Constructing Cislunar Infrastructure – ISDC 2011

ISDC conference report by Dave Fischer

If those who think Mars is sufficiently hard to get to and remain to settle are correct, or those who think that it would be a terrible mistake to go to Mars and return leaving only flags and footprints are correct, then we are, in fact, not going to Mars anytime soon.  So where are we going?  And why are we going?

The current Flexible Path suggests that the manned exploration of an asteroid is a reasonable goal.  It avoids the problems of deep gravity wells, and does create launch vehicles and spacecraft.  However, as critics point out, this merely repeats the standard process of throwing away everything except the manned return capsule.  What might be done to create a permanent space faring infrastructure?

Why we are going is settlement.  That is the conclusion from reading policy statements, both formal and informal, from the past 10 years.  Beginning with the Vision for Space Exploration statement in 2004, up through the 2010 statement by the Obama administration, these policy statements all point toward the unspoken word, “settlement”.  Permanent occupation of space that exploits the economic resources available is the goal.  Now, what are the initial strategic steps, and what are the tactics to implement them.

At the International Space Development Conference (ISDC 2011), two proposals were made that result in permanent cislunar infrastructure: one by Dr. Paul Spudis and one by Stephen D. Covey.

Dr. Spudis advocated the conservative approach.  During Friday’s luncheon, Dr. Spudis presented “Can We Afford to Return to the Moon” (see the paper in the NSS Lunar Library by Spudis and Lavoie Mission and Implementation of an Affordable Lunar Return – pdf)

Spudis and Lavoie argue that over a period of roughly 16 years, employing a series of 31 missions, that a robotically built water mining operation at the South Pole of the moon, later employing humans living at the base to repair and maintain the equipment, would yield the following:

1.  Commercially valuable water for use as Lox/H2 fuel on the Moon and within cislunar space, sufficient to sustain the operation, with excess available for sale.

2.  Reusable Landers and Rovers.

3.  Permanent human occupation of the Moon.

4.  Routine access to all space assets within Cislunar space, including communications, GPS, weather, remote sensing and strategic monitoring satellites.

In essence, we create a “transcontinental railroad” with permanent settlements at various points between the Earth and the Moon.  The critical element is that this can be accomplished with the $7 Billion annual budget likely to be given NASA for the foreseeable future.  The projected cost of a Flexible Path mission to an asteroid has been estimated at $80 Billion, while the Cislunar project would cost $77 Billion.

The second proposal is far more radical: “Asteroid Capture for Space Solar Power”.  Here, Stephen D. Covey argued for a purely commercial venture to capture the asteroid 99942 Apophis, mine it for metals, silicon and oxygen, build Solar Power Satellites (SPS) and sell the power to utility companies on Earth.  An initial capital base of $30 Billion would be required.  But by the end of the sixth or seventh year of operation the enterprise would be at break even, and eventually generate $20 Billion per year in revenue.

At the end of eight years, 15 Solar Power Satellites would be in operation generating $20 Billion per year in revenue.  And only 10% of the asteroid would have been processed.  A total of 150 SPSs could be manufactured before another asteroid was needed.

The end result of this initial eight-year plan would be:

1.  A fully shielded (3 meters of slag from the mining operation) habitat for 8,000 people.

2.  Space based factory capable of producing 8 SPSs per year.

3.  Space infrastructure created by commercial space companies to support the operations.

4.  3-4% of Earth’s electrical needs supplied by Space based Solar Power

At the end of production, with 150 Satellites in operation, more than a third of Earth’s electrical needs would be supplied by Space Based Solar Power.

And who is to suggest that we cannot do both of these ventures at the same time?