Just reminding readers that I’m taking the next week off. I’ll be enjoying turkey, sweet potatoes, pie, and family during Thanksgiving. For those readers celebrating, have an enjoyable Thanksgiving. For the others, eat something nice! To all, thank you for your interest and support of this site!
Related to last week’s analysis, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) is considering using its CZ-5 rocket for more than space station module lifting. CALT thinks the CZ-5 would be extremely useful for launching multiple satellites into orbit for low Earth orbiting (LEO) communications constellations. Of course, CALT must launch the CZ-5 more often than twice a year. It probably can, but I would guess it might move closer to a ULA/Arianespace launch cadence than SpaceX’s.
CALT’s success in doing so will also hinge on how reliable the CZ-5 is, especially if the company must accelerate its rocket manufacturing processes. If it can manufacture and stack the rocket relatively quickly and experience no explosive incidents, that indicates reliability. There’s also the CZ-5’s rather significant first-stage uncontrolled reentry problem, which might cause some challenges for CALT. It’s one thing to drop stages on your fellow citizen’s head in a nation where individual rights are–nonexistent. But dropping rocket stages on other nations’ citizens’ heads is downright unfriendly.
In context to the class I’m taking…there’s a law to help with that problem.
Discussion Question and Answers
I figured it was time to post one of my answers to a discussion question for my “International Law and Treaties in Space” class. I’ll also include paraphrased responses from some of my classmates. The question has two parts. For the first part, I believe the instructor attempted to get some students to reference the lack of definition for property laws in outer space as an obstacle. But, in case you haven’t noticed, I tend to lean towards more data-driven answers for questions such as that.
For the second part, there’s always someone in the industry pitching just how much helium three on the moon will solve all the industry’s problems. Again, I’ll reference my pragmatic lean and note those same people appear to somehow make it through life without at least reading history.
The book I’m referencing in the discussion is Thomas Gangale’s “The Development of Outer Space: Sovereignty and Property Rights in International Space Law.” To be honest, it’s not the most exciting read, but it does have some interesting and realistic takes on some space law aspects.
I’ve copied and pasted the question directly from the discussion.
What do you think is the most daunting obstacle real space exploration and is helium 3 a panacea to the challenges?
My Initial Answer
Addressing the first part of the question: please pardon the extended analysis. This topic is something I’ve explored (and continue to explore) for quite a few years. These numbers and rationales are what I’ve tried to bring clarity to for a little while now.
The most daunting obstacle to “real space exploration” continues to be the cost of lifting mass from the Earth to space. It’s still too expensive, despite the narratives in the ether promoting the idea of an overall lessening of launch prices in the space launch industry.
Thomas Gangale noted that challenge in his book back in 2008/2009. He observed that in 2000 the lowest-cost human-rated launch vehicle was the Soyuz. Gangale calculated the average per kilogram launch cost using the Soyuz to be $25,804. Then, he revealed that the Soyuz’s cost per seat was $20 million, which, based on an average person’s mass, would be significantly higher than his initial per kilogram calculation. None of those calculations were affordable nor conducive to sending out thousands of people to the moon and stars. Only governments, if they wished, could have entertained such endeavors. And as we see with NASA and others, diving into space exploration becomes more costly and time-consuming–especially when politicians guide engineering and contracts.
However, since 2000 the Soyuz cost per seat has risen to a high of ~$86 million (reported in 2019) for NASA. That article noted that NASA is paying SpaceX somewhat less for a seat on the Crew Dragon (which sits on top of a Falcon 9 rocket): $55 million. Those are still high numbers for transporting people to the International Space Station (ISS). While SpaceX charges less for its rocket than Roscosmos for the Soyuz, the point remains that the current method of getting people to space is just too costly.
When comparing the mass per kilogram costs between 2000 and today, they aren’t much different. Some of today’s rocket launch companies demand about the same or slightly more per kilogram than was demanded for the Soyuz in 2000. For example, Rocket Lab’s Electron starts with a $7.5 million price to launch at most 300 kg to low Earth orbit (LEO). That’s exactly $25,000 per kilogram. Virgin Orbit sells launches on LauncherOne (capable of delivering up to 500 kg to LEO) for ~$12 million each–about $24,000/kg.
Soyuz is still relatively inexpensive (it launched OneWeb satellites at an estimated $6,250/kg). But the least expensive is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy at $1,520/kg for delivering nearly 64 tons to LEO. The Falcon 9 isn’t far behind, but nearly double the Falcon Heavy’s per kilogram price–$2,940. Both are significantly lower than Soyuz in 2000 and all current global space industry competitors. More distressingly, SpaceX is the ONLY company offering those low per-kilogram costs while providing decent lift capacity.
Still, $1,520/kg is a far cry from the $2,000 seat Gangale mentions in his book. While it’s less expensive and more accessible to companies, it’s not quite affordable for the ordinary person. It’s certainly not the right per kilogram price to launch heavy equipment and materials required for a lunar outpost build-up and helium 3 mining.
That paradigm might shift with the advent of SpaceX’s Starship (which hasn’t launched yet). At an advertised $50/kg to start (that’s from Elon Musk, so take that however you want), the cost to deploy spacecraft and large, heavy equipment plummets. Based on that, a seat could cost $5,000 for a hefty 100 kg person. For those interested, I wrote up an analysis of the possible changes in February this year: “The Potential Horror and Devastation of Progress.” To be clear, it’s all conjecture until Starship successfully launches.
As far as pinning hopes from a revolution based on helium three harvesting–shmaybe?
I am not a scientist, engineer, or chemist, but I’m wary of anything that gets hyped that way. It’s just that the way people spin it makes it sound like all the “killer app” advertising I’ve seen in the technology sector. Gangale cautions about embracing that hype by bringing up nuclear power and the things humanity learned after using it for decades. I agree with his perspective, but I will note he doesn’t say it won’t be helpful. It’s just that maybe there are some bumps on the way to mining and using helium three that won’t be known until humanity starts doing so.
The act of mining helium three would likely be more expensive than people think. So I went to a mining consulting site that had some interesting slides. The consultants broke down the traditional cost percentages like so:
Those three unit categories would have increased costs for transporting equipment and humans from Earth to the moon. The costs would continue as maintenance and running of a continuous supply line to keep two categories–labor and services–alive.
The costs for getting an Earthbound mine started can run anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion. The required equipment changes to deal with the lunar/space environment on the equipment would require more investment. There’s also just figuring out how to “harvest” helium 3. If it’s simple, great, but things like that, especially in a hostile environment, are rarely simple.
All that is to say that helium three, while helpful, might not be the space exploration panacea some people believe it is. At least, starting one [helium three mining concern] up won’t be an inexpensive endeavor.
Other Student Answers:
Cost to lift stuff from Earth is too high. Makes more sense to build something like an O’Neill cylinder and manufacture there. The cylinder will be manufactured in space from materials mined in space.
Mass drivers placed on the moon could loft mined materials to space for pick up and refinement.
Helium three and other moon elements are just chemistry. Could be used to make water and other things.
Radiation will be a big problem. Can’t predict galactic cosmic rays nor solar flare events. Radiation belts need to be respected.
Mining helium three will be challenging. Again, need to transport equipment from Earth to make mining equipment. Estimated yields of 1 gram helium three for 150 tons of regolith seem very low. Also, setting up furnaces to melt the regolith will be challenging.
Student Response to My Answer:
Earthbound mining and space mining are different. Transporting equipment from Earth to the Moon to mine anything is a losing proposition. O’Neill proposed building a lunar/martian mining apparatus known as a mass driver. In situ/space materials would be used to build it. We can’t do this today.
Water on the Moon or Mars, when combined with HE3, can catalyze to produce more water and other chemicals. Those could help create a fuel cell.
An O’Neill Cylinder (which could house thousands of people) would be constructed in space using mined space materials. It would be solar-powered.
Agree that transporting things from Earth to the moon is not efficient. But, right now (and as you’ve acknowledged), all equipment must originate from Earth and then be transported to space. Building materials from space still require equipment from Earth to extract those initially. Nanotech, 3D printers, etc.–all currently rely on the manufacturing base on Earth. Nothing in the Solar System comes close to the technology generated on Earth. And some of what you mention has yet to exist, which still requires Earthbound research facilities with engineers, scientists, and more to design and build those things. Even using in-situ resources on the moon requires specialized equipment from Earth to get started and the supply chain to keep everything running. Could it eventually become a Moonbase Alpha? If we’re committed, sure.
Colonizing a different gravity well makes little sense to me. Whether in the form of cylinders, rings, spheres, disks, or gigantic cityships, it makes more sense for humans to be mobile in space (and why I wonder about Outer Space Treaty relevance in the future). Even then, a lot of research must happen just to make space transport survivable and pleasant for people. But, again, the technology maturity is far from getting there. I know companies like Axiom put out an optimistic story, but their modules aren’t even baby steps to what we need to get to the point of getting millions of people working and living in space.
Veering back to the initial discussion, it’s why I’m hoping a company like SpaceX can make getting to space more affordable. I wish it weren’t a Musk company that seems to be on the verge of offering that, but here we are. If just launch costs come down, then companies, space agencies, etc., can start conducting the research, experiments, and exploration needed to understand and come to know how little we understand–then building the tools to understand our ignorance. Those tools might lead to in-space manufacturing, mining, and colonies. The knowledge gleaned, and the technologies to help attain that knowledge while making life better for humanity are far more valuable than any real estate property rights. I would be surprised if those technologies rest on helium three as a solution as we progress past Kardashev Type I.
I won’t see any of this except some of the secondary crewed forays to the moon and initial ones to Mars. But I hope the data I provide in the industry adds to the foundations to help us move out.
That was all of the discussion. Have a great week next week!