- with low-cost transport, where would international astronauts go? -


There are three categories of Earth-to-Moon transport systems:
   - Very expensive - SLS-Orion-Gateway-Lander
   - Very cost-effective - Falcon Heavy-XEUS
   - Ridiculously cost-effective - Starship

Space Launch System (SLS)
The SLS is NASA's Shuttle-derived super heavy lift vehicle (SHLV). It is very expensive both in overall development costs as well as per-flight costs. Yet, it is the most developed, human-rated heavy lift vehicle. Additionally, the SLS would launch the expensive Orion capsule designed for deep space missions and would have to go through the Gateway station around the Moon which would utilize several SLS launches to be set up. If one assumes a per-mission, incremental cost of about $1.5 B each for a crew of two then this would come to about $750 M per seat. At that cost, seven missions from 2020 through 2028 would cost $10.5 B for 12 seats. At those prices, the 12 seats would go mostly to American astronauts and astronauts of about four other nations. This is considerably less than the current partner nations of the International Space Station (ISS).

Falcon Heavy - F9-Dragon - XEUS
The Falcon Heavy (FH) is SpaceX's heavy lift vehicle (HLV). XEUS is United Launch Alliance's cryogenic upper stage modified to be a human-scale lander. We use the XEUS lander as an example of the nearest-term, human-scale lander. Let's also assume that the lander can be reused using propellant derived from the lunar poles as shown in the LCROSS results. The Falcon Heavy cost $135 M to launch the XEUS lander and a large external drop tank. The Falcon 9 - Dragon costs $90 M to launch and would launch the crew to the FH where the crew would transfer to the XEUS crew module. The XEUS would cost about $60 M but with 10 reuses would cost about $8 M per use. Telerobotic surface operations after set-up would cost less than $5 M per refuelling of a XEUS. So, the total comes to $228 M. Being very conservative, let's say that this system would cost $500 M per mission. The Dragon can carry a crew of six so the per-seat cost would come to about $80 M per seat.

If SpaceX's Starship become a reality (likely) then it will be a complete game-changer for humanity. Intended to be the first, fully-reusable, orbital-class rocket, the cost would be just the refuelling of the rocket. SpaceX estimates that it would cost only about $500 K per seat. The decision makers in Washington DC should pay attention to the development of the Starship and be willing to transition to a public-private program with SpaceX if the Starship shows that it will likely be more cost-effective and about as capable as the SLS (i.e. the moment Starship reaches orbit).

For the sake of this page, we will use the FH-F9-XEUS numbers since this is existing / probable technology whereas the Starship is less certain.

How much would nations be willing to pay for one seat on a mission of lunar exploration? The United States spends only .1% of its GDP each year on civil space. So, let's assume that other countries would be willing to set aside that same, small about of their smaller GDP and that they would be willing to set aside that amount each year for four years to save up for one seat on a mission. This spreadsheet shows the calculations. It turns out that about two-thirds of the 195 countries in the world would be able to afford at least one seat. If one increases the per-seat price to $87M and then shifts the excess income to cover the gap of what the poorer countries could afford towards one seat then all of the nations would be able to afford to send at least one of their astronauts to the Moon.

Think about it, the United States could really benefit all of the other nations of the world by providing the leadership necessary to open up not only the Moon but the inner solar system to humanity. This is the legacy that is possible in the next few years. However, if we continue down the expensive, SLS approach then, instead of 195 nations being able to go to the Moon, only about five would be able to. The choice is ours to make.

An end-to-end commercial transport system could open the Moon to all nations.

Back to: Lunar Exploration Sites