Could a Lunar Fuel Depot Jump-Start Human Exploration of Deep Space?

By Corey S. Powell | December 29, 2017 9:46 am
Conceptual art for NASA's Deep Space Gateway. Its fate is up in the air due to uncertain funding and mission changes. (Credit: NASA)

Conceptual art for NASA’s Deep Space Gateway. Its fate is up in the air due to uncertain funding and mission changes. (Credit: NASA)

In my previous post I started a conversation with spaceflight entrepreneur Charles Miller, who shared his insights about how NASA’s human spaceflight program got been stuck in low-Earth orbit and how we could enter a new era of deep-space adventure. Part one of the interview focused on the role of private industry in radically lowering the cost of getting back to the Moon. But it left many topics unexplored.

In particular, I wanted to hear more about the economics of what some people are calling “new space”: a more flexible, commercial-oriented approach to exploration. What would the economics look like? What kind of transition would liberate us from the current bureaucratic inertia? It is easy to outline a compelling vision; it’s a lot harder to map out a realistic path to making it happen. Miller had a lot of provocative things to say here, too.

What follows is an edited version of the second half of my interview with Charles Miller. (For more on space exploration and breaking science news, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell)

At the end of the first half of our conversation, you were talking about space-based solar power for Earth. If we put a base on the moon, we’re going to need a good energy supply there too. How might that work?

There are plenty of alternatives that could work. One is taking a small nuclear reactor [to the Moon]. Another, which we show in our report, is to pick a polar crater as your site on the Moon, where you could have solar arrays that track the Sun as it travels around the rim of the crater in a circle.

I’ve also had many discussions with NASA and other aerospace engineers about putting a small power satellite in lunar orbit and beaming the energy down. One of my clients is DARPA, which is doing a public-private partnership to develop Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites. They recently announced that Space Systems Loral will be the commercial partner. So here’s an intriguing question: Could you assemble a small space solar power spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit [22,236 miles up] and then have it boost itself to lunar orbit to provide power to a lunar base?

The idea of a lunar fuel depot has been around for a long time; this concept is from 1984. Can we make it work this time? (Credit: NASA/Marcus Lindroos)

The idea of a lunar fuel depot has been around for a long time; this concept is from 1984. (Credit: NASA/Marcus Lindroos)

NASA has been planning a quite different kind of station orbiting the Moon, the so-called Deep Space Gateway. What do you think about it?

Let me say the good stuff about it first. I think a lunar gateway is an obvious next step in an overall [lunar exploration] architecture. You need something in lunar orbit as a central transportation hub for going down to the surface of the Moon or going to Mars or going somewhere else in deep space.

That said, the first weakness is it’s completely uninspiring. You need to have a much broader, more compelling vision or you will lose the support of the American people. It needs to be more than just the International Space Station around the moon.

The second part of my criticism of the gateway is that NASA has not conceded that this needs to be a commercial partnership, commercially owned and operated. NASA needs to get out of the building-Space-Stations mode. The ISS approach is the wrong way to do a lunar gateway; it’s too expensive and takes too long.

What is the right way to do a lunar gateway, then?

We should do this like commercially owned and operated real estate. NASA headquarters was built by a commercial company and NASA leases the building. They didn’t design the building, and they don’t own the building. They can do the same thing in space, which would transform how we do space exploration and free up a lot of money that NASA could spend more on the exciting stuff it does rather than the boring stuff of building the Deep Space Gateway.

The third issue with the gateway is that it needs to be a propellant depot. If it’s going to be a transportation node, it needs to be designed from day one to where you gather the propellant for humans to go off to Mars or go anywhere else in the solar system.

Low-cost commercial approaches could finally make a lunar depot feasible. This is a new concept from ULA and Bigelow Aerospace. (Credit: Bigelow)

Low-cost commercial approaches could finally make a lunar depot feasible. This is a new concept from ULA and Bigelow Aerospace. (Credit: Bigelow)

Just to be clear: You want to see a rocket refueling station in orbit around the moon?

Right! One of the key things we agree on [to make commercial space exploration work] is that we’re going to build a propellant economy in space. If you build a propellant depot at the deep space gateway – a fuel station – that will drive an economic cycle in which everybody competes to be the lowest-cost provider of propellant to that station. [The current model is to mine water from the Moon or from asteroids, then split the water using solar electricity to create hydrogen and oxygen: rocket propellant.]

You have all those people out there who think that asteroid mining is what we need to be doing, right? Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries and TransAstra and other companies that are being funded by the government of Luxembourg. They can go all at it and invest their money to provide propellant for the customers at this lunar depot. Then you have Jeff Bezos or Moon Express or Astrobotic, who think lunar resources are the better way to do it. There are also those who think it’s lower cost to provide propellant all the way from Earth.

They can all compete. You create this economy that drives and accelerates innovation and makes space much lower-cost for everybody. I think that is a key decision that needs to be set up from day one about what we’re doing, why we’re building a lunar gateway and how we’re doing it.

What is the NASA role in this vision of a commercial lunar gateway?

Commercial companies are going to need a customer who can lower the risk. Otherwise they’re throwing money away. The biggest problem for every one of these commercial companies, from asteroid companies to lunar companies, is, who’s the customer for your propellant. Where are they? Do they have any money?

The natural customer for propellant at the lunar station is NASA. [A set of NASA fuel contracts] would do more than anything for lowering the risk, which would then open up private investor’s pocketbooks to invest in all these companies. You have NASA set up that propellant station in lunar orbit and say, we’ll buy propellant from the lowest-cost provider who can get it here safely. You’ll get multiple innovative ways to go at it and NASA pays only for propellant that’s delivered. Pays only for results.

If NASA moves toward a more privatized approach, what does that do to partnerships with foreign governments?

We did analysis of this in our Evolvable Lunar Architecture report. Our conclusion is that you need both international partnerships and commercial partnerships. Take a look at something like CERN, which is an international partnership authority of 21 or 22 countries that includes the world’s leading high energy physics experiment [the Large Hadron Collider]. That model has worked a lot better than the US-go-it-alone approach. It demonstrates how a very well-functioning international partnership could work

When I was doing Evolvable Lunar Architecture, I visited CERN and met with a lot of executives there. They do not operate like a government bureaucracy. They operate much like a business. They have the authority to do commercial-style contacting. Now marry that with something like the Port Authority of New York, which practices very good safety and environmental regulatory practices while also operating great interfaces with commercial firms, and you get the best of both worlds. You get both the international aspect and the commercial aspect.

So our recommendation is that we create a lunar authority that’s like a mix of CERN and the Port Authority of New York. The lunar base that we’re talking about would have an international governance structure but also many of the powers of a traditional port authority, designed to encourage economic activity.

Meanwhile, what do you do with huge pieces of NASA infrastructure already underway, most notably the Space Launch System (SLS)?

I wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2013 with [former Pennsylvania representative] Bob Walker. We suggested that the best path forward is to privatize SLS and let Boeing operate it on a level playing field with SpaceX and Blue Origin. I don’t think anything else makes any sense. It’s an easy way for Congress to rectify the situation.

In a world where the [new SpaceX] Falcon Heavy and the [upcoming Blue Origin] New Glenn rockets are launching, everybody is looking around and saying, “Why are we spending all this money on SLS?” If SLS is a better launch vehicle, it’ll win on a level playing field. Boeing gets free development costs – it spent over $20 billion [in government contracts] to develop SLS. Boeing will get the benefit of that, and we’ll just call that a wash. If Boeing can’t compete with SLS under those circumstances then it’s their problem, right?

I’ve started hearing people talk about “new space” and “old space” approaches. Do you find that distinction helpful?

I actually was part of the team that invented the term “new space” back in 2003, but it leads to arguments that are not useful. I think big, established companies can become part of new space by changing how they do things and by investing private capital. And I see small, relatively new companies adopting old space procedures. “New space” versus “old space” is really about how you do stuff. Are you ready and willing to take real risks, or are you looking for Uncle Sugar Daddy to take all the risk and just pay you to do the work?

For example, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has turned over a new leaf and they’re investing significant private capital in their new launch vehicle. They’re doing it because SpaceX has put the fear of god into them. It’s a sign that free enterprise is working. ULA’s new CEO brought in a new attitude, a new way of doing things, new policies and processes, radically lowered prices, changed how fast they operate. So I don’t want to categorize some company as new space or old space. You can see a rapid turnaround.

 The ideal of the virtuous cycle of innovation and cost reduction, as shown in the "Fast Space" report.

The ideal of the virtuous cycle of innovation and cost reduction, as shown in the “Fast Space” report.

Earlier you mentioned your own efforts to make space access much more affordable. Can you tell me more about that?

I’ve been working on a US Air Force study on ultra low-cost access to space. I put together a team with NexGen. We met with companies over an eight-month period about whether they’re ready to partner with the US government – and by that I mean, putting in hundreds of millions to billions of dollars of private capital to accelerate the development of fully reusable launch vehicles. We looked at the markets that would need to be developed and we came up with a bunch of findings and recommendations in the analysis.

You can find this online in a report published by Air University called “Fast Space.” We recommended that [ultra-low-cost access] be one of the first issues picked up by the recreated National Space Council. Beyond all the commercial, civil, and inspirational benefits, ultra low-cost would also have big national security benefits.

I’m also working my next commercial space startup. You can’t take the entrepreneur out of the commercial space entrepreneur. There’s a little kid inside me who dedicated himself to getting humanity off this planet a long time ago.

  • Uncle Al

    Perhaps a billion people are increasingly desperate to leave the rest to the sequelae of their own sacred cultures. The meek shall inherit the Earth
    …fooled ya!
    …but not its mineral rights.
    …but they can go sing for Air, Fire, and Water.
    …in their dreams.
    …when the their masters are finished with it.
    …the strong shall inherit the stars.
    …when their rip cords seize.
    …six feet by three feet by six feet deep.
    …in a multi-level marketing seminar.
    …and buy Pick-6 Lottery tickets with it.
    …when it is designated a Superfund site.
    …and pay taxes on anything over $600K.
    …but it will never get out of probate.
    …and their lawyers get 30% contingency.
    …to everybody’s disgust.

  • Hollister David

    Bezos, Spudis, Bridenstine and others may be too optimistic about abundant volatile ices in the lunar cold traps. LEND data doesn’t seem to support Spudis’ belief that the floors of some permanently shadowed craters are covered with two meters thick layers of ice. The LCROSS team posted a correction 11 months after they measured 5.5% water in the LCROSS ejecta. They downgraded it to 1%.

    P.R. and D.S.I. hope to extract water from the hydrated clays of carbonaceous chondrites. These are water rich in the same way the concrete on my front porch is water rich.

    Also the most accessible asteroids in terms of delta V have very rare launch windows. We have no experience mining in zero g vacuum. It will be a process of trial and error requiring multiple trips to a mining site. When launch windows only open every 10 years or so, multiple trips could easily consume the better part of a century.

    I would be so happy to see a propellent depot at EML2 or some other region high on the slopes of earth’s gravity well. But repeated disappointment has thrown cold water on my optimism.

    • Corey S Powell

      Thanks for the added information. You’re right, it’s going to take a lot of robotic prospecting, and a lot of trial-and-error, to see which approaches (if any) are feasible. Those efforts will generate a lot of interesting science along the way…but it’s too soon to know if they truly will enable the commercial vision Miller outlines here.

    • John Thompson

      Manned space is old space.
      New space is miniaturized and automated.
      Just like with fighter aircraft, delicate humans are the limiting factor.
      We can make fighter aircraft that can pull more G’s than humans can tolerate.
      Eventually the competition makes them unmanned and all the manned aircraft are obsolete.
      I expect he same to happen with Subs, ships, tanks….
      and of course space exploration.
      Our probes and landers have already given us immense amounts of info – humans wouldn’t be able do the same, nor will they.
      Humans are not advancing, technology is.
      We don’t need any moon bases if we get probe size down.
      And we will.
      Let’s remember that most of space flight is already done by computers – people are really not much more than the chimps in the rockets were in that respect.
      We simply don’t have the billions of dollars we once had. There’s nothing humans could do on the moon or mars that our machines couldn’t do better and cheaper.

  • Space Ventures Investors

    Orbiting facilities and fuel depots will have to be operational for anything ‘exciting’ to happen at such a scale that it becomes sustainable. The article is correct in showing the value of private initiatives to lead the way.

    We are making these things happen, it just takes time and money.

  • TheWhiteLilyBlog

    The problem is not technological, it is economic. Our world economy is in a downturn, and it is not a temporary one but one driven by demographics. You will have heard that ‘demand is down,’ and that means people aren’t buying. That’s because there is a population reduction among western nations that is driven by contraception, abortion, and the promotion of sterile, recreational sexual behaviors over marriage and reproduction. It is a plague! Elon Musk has discussed it in relation to his own efforts. Unless we rediscover the natural family, we will not be a space-faring people.

  • TheWhiteLilyBlog

    I have written a sci fi novel which argues for the restoration of the ancient Catholic economy in space, one based on individual ownership of inalienable land (meaning can’t be sold out of the family without permission of the community, as in medieval times). There’s a lot of land in space, and free energy. If we can just get there, we can all be owners. It is democracy’s only hope, our wage slavery on earth is killing us spiritually and physically. Check it out if you like conservative solutions,

  • Uncle Al

    Elon Musk will make his poke selling moon dust and rocks – a single source monopoly of perceived value via limited obtention.

  • Dennis Spirgen

    If a lunar fuel depot is to be commercially viable, it’s customer base will have to provide a dependable demand for the product. Given the fact that NASA’s funding ebbs and flows based solely on political whim, would any private entrepreneur depend on NASA as its primary (and perhaps only) customer?

    • Corey S Powell

      That’s a really important question. Meaningful NASA support will require a funded, multi-year program, structured either around a generic fuel contract or (more plausibly) around a large-scale project like the proposed Lunar Gateway. Then it would become similar to the contracts for crew transport to the ISS.

      You’re right, space startups are not going to bet huge amounts of money if all NASA is offering is a policy proposal or a promise of hypothetical future support.

  • Vijay Jegakumar

    metals can be found in space

    • John Thompson

      But they are not cost effective to mine.
      It will always be cheaper to go deeper here on Earth.
      And we have done nearly ZERO mining under the 2/3 of the Earths surface that is water.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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