- policy recommendations for the current administration -


Starting in 2006, NASA started a new set of programs to develop launchers and capsules and to provide cargo and crew services to the International Space Station (ISS). The first of these programs was called "COTS" standing for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. The usual approach for NASA to procure things was through a "cost-plus" approach in which contractors estimated costs and, if there were cost overruns, NASA would pay for them and the company's profit would be determined as a portion of the final costs. Naturally, there wasn't a lot of incentive to keep costs down. Also, there was a lot of NASA oversight and regulation thereby adding to the costs.

But the COTS program use the "fixed-cost" approach in which, if there were cost overruns, NASA wouldn't pay any more but the companies would "eat the costs". Along the way there were payments as milestones were achieved. This incentivized the companies to make progress rapidly while keeping costs down. The results? A NASA study showed that the development of the Falcon 9 using the COTS approach ended up costing about 1/8th the cost than had it been done under the cost-plus approach.

The COTS approach should be repeated as we return to the Moon.

The current, large public-private programs consume only about 5% of NASA's budget. Yet, for this small amount we are getting access to two rockets, two and a half capsules, cargo deliveries to the ISS, and soon crew deliveries to the ISS. Also, as an added bonus because SpaceX was one of the participants, we are also getting access to partially-reusable rockets and the Falcon Heavy. Not bad for 5% of the budget.

The Plan for Sustainable Space Development describes a set of public-private programs very similar to those used to establish commercial access to the ISS. There is a one-to-one correlation between the transportation hardware development and cargo & crew delivery services. The one difference is that the "Lunar COTS" programs will include lunar surface operations including the extraction of resources (ice) of which there is no ISS equivalent.

Since we have the recent record of how the public-private programs have operated, how much they have cost, and how long it has taken them to achieve milestones, we can have a pretty accurate idea of what it would take for the set of Lunar COTS programs. So, at 5-7% of NASA's budget, it is estimated that it would take:

  • 2 years - Terrestrial Demonstrator of a full-scale lunar lander.
  • 6 years - Development of the ice-harvesting telerobots.
  • 6 years - Development of a launch-ready lunar lander.
  • 8 years - Selection and training of the first permanent crew.
  • 8 years - Arrival of the first crew at a permanent lunar habitat.
  • 9 years - Arrival of a series of international lunar exploration teams.
  • 11 years - First arrivals of private individuals at an expanding lunar base / settlement.
The flyby and Phobos-Deimos Mars missions would occur during this timeframe.

Next: International Lunar COTS