Fuel is the Unaddressed Part of the Space Equation

There is no shortage of things we need to do in space today and plan to do in the near future--clear orbital corridors from space junk; service satellites; launch advanced science missions; create orbital and lunar hotels and research labs; place solar power satellites in orbit or lunar rings on the Moon and beam power back to Earth; manufacture materials and structures that we can't manufacture in Earth's gravity; mine asteroids; settle Mars... To be able to do this affordably and at scale, we need two foundational infrastructure "chess pieces" in place:

1. Rockets: Affordable rides to orbit

SpaceX Falcon 9 liftoff at Vandenburg. Credit: SpaceX.

SpaceX Falcon 9 liftoff at Vandenburg. Credit: SpaceX.

Getting to Earth's orbit is the proverbial "half-way to anywhere in the universe." It is very, very hard to do it affordably. High cost to orbit is the single largest "barrier to entry" to the expansion of business off Earth.

Fortunately, we do have meaningful amount of capital and serious leadership currently invested in this part of the space equation. Among people working on this problem are Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Greason's XCOR, Alan Bond's Reaction Engines, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origins, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic/The Spaceship Company, Paul Allen's Stratolauncher, NASA, ESA and many others. 

2. Fuel stations: Access to fuel in orbit

Shackleton Energy Fuel Depot. Credit: Boeing.

Shackleton Energy Fuel Depot. Credit: Boeing.

Once we get to orbit, access to fuel becomes everything. Without fuel, we are limited in what we can get done in orbit and beyond. Today, we lift all fuel out of Earth's deep gravity well. When we launch payloads to lower Earth orbit (LEO), 85% of the rocket's mass will be fuel. The numbers go up, the further you go: 90% to geostationary orbit (GEO), 95% to the Moon's surface and over 98% to the surface of Mars. Once the fuel is used up, the vehicle is useless. Just imagine what the Earth economy would be like if our Earth-based transportation system was built like that: fly an airplane, then throw it away!  Although concepts for refuelling in space date back to 1970s, we have no commercial entity seriously working on this part of the space equation today other than Shackleton Energy Company. 

Why Make Fuel from Water on the Moon?

Clementine mission.jpg
Simple physics translates into unignorable economics.

Water can be easily split into hydrogen and oxygen--and that's a powerful propellant for our spacecraft. The reason why it makes more sense to get water from the Moon, instead of hauling it from the Earth's surface is down to pure physics. Our planet's celestial companion is only one-sixth of Earth's size. This means we need to contend with roughly one-sixth of Earth's gravity and need much less fuel to lift any mass off the Moon's surface. Simple physics translates into unignorable economics. Our calculations show that it is about 20 times cheaper to deliver water to lower Earth orbit from the Moon's surface than it is to deliver it from the Earth's gravity well. Over the last 20 years, we have turned this insight into the most comprehensive commercial space program ever created.