Friday, March 3, 2017

Blue Moon

Days after Elon Musk announced a tourist trip around the Moon, a paper has been leaked describing Jeff Bezos' pitch to the new Trump Administration for "Blue" Moon missions by 2020.

There's a couple things here which are extraordinary-
  • If Blue Origin plans to be flying to the Moon by 2020, their New Glenn rocket must be closer to flying than we've previously heard of.
  • The paper mentions a "Blue Moon" lunar lander, which we've never heard of before. The paper says it's based on New Shepard, which makes sense if you want to cut down development time.
  • The paper indicates the ability to put 10,000 lbs of mass on the Moon. That's cargo, and doesn't include the mass of the lander itself. That's a lot! If this is based on a single launch architecture (and I assume it must, as we are unlikely to develop on-orbit refueling in three years), this confirms that New Glenn is closer to SLS and Falcon Heavy than the Falcon 9 in terms of performance.
That last bullet is really important. Here's the money-quote from Bezos:
“Blue Moon is all about cost-effective delivery of mass to the surface of the Moon,” Bezos wrote. “Any credible first lunar settlement will require that capability.”
Dollars for kilograms. That's what has been missing from NASA for the last half-century. The Apollo rockets were amazing, and the Shuttle was neat, but what has been holding back space development for the last half century is that the cost to reach orbit stubbornly stayed around $10,000/lb. At those prices, nothing significant is ever going to happen. And SLS was never going to change that.

But finally Musk and Bezos are changing that. And of the two of them, I think Bezos is the more-focused one. So what sort of costs are we talking about?

We don't have pricing for New Glenn, but the Falcon Heavy (before reusability) has a base cost of $90 million per flight (actual flights cost a little more than this, due to integration costs and so forth, but this base is still useful), and Musk has indicated that partial reusability (5 flights per first stage) should reduce costs by 20% and full reusability (at least 20 flights per stage, all stages fly back) would reduce costs 80%. According to those estimates we get the following:

                    LEO/lb  GEO/lb   Mars/lb
Expendable  $90m    $  750  $1,840   $ 3,000
Partial Re  $60m    $  600  $1,470   $ 2,400
Fully Reus  $18m    $  150  $  367   $   600

We don't have exact numbers for the Moon, but the Moon is easier to get to (in terms of delta-v) than Mars. We also don't have cost numbers for the New Glenn yet, but we know that New Glenn will start out with "Partial Reusability" and that Bezos eventually wants to get to full reusability. So look at the second and third lines in the table, and compare those numbers with the $10,000/lb that the Space Shuttle cost to put stuff just in LEO.

NASA has been able to maintain the International Space Station for the last 20 years with $10,000/lb launch costs. If Bezos can put cargo on the Moon for a fraction of that price, there's no reason a manned Moon base is out of the question.

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