Report: Stepping Stones: Economic Analysis of Space Transportation Supplied From NEO Resources

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The Stepping Stones economic analysis of space transportation supplied from near-Earth object (NEO) resources demonstrates the potential to break the tyranny of increasing space transportation costs created by dependence on Earth-based resources, particularly propellant.

The increasing challenges of space exploration, particularly by humans, rapidly become unaffordable if only Earthbased resources are available. By using Asteroid-Provided In-Situ Supplies (Apis™) spacecraft to extract resources from NEOs and the creation of a space-based transportation infrastructure, including a crewed lunar outpost in an energetically advantageous lunar orbit for storage and propellant processing along with reusable spacecraft for transport, these resources can be utilized to support crewed lunar surface exploration, crewed NEO exploration, crewed Mars missions, and even space tourism at less than 25% of the cost otherwise required (~90B$ vs ~390B$ over 20+ years). This analysis further suggests that with relatively modest initial government investment, a business case can be developed for a profitable industry in space resources.

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1.0 Executive Summary

NASA faces many challenges, both technical and programmatic, in its human exploration program. The commercialization and colonization of space faces similar challenges. Of all these challenges, perhaps the most daunting is the cost of missions. Cost is currently driven by launch and in-space transportation costs. Energetically difficult missions require either massive launch vehicles or multiple launches, as they require a great deal of propellant to achieve their missions. This makes these missions very expensive, which means they must be over-engineered for success, which drives up the cost of development, which reduces the frequency of missions, which eliminates the possibility of any economies of scale in missions.

Unless an approach is found to break this cycle of increasing costs, human exploration, commercialization, and colonization of space will likely remain unaffordable. This report details an approach based on use of in situ asteroid resources along with novel technology for extracting and using these resources. Combined with a spacecraft design and mission architecture this approach has the potential to break the spiral of increasing costs and provide not only an affordable path of human exploration, but the possibility of a self-sustaining business of space resource utilization. Near Earth Asteroids (NEOs) are more energetically accessible than the surface of Moon. This makes them potential "Stepping Stones" of resources for propellant and other consumables required for missions. This report demonstrates how the Asteroid Provided In-Situ Supplies (Sercel 2016) (Apis™) spacecraft architecture, which includes a new approach to asteroid in situ resource utilization (ISRU) called "Optical Mining™" (Sercel 2015) can capture and extract resources from NEOs. This architecture builds off of previous study and laboratory work, both in terms of NEO characterization, technology for capture of small asteroids (such as the Asteroid Redirect Mission Study), and new technology development for ISRU.

This study performs a benefit analysis of applying this approach to using NEO resources for NASA crewed exploration missions over the next 20+ years based on a notional but reasonable roadmap of missions used to calculate and compare costs of this new approach to estimates of current costs. The goal of the study is to create a self-sustaining, reusable, robotic or crewed space transportation approach using Apis™ architecture spacecraft, along with other key elements, such as a manned propellant depot in an energetically useful orbit around or near the moon equipped with propellant processing capability, and a reusable spacecraft that can serve as both an orbital transfer vehicle and an ascent/descent vehicle.

All these elements were combined to support evaluation of a roadmap of mission scenarios for development and operation of the lunar orbiting outpost and fuel depot, multiple NEO exploration missions, sustained lunar surface exploration and operation missions, and Mars exploration missions, performed over an approximately 20 year period. This evaluation supported estimation of initial design, development, test, and evaluation (DDT&E) costs, recurring unit costs, replacements costs, and launch costs for these scenarios using high level cost-modeling techniques applicable to concept level studies. Cost estimates were made for comparison of four development and operation variations of the scenarios in the roadmap:

• NASA Business as Usual supplied from Earth (no ISRU)
• Commercial Best Practices supplied from Earth (no ISRU)
• NASA Business as Usual with Asteroid Resources (ISRU)
• Commercial Best Practices with Asteroid Resources (ISRU)

Commercial Business Practices 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. Even assuming comparable savings, without the use of asteroid resources, the results show the total cost of exploration of space will remain unaffordable.

As Table 1-1 shows, use of asteroid resources, combined with best commercial business practices, succeeds in reducing the costs by more than a factor of 4 for a robust plan of human exploration of the lunar surface, NEOs, and eventually the surface of Mars. Assuming a reasonable investment by NASA in the initial DDT&E for the elements of this architecture and commitment to use the capability provided at a reasonable price, along with the ability to obtain adequate initial start-up capital, this approach does so in a fashion that can create a self-sustaining business in space resources that achieves an estimated profit of >20% annually before the end of 20 years. (See Figure 1-1.) This business can be further expanded and made even more profitable through development and fielding of more advanced designs of key elements over time. This further reduces the cost of asteroid resources and provides increased commercial support to a burgeoning space tourism business and even enables cost effective development of various sized (100s to 1000s of inhabitants) space habitats and the eventual colonization of space.

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