1,000 people living and working in cislunar space within 30 years
It’s hard not to miss SpaceX’s long-term vision. From Elon Musk’s quips about retiring on Mars to the “Occupy Mars” t-shirts worn by its employees and sold by the company online, SpaceX makes clear that its motivation is establishing a human presence on Mars. Blue Origin, as it becomes more open, is also sharing its vision: founder Jeff Bezos has talked recently about his goal of seeing millions of people living and working in space, something he acknowledges could take centuries to achieve.
For most of its decade-long history, United Launch Alliance has not had a similar far-reaching public vision. The joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin has focused on near-term efforts to reliably launch satellites, primarily for the U.S. government. But as the launch market changes, and with it ULA itself, the company is starting to articulate its own distinct view of humanity’s future in space.
In recent months, ULA has increasingly promoted a concept it calls “CisLunar-1000.” The name comes from the concept’s longterm goal: 1,000 people living and working in cislunar space within 30 years. That’s possible, the company believes, if it can lower launch costs through the use of resources on the moon and elsewhere.
“We’ve been chipping away at the problem of launch costs for years and years and years, and made incremental improvements, but not quantum improvements,” said George Sowers, ULA’s vice president for advanced programs, at a conference last year.
ULA’s approach starts with its new Vulcan rocket. The company believes that the lower launch costs that Vulcan promises can help open up new markets in the near-term, such as commercial space stations, that can incrementally increase the number of people in space and the size of the space economy.
The key element of CisLunar- 1000, though, is a new upper stage called the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES). While Vulcan will initially use the Centaur upper stage flying on the Atlas 5 today, ULA expects in the 2020s to switch over to ACES, which promises much greater performance.
More importantly, ACES is more than just an expendable upper stage. The stage is designed to be refuelable, which turns it into a space tug that can travel throughout cislunar space, lowering the cost of in-space transportation provided there’s a cheap source of propellant.
ULA believes that propellant could come from the moon. ACES, like Centaur, will use liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Those propellants can be derived from water, which may be in abundance in permanently shadowed regions of craters at the lunar poles.
“The proposal here is that the transportation system be based primarily on liquid oxygen and hydrogen,” Sowers said. “It is a pretty readily available fuel combination.”
CisLunar-1000 requires , according to Sowers, just “one and a half ” new vehicles: ACES and a lunar lander derived from ACES. ULA has been working such a lander concept, called Xeus, in conjunction with Masten Space Systems. In that model, Xeus would bring liquid oxygen and hydrogen extracted from the moon to the L-1 Lagrange point between the Earth and moon, where it would transfer it to ACES tugs for use transporting payloads elsewhere in cislunar space.
With no need to transport large masses of fuel from the Earth, Sowers argues that it would dramatically lower overall space transportation costs and thus open new markets not economically feasible today. That can also support extraction of other resources from the moon, opening additional markets.
He cited as one example spacebased solar power: a long-held dream of space advocates, but one that is not economically competitive with terrestrial alternatives at today’s launch prices. “So don’t launch it from the Earth, because that’s what drives the cost,” he said.
He argued that, by using fuel and other raw material extracted from the moon and then manufactured into spacecraft components at L-1 and moved to geostationary orbit, the transport costs for a solar power satellite could be reduced by up to a factor of 3,000 compared to launching everything from the Earth. That’s more than enough to close the business case. “This back-of- the-envelope analysis suggests that yes, you can have a self-sustaining economy fueled by energy in space,” he said.
Applications like solar power satellites emerge only towards the end of ULA’s 30-year vision, when 1,000 people are living in space and the “gross space product,” or size of the space economy, reaches $2.7 trillion a year, nearly ten times its current size. The company cautions, though, that those figures, particularly the number of people, are very rough estimates.
“Those numbers came out of a brainstorming session” at the company several months ago, said Eric Monda, a ULA engineer, at the Space Access ’16 conference in Phoenix in April. “They are rather notional.”
The numbers may be notional, but the technologies supporting them are real. One of the key systems for ACES is Integrated Vehicle Fluids (IVF), a system that taps into the hydrogen and oxygen propellants on ACES to power the stage itself. IVF allows the stage to avoid the use of consumables like helium and hydrazine that would otherwise limit the life of the stage. With IVF, ACES could operate indefinitely so long as has hydrogen and oxygen.
Work on IVF is going well so far, Frank Zegler, another ULA engineer, said at Space Access. At the same time, though, he said another ULA team is working to reduce the costs of those more traditional systems. “I have to reduce my costs below their already reduced costs in order to be successful,” he said.
Technologies like IVF aren’t new: ULA engineers have been quietly working on advanced concepts for years. Zegler noted that even the basic concept for Vulcan dates back a decade. But, for most of that time, that work didn’t see the light of day, or if it did, it was consigned to papers presented to small audiences at technical conferences.
CisLunar-1000, though, provides a long-term framework for how those technologies could not only support ULA’s traditional mission of launching satellites, but also enable new markets at a time when that original market faces new threats and competition. Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive, has promoted CisLunar-1000 in speeches and in social media, and the company even produced a seven-minute video describing that long-term plan.
“Our world has changed drastically in the last year,” Zegler said. That has enabled a new chance for what he described as a decade’s worth of technologies that have found new life supporting this new strategy. “Now that there’s a pressing need, it’s an obvious next step.”