Major aerospace companies have begun discussing commercial opportunities from low Earth orbit (LEO) to the Moon as their home nations' space agencies get to grips with NASA's plans to establish a permanently manned lunar outpost in 20 years' time.
The third meeting of the new Space Commerce Roundtable was taking place as the US space agency unveiled its Global Exploration Strategy (GES) on 4 December at the second NASA/American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics space exploration conference in Houston, Texas.
A loose alliance of aerospace companies is discussing potential markets arising from NASA's Moon base plan
Boeing, Alcatel Alenia Space, Energia and Mitsubishi are members of this loose alliance, which aims to exploit the commercial potential of the US space vision.
NASA developed its GES proposals with academic and commercial organisations, 11 other space agencies, the British National Space Centre and the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Roundtable members had already given the group an analysis of the markets that could follow the USA's return to the Moon.
Potential markets include in-orbit solar power for terrestrial energy needs exploitation of the International Space Station (ISS) or a Bigelow Aerospace facility for product development and manufacture in microgravity Internet Protocol-based cislunar communication networks and LEO and Moon tourism, beginning with circumlunar cruises. NASA's GES announcement offers new data for the group to discuss at its fourth and fifth meetings in 2007, which will bring in private investors.
Work on the GES began in April and focused on why NASA wanted to return to the Moon and what astronauts should do when they get there, identifying a range of scientific and technology endeavours. The analysis was supported by a NASA lunar architecture team that began work in May.
Since April, there have been meetings with the space agencies of Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Ukraine, as well as the European Space Agency. "NASA had to persuade space agencies it was serious about their substantial involvement," says John Logsdon, director of Washington DC-based George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs' Space Policy Institute.
The talks, led by NASA deputy administrator Shana Dale, produced six themes for the GES: global partnerships, economic expansion, scientific knowledge, exploration preparation, public engagement and human civilisation, which refers to exploration enabling technological development and research on human physiology in lunar gravity.
Another outcome is that agencies are trying to agree a common set of data standards and a lunar co-ordinate system. Through the GES talks, the space agencies are also discussing ways to contribute to a solar-powered polar Moon base, where astronauts would conduct six-month missions. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Canadian Space Agency have said they want to provide mobile robotics, and Canada also wants to supply medical support and lunar surveying and prospecting technologies.
"We are showing [the space agencies] more detail on where we are with the lunar architecture," says NASA exploration systems directorate deputy associate administrator Doug Cooke. "We'll tell them what we want to build, that we intend to build the launch infrastructure, including the lunar lander, and the initial steps in communications and navigation [infrastructure] and EVA suits."
Roundtable member Paul Eckert, Boeing space exploration systems' international business development and commercial strategist, sees government programmes such as VSE being the enablers for new markets. "Government investment should be transitional. Inmarsat is a good model," he says, referring to the global mobile satellite communications company that was originally a joint venture by nations for maritime communications.
While NASA intends to build a transport infrastructure that could be used more widely, ESA is working with Russia on a study of a lunar-capable version of the Soyuz manned spacecraft - the Crew Transportation System. ESA and JAXA have also identified robotic lunar cargo delivery as a capability they could contribute to GES.
"We looked at the [lunar] architecture and the impact of [LEO fuel] depots [for lunar missions] and NASA is very interested in the results," says Boeing space exploration systems' in-space and surface systems manager Dallas Bienhoff. Roundtable members see value in placing fuel in LEO so a rocket going to the Moon would launch with less propellant than it needed, obtaining the rest in orbit.
But the Roundtable's allies see far bigger opportunities, says Eckert: "There are lunar activity proposals, yet to be announced."
Lockheed Martin won the first part of the launch infrastructure when it was awarded the contract in August for the Orion crew exploration vehicle, which is expected to become operational in 2014. NASA says it is happy for technology from this part of its Earth-Moon transport system to be used by Lockheed to provide a capsule for Bigelow Aerospace.
"All that technology is available for everybody to use," says NASA associate administrator for exploration systems Scott Horowitz. "If people can use that in space, then that is a good idea." Bigelow is already in talks about using a man-rated version of Lockheed's Atlas V booster to send people and cargo to orbital facilities.
Boeing and Lockheed are still in competition for other transport system elements, such as the Aries I crew launch vehicle upper stage and the heavylift Ares V, which will loft the Earth departure stage and lunar lander.