Commercial spaceflight gets a grateful shout-out in a recently released NASA feasibility-and-needs report on future space exploration missions.
One of its key findings: NASA first must figure out how to mine asteroids and other near-Earth objects, or NEOs. That’s because such mining operations are needed to fuel — in the most literal sense — space exploration generally.
“The increasing challenges of space exploration, particularly by humans, rapidly become unaffordable if only Earth-based resources are available,” according to the NASA report, first circulated Dec. 14.
NASA says the solution involves tapping lunar asteroids to extract resources, then processing the extractions into propellant at a Moon-based facility. The approach would reduce the cost of deep-space missions to Mars and elsewhere more than three-fourths, according to the agency analysis.
As for the acknowledgement of contributions by commercial spaceflight companies, the report summarizes: “Commercial (approaches) such as those pioneered by Space X and Blue Origin have demonstrated their ability to produce space vehicles at a fraction of the costs traditionally associated with NASA development.”
Now SpaceX is developing a ‘heavy” version of their Falcon 9 rocket for use in public or private deep-space missions to Mars and elsewhere, and Blue Origin is partnering with United Launch Alliance on a similarly deep-thrust launch vehicle.
So NASA’s praise of the innovative approach of these New Space comers may give pause to those backing a different deep-space craft under development for the agency by Boeing, a mainstay NASA contractor in past years but hardly known for keeping costs down.
The Stepping Stones report doesn’t break down the cost impact of using various spacecrafts, but it suggests that using “commercial best practices” in deep-space missions could save $1 billion a year over traditional approaches.
If commercial best practices are ignored, NASA figures a $7 billion annual expenditure will be needed to support space missions during the next 20 years. It dubs an annual outlay of that level to be of “marginal” feasibility.
Using commercial best practices would require a $6 billion annual budget, making planned lunar and deep-space missions “affordable.” But that’s only if plans include asteroid-mining missions and the creation of a fuel-processing depot on the Moon.