other activities in cislunar space need water and oxygen to propel, drink and breathe – both being readily available on the Moon without having to lift them off the face of the earth. Oxygen can be derived from oxidized surface rocks available in many places, not just polar water deposits. Water, because it is useful or necessary for so many things in so many places, has been called the “oil” of the solar system.

If NASA established a science base on Earth’s moon, lunar water or oxygen could be brought back for use in cislunar facilities. If the market grows enough, a dedicated lunar-LEO tanker industry could evolve – which might never happen if the infrastructure for supplying space facilities with lunar water were to be paid for in advance and from scratch. , before the water is delivered.

Backhaul allows the business to start small, if not very small, early on when the transport infrastructure is still rudimentary. This could increase early earnings from lunar activities, cushion some of the costs and encourage growth, leading to the earlier development of large-scale commercial or semi-commercial industrial stations or orbital tourism facilities. The costs could be spread over several activities, in this case both science and commerce.

Similar ideas for progressive development are not new. Companies that develop new technology often take an incremental approach, making money on partial solutions while developing their best mousetraps. SpaceX was able to test the back-propulsion deceleration technologies needed for their reusable Falcon 9 first stage – using rocket motor plumes to protect the vehicle during reentry – by exchanging useful test data for potential missions to Mars with The NASA.

The space agency flew planes with advanced thermal imaging sensors to observe the re-entry of test vehicles paid for by SpaceX, and shared the results. NASA got data it couldn’t otherwise afford while SpaceX got the data it needed to perfect Stage 1 re-entry without having to pilot its own sensors.

Later, SpaceX went further. The company tested the reuse of the first stages of Falcon 9 when launching operational satellites for paying customers. The test could take place after the first stage has completed its operational mission of delivering the second stage and the payload on the required path. The customer paid for the launch – presumably at a somewhat discounted price to accept the risk of flying with experimental hardware on board – while SpaceX got its test data without having to pay for a dedicated test launch.

The advent of a new partially commercialized lunar strategy is exciting, but it remains true that no lunar base is likely in the immediate future. This means that no return vehicle with excess capacity can be sold at a low price.

So, let’s take a closer look at the house. There are already operational flights that could offer return opportunities. Currently, there are three vehicles delivering crew or cargo to the ISS and returning to Earth: the Russian Soyuz, the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and the SpaceX Cargo Dragon. Soon the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser will join the mix. The returning Soyuz and other returning crew vehicles have little excess capacity. Dragon Cargo is another story.

Dragon Cargo can return 3000 kg in 10 cubic meters from the ISS. Due to various constraints such as available volume and operational requirements, Dragons typically do not return with their theoretical full cargo capacity. On most return missions, small amounts of space could likely be found for the backhaul. Soon, Dream Chaser will also return with substantial cargo capacity.

So what could we bring back from the International Space Station?

A company called Made In Space is deploying an ever-improving series of 3D printers at the station. Currently, these are used experimentally to make tools and parts needed on the station.

It’s not hard to imagine using excess capacity or a second machine to print small novelty items for export to Earth on the return crew or cargo pods. Such items can be very valuable for those interested in space exploration or who have something truly unique. If transportation costs were low enough, and especially if the potential items incorporated properties that could only be made in space, the market could be significant. If one entrepreneur makes a profit, others will follow, each with their own catch. Some might even invent something useful that cannot be made on Earth.

While NASA has traditionally resisted using public infrastructure for for-profit businesses seen as frivolous, attitudes are changing. The Russians have fewer qualms, and a module is already privately owned and leased by NASA. Other private modules are planned for the very near future. If someone wanted to start a small business that used backhaul to get their products to Earth, they could probably find a way to do it, especially if production could be automated and not use up valuable astronaut time.

If a few small businesses are successful, they could grow. At some point, the volume could increase enough for a consortium to purchase full-cost transport to Earth. At this point, a mature industry will have arrived and a commercial economy will be firmly established.

Trade will have made a new breakthrough for humanity, helping to pay for our expansion to the last frontier.


Donald F. Robertson is a San Francisco-based freelance space industry journalist. Follow him on @DonaldFR.

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.



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