Artemis and the lunar economy
Transcript: Next Giant Leap, Episode 2: Artemis and the lunar economy
Audio: Seven, six, five, four, stage engine start. Three, two, one. And liftoff of this one. We rise together. Back to the moon and beyond.
Kevin Fong: Hi, I'm Kevin Fong, and this is Next Giant Leap, a special podcast series brought to you by GZERO Media in partnership with Canadian space company MDA.
Neil Armstrong: It's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.
Kevin Fong: When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969, it felt like the start of a new chapter in human history. There were even visions of people inhabiting lunar bases, the beginnings of an interplanetary future. But those visions were short lived. Apollo crews returned to the moon for just five more brief visits. These were the departing words of Gene Cernan, commander of the last Apollo landing in 1972, as he prepared to blast off from the lunar surface.
Gene Cernan: As we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return. With peace and hope for all mankind. That's the crew of Apollo 17.
Kevin Fong: And after half a century we are finally returning and this time we'll be staying for the long term. That's the intention of NASA's Artemis program. Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, who I spoke to in the first episode, will be one of the crew to fly on the Artemis 2 mission to and around the moon next year. Then, a year or so later, Artemis 3 will send two astronauts down to the lunar surface and NASA in league with other space agencies and many commercial space companies, will build the infrastructure for a permanent human presence on the moon. So in this episode, I'm going to explore how that vision is going to be made into a reality and the role of the private space industry in making it happen. My first guest is Raja Chari, a NASA astronaut who has a very good chance of being one of the first to make new footprints in the lunar soil or lunar regolith. Two years ago, his first mission in space was as commander of a Space X Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, where he then spent six months. His next mission will very likely be to the moon in a NASA Orion capsule. He started by telling me how the Artemis program will differ from the Apollo missions.
Raja Chari [00:03:07] Yeah. So the big difference I think, between you hit it right on the head between Apollo and Artemis. Well, two big differences. One is where we're going and why we're going and the where kind of leads right to the why and the where is the South Pole and the why? is because we want to go there for a long time. We don't want to just, you know, touch it and come back and say, we're done. We want to go there and stay there. And to do that, we need to go where there's resources, where we can hopefully learn to live in situ on another planet. And that's what the South Pole gives us. So it's, you know, geometrically. If you think about the way the sun hits it, you have these very low sun angles. And so you have areas where you can have sunlight because you need that for power generation. But then, right, you know, literally a feet away, you could have a permanently dark shadowed area of the moon that's never seen sunlight. And that's where we expect there to be water. And in that water, we, you know, hopefully that's we don't know yet till we get there, but we expect that will also have minerals in it. And so the hope is that we can find these resources, use them, and not have to haul all that water and minerals from the earth to the moon to, you know, whatever it is, we build using regolith, you know, get water to actually sustain life and use that to create rocket fuel, all the things that we want to be able to do. So doing that requires going someplace where those resources are at. And so that's why the South Pole.
Kevin Fong [00:04:23] And then that brings us on to the thorny problem of the lander. The last time we built a lander was at one. What designed and built one is over 50 years ago now, what sort of thought processes are going into the landers that you're going to use for these missions?
Raja Chari [00:04:38] Yeah, so actually you're interviewing me at a very exciting time. So we just awarded a second contractor for the lunar lander. So right now SpaceX is on contract to deliver a lander for an initial crewed mission and then what we call a sustained presence. So a longer, you know, seven days and longer. And then we just recently awarded a contract to Blue Origin to do a second source for that contract for follow on Artemis missions. But yeah, the activity right now, as you mentioned, is again, you know, if the goal was just to get there as fast as you possibly could touch it and come back, you could do a simpler solution. But our goal is to build an architecture where we actually can stay on the ground. And part of that, at least on the SpaceX side, is, you know, if you've been watching the news, you know, you saw they recently had their first attempt at an orbital flight test. So that's kind of step one. And then step two is the SpaceX Starship construct involves making what's called a prop depot. So you're going to launch these gas tanks, basically, and then aggregate them in space into essentially a tanker and then use that tanker to fill up the vehicle that's going to go to the moon, go down, land and come back. And so similar to Apollo, you know, we're going to have a vehicle in lunar orbit that'll be the starship, but that's not going have people on it. And then we'll get the people to it via the Orion vehicle. And so where we're at right now is working with SpaceX. You know, the terms of like my day to day job. How do you fly this vehicle? How do you monitor the automation? Where can you intervene as a person? And as you asked earlier, guess what? We're landing on the South Pole. So the shadows are going to be crazy. You might you might not even see the landing spot. It might be completely black, you know, and then have another area where it's completely sun saturated. You might be landing on the lip of a crater as we're trying to go. We're trying to go interesting geologic places, but that also means difficult places to land. And so it's a it is a interesting technological challenge, but it's been really fun working on it.
Kevin Fong: Yeah, I am getting the picture that there is a whole bunch of stuff at the South Pole that could ruin your whole day if you get it wrong, right? Yeah. So, so, so so far we've got a lot of similarities. You've got a vehicle that's going to carry you across the space between the earth and the moon. You've got an orbital rendezvous around the moon with the vehicle that's going to take you to the surface. But then there's the Gateway, Lunar Gateway, which is new. Tell me about why you need that and tell me what that is.
Raja Chari: Yeah. So the lunar gateway, I think the simplest way to think about it is basically the space station, except around the moon. And what it provides us as as we build, you know, the Artemis architecture to stay on the moon is to have a permanent outpost in lunar orbit so that you can send supplies there. Logistics there. Consumables there. Just the same way we do at the space station in low-Earth orbit. But to do that for the moon and the reason we need that for the long term is, you know, we're not always going to have people on the surface of the moon. These first few Artemis missions will only be a few days at a time. But what the gateway enables us to do is to send supplies there in advance. You know, as we look a decade and two decades out, as we start to talk about habitats and permanent habitats, the gateway provides us basically a kind of a stopover point, almost like a refueling point, where you could use that as a place to have people, you know, supplies. And then even longer term, maybe that's maybe you send an Orion crew to the gateway. They can stay there for a while, have the lander come to them at the gateway. And so it became just kind of like a, you know, a bus stop in lunar orbit where you can, you know, accumulate people and things. And it gives you what we call open architecture is a term we use in the government where the gateway is agnostic and provider. So whether it's Blue Origin's Lander or Space X's Lander, some future companies lander, you know, one of our partners, whether it's the Europeans, JAXA, CSA, like all these things that you can send to the gateway and have that be sort of your exchange point and then looking even further in the future, you know, conceptually that being a point where you go to Mars from there. So you know, then these are future concepts, but doing assembly for that vehicle at a lunar outpost instead of doing it in the gravity well of earth. So it just opens up a whole bunch of future development. But in the near term, it gives us the ability to go to and from the surface in a place where it's a very stable usage orbit.
Kevin Fong: Now we talk about Gateway as being like a space station around the moon, but compared to the International Space Station, it's quite modest, right? Give me a bit of a description of what it's like as a facility in space.
Raja Chari: So the space station is like a five-bedroom house. In terms of pressurized space, I would say the gateway is more like a studio apartment in Manhattan. So it is you know, you're going to have to definitely be friendly with the people you're there. But conceptually, you know, that's the starting size. But part of the beauty of having some of the other space agencies being involved is it'll continue to expand. So, you know, we've already got a PP power propulsion element and I have, which is an international habitation module, logistics modules and you know, kind of the vision of the agency is to bring in other countries and other companies to expand this thing. And so, yeah, I think it'll be small initially the first few crews very similar to the International Space Station, you know, you'll be packed in there and then as it expands, it will very quickly, I think, start to become more like the International Space Station, more like that five bedroom house instead of the studio apartment.
Kevin Fong: Artemis astronaut Raja Chari, we'll hear more from him later. Adding extensions to the Gateway Station to make it more spacious will be one of the jobs of its robotic arm. Superficially, it looks a little like a space crane, but it is so much more than that. The arms being designed and built by Canadian space company MDA, this podcast partner. It's called Canadarm Three, and it's the latest version of the Robotic Arms, which the company devised for operations in low-Earth orbit. I'm joined by Holly Johnson, MDA's, vice president for robotics and space operations. Holly, welcome to Next Giant Leap.
Holly Johnson: Hello. Thank you for having me. It's awesome to be here.
Kevin Fong: Holly, you're an engineer by background, and I would like you to tell me about MDA's big contribution to space exploration and to the Artemis program, the Canadarm.
Holly Johnson: Absolutely. So MDA, very proud developer of the Canadarm technology. Years ago, supporting more than 90 space shuttle missions, was Canadarm One. Currently, in orbit today around the earth, 400 kilometers above us, Canadarm Two is helping to build, maintain, evolve and support the International Space Station. And as you mention, excited to have Canadarm Three being developed right here in Canada to support the Lunar Gateway mission.
Kevin Fong: Just for the sake of people who've never seen the Canadarm or any of its previous iterations before. Can I ask you to just describe it from, you know, tip to tip? I was going to say tip to toe, but not that's not its anatomy. So can I ask you to describe it from end to end?
Holly Johnson: Yeah. So the large Canadarm will be just under ten meters in length. And you say it's funny. You say tip to tip, we'll say hand to hand. And so each of the end of that large crane like robotic arm is essentially a hand. It'll have what we call an end effector that can grab on to different robotic points along the gateway. That robotic arm will have multiple degrees of freedom at each end in order to allow it to kind of contort in different ways and walk around the station. And then as you mentioned, there's a middle joint that we actually also call the elbow that will allow it to kind of bend end over end, to reach everywhere it needs to go. The different dexterity and kinematics that the Canadarm Three has or is required to have, really allows it to accomplish everything it needs to do on the gateway. And so not only providing camera views for incoming vehicles and inspection of vehicles and crew vehicles that are there, but also helping to capture and relocate different modules to host scientific payloads and move those around the station as well as hosting astronauts on the end of the arm, which will be quite the ride, I can imagine.
Kevin Fong: And tell me as an engineer a bit about this bit of technology, because it's actually quite easy to underestimate. You know, in the pictures, it looks like an elbow with a joint in the middle and not much else, but it is much more.
Holly Johnson: No, you you have it exactly right. So Canadarm Three is a little bit different than prior versions of Canadarm technology. It has to be smarter. So because it Canadarm Three is operating near the moon at the lunar gateway, it's much further away from Earth. And so the current Canadarm Two operating is 400 kilometers away from Earth. This new Canadarm Three is 400,000 kilometers away from Earth. With that, there's also limited connectivity and communications to the gateway. And the lunar gateway won't be stationed by astronauts year round. It's really only expected to be habitated by astronauts for one month of the 12 months. And so Canadarm Three needs to be smarter. It needs to be more self-reliant, and it will again play a critical role in not only helping to assemble the gateway, but also to operate and maintain it. So with that smarts comes autonomy and artificial intelligence. Currently, with Canadarm technology, we would issue some commands and as you mentioned, it looks like an elbow with some joints on either end. With Canadarm Three, we're going to have to evolve that. So we're going to give it higher level objectives. So instead of commanding each individual joint or commanding the end of the arm, we're developing autonomy and artificial intelligence so it can understand higher level commands and make local decisions, understanding its surroundings, and be able to operate more autonomously on its own at Gateway.
Kevin Fong: So and that's really fascinating, that aspects, because, I mean, everything is so finely choreographed in space, and particularly when you're dealing with space stations, with fragile components and particularly fragile solar panel systems. And the idea that you would just say to a piece of technology, reach for that, as opposed to choreographing every rotation and every move. That sounds like a big challenge.
Holly Johnson: Absolutely. But the good thing is that you take baby steps. And so one of the aspects of Canadarm Three is that the artificial intelligence will be evolvable. So while it will originally be launched, we’ll be able to command it traditionally from the ground like we do today, it will has a computer dedicated to artificial intelligence. So as we make more innovation and more progress in the artificial intelligence, we can continue to evolve the capability of it on orbit.
Kevin Fong: And I guess the other thing I didn't realize for a long time is this is not an arm that has a fixed position and it's kind of like a space crane. It sort of, you know, pivots around a fixed point. That's not what it does, is it?
Holly Johnson: No. So, Canadarm Three is comprised of a few elements. So there's a large arm, the crane like-arm, as you mentioned. There's a smaller arm which is more dexterous. It can do kind of the fine tune tasks. Canadarm Three also includes some robotic interfaces. So to your point, robotic grappling points that will be placed around the space station, the lunar gateway, to allow the arm to kind of crawl or inchworm around the station to get access to different points, as well as robotic interfaces on the payloads on the outside of the station to allow it to conduct scientific experiments, upgrade kind of the maintenance elements on the outside of the station, as well as to support astronauts to be able to perform EVAs or spacewalks. And so very excited to have all that capability with Canadarm Three, again supporting all around the station by inch worming around.
Kevin Fong: Which brings us onto the role of the commercial sector in the future of space exploration. How important do you think that role is, and particularly in the Artemis program and its vision of sustained human presence on the moon?
Holly Johnson: Absolutely. So I think that the commercial space sector is actually a key enabler of that sustained presence in deep space and on the surface of the moon. The lower launch costs really increasing the ability to access space by countries and different companies. And so different reports will quote that the global space economy is expected to grow to over $1,000,000,000,000 by 2040. With all of those missions and all of those new exciting applications happening combined with NASA and the international partners kind of committing to remain at the forefront of that space exploration, we have this really unique opportunity where the sector, the commercial players in the sector can offer technology and services not only to one customer, whether that's NASA or the Canadian Space Agency, but multiple customers. And so, when you get into that situation, it really enables this persistent occupation or persistent access where you're not selling a service or a technology to just one customer, but you have this marketplace which again continues to fuel the growth of the sector and enables this persistence on the surface of the moon. So that model, again, anchored by the governments but enabled by multiple other customers, I think is key. And again, the commercial space sector is a key enabler to that.
Kevin Fong: Holly Johnson, vice president for robotics and space operations at MDA, thanks very much for joining us.
Holly Johnson: Thank you so much. It was amazing to talk to you.
Kevin Fong: Let's dig a little deeper into the commercial space industry's part in the return to the moon. My next guest on the Next Giant Leap is Chad Anderson. He's the founder and a managing partner of Space Capital. Based in New York, Space Capital is an early stage venture capital fund which invests in companies developing new space technologies. Chad, welcome to Next Giant Leap.
Chad Anderson: Good to be here. Thanks for having me. So a little bit of context is probably helpful here. So, you know, before Space X, a little bit more than a decade ago, the market was very limited. There was a handful of defense contractors on the one hand, and on the other there was the government as kind of the sole customer. Market was very limited. It was, you know, very much leave it to us for the experts. This is rocket science. It's very difficult. You know, don't even try. Since Space X and their Falcon 9 rocket has come online and reduced the cost of getting to orbit, that really removed a lot of the barriers to entry that we've seen. And so pre Falcon 9 basically zero investment start activity post Falcon 9, we've seen $270 billion invested into nearly 2000 space companies over the last ten years. And so that gives you a sense for how we've gone from a purely government driven market to a very robust commercial market in a short period of time. The same sort of thing is happening now with the lunar economy. It's primarily being driven by Artemis, the Artemis program, and they are doing this by partnering with commercial companies to explore low cost options. So now we have multiple commercial landers to land humans on the moon as well. So that's kind of the driver here. And what's really driving that is geopolitical considerations. The US and China are on a path to overlap at the South Lunar Pole, both of which have a goal of creating a base there and you know, both countries going to the same place at the same time really reflects the limited amount of prime real estate around the South Pole based on, you know, lighting conditions, access to the sun and access to potential water ice deposits.
Kevin Fong: Now, you've mentioned SpaceX and Blue Origin. They're providing transportations for the astronaut crews to the surface of the moon. And of course, we also know that MDA will be providing the robotic arm for the Lunar Gateway Station. But I wondered if you could give me some other examples of elements of lunar infrastructure and services that will be developed for Artemis by commercial companies. Give me a sense of what that sort of looks like.
Chad Anderson: Yeah. So this is a big picture, a multiphase infrastructure development, right? The Artemis program through the Gateway in this NASA architecture, we're hoping to put astronauts on the moon at 2025 to 2030 timeframe here. That is for the humans on the surface, the Artemis programs, the humans on the surface and setting up camp, you know, and setting up an outpost there, a permanent presence with a rotating crew. But there's a lot of activity that's underway right now in the lead up to that. Just in the same way that NASA helped give rise to Space X through the commercial crew and commercial cargo contract with the International Space Station today. That's allowing NASA to save a ton of money in allowing Space X to build their capability in their business model. They're now taking those lessons and they're now applying that same methodology to lunar with the commercial lunar payload services contracts to companies to do sort of robotic precursor missions for the Artemis crewed missions. The idea being that we need to get some robots on the ground there to scout things out to get a closer look of the areas of interest. You know, we know we want to go to the South Pole of the moon because there's water ice deposits there. We need to get some robots there to look at it more closely and figure out the best place to set up camp. Then it's a matter of setting up the initial infrastructure. You need to set up communications, you need an ability then to communicate back to the Earth. So power and comms are going to be pretty essential. So deploying some solar arrays, getting access to power, the ability to charge and recharge to survive the lunar night, which gets incredibly cold, you know? And then where do you go from there? It's probably some mobility. So NASA has just put out a solicitation for proposal. I believe they're going to be looking to award some contracts for some mobility. And there are several private companies that are working on surface mobility vehicles.
Kevin Fong: Now, people have really started to use this phrase very commonly, the lunar economy they talk about. And it's sort of you hear it everywhere. Now, just describe for me what that means and how it might develop from the partnership between commercial companies and space agencies.
Chad Anderson: We're still very early days, right? You know, whatever you want to call it, the lunar industry, the lunar economy, what have you. It is really underpinned by government dollars at the moment. The government is the primary customer here. Will we get to a point where there is a commercial economy on the moon where, you know, the government is a customer among many customers of commercial services. Yeah, I mean, I can definitely see how that happened. And, you know, we looked at the last ten years in the space economy and more broadly and the launch industry and how that went from a purely, you know, government endeavor to a very commercial one in a short period of time. So that's possible for that to happen on the moon. And I definitely am optimistic and I'm excited to see that happen. There are some commercial customers for, you know, portfolio companies of ours like Astrobotic, who has really become NASA's go to for commercial provider of robotic missions to the moon. They're carrying a lot of NASA's largest rovers and payloads to the lunar surface. You know, Astrobotic have commercial customers onboard, other government agencies. You know, the Mexican space agency is going to land a rover on the moon through Astrobotic. Right. So what's happening already is expanding the market beyond just the major space superpowers.
Kevin Fong: And it's very clear. I mean, right now the principal contractor and the principal customer is government. But do you have a sense of the scale of what that market looks like, even that limited in some ways market? What does that look like? What the projections for what we'll be spending on the moon in the near future in that way?
Chad Anderson: That is a good question. We are in the tens of billions for the Artemis program. Look, there's a lot of VCs that are already betting on the long term potential here. So some folks like ourselves that see the opportunity developing and are getting in early. According to our latest Q 1 SpaceX investment quarterly report, there was a record level of private investment into lunar companies and other emerging industries last year. The lunar market has seen just a little bit less than $1,000,000,000 in private investment for transportation solutions. Construction on the surface, that's one of the things we didn't talk about. But obviously, you know, set up a lunar outpost. You need to construct some infrastructure and deep space satellites, you know, satellites that are around the moon providing reconnaissance and positioning and that sort of thing. So you put that, you know, let's call it $1,000,000,000, of private investment into the lunar industry relative to the $270 billion that's gone into the space economy more broadly. You know, it's very clear that we are on the front end of this, but this is an infrastructure play where there is a lot of government interest. We can see pretty clearly how that government interest can translate to commercial interest over time. So, yeah, I mean, we're starting with scientific exploration, geopolitical sort of strategic capability. But on the back of that, we're talking about an entirely new real estate, you know, an entirely new continent to develop and to leverage for local resources and for the, you know, the local economy. The bill that will spin up around it.
Kevin Fong: So, Chad, I can see how that there is a lot of infrastructure to be built in this rush to the moon. But what I really want to know is what resources, if any, are there on the moon that we could make a commercial prospect out of.
Chad Anderson: Well, there's a pretty straightforward answer and then a roundabout answer. One is that we don't actually know. We haven't spent enough time on the surface to know exactly what's there. There are some people who are guessing that there are some very valuable resources, you know, energy related resources there. For us, we kind of discount that back to zero. From an investment perspective, what we're really interested in is what we know about for sure and what we know can be useful. And that is water ice. So we know that there is water, ice deposits. We have sensed them with orbiting satellites. And so, why this is valuable is because the H2O can be split into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen can be used for life support in the outpost. The hydrogen can be used for rocket fuel, for surface mobility, and for getting around and for getting back. So very, very valuable resources, especially from, you know, the early infrastructure type of perspective. Now, what's very interesting is how do we get that water ice out? How can we extract that and use it? And that's what a lot of these, you know, robotic precursor missions to Artemis are going to be doing. To scope it out, get, take a closer look and see if it's, you know, practical and economically feasible to extract it and use it.
Kevin Fong: And, you know, as you're talking there, I'm sort of reminded of the 19th century gold rushes, really, that, you know, there's a rush for ground. People aren't sure what's in the ground. They think it might be a great value. But in the end, the people who make all the money are the people who sell the shovels and the boats and the railroads. Do you think the moon may become like that, the 21st century gold rush?
Chad Anderson: Yeah. I mean, I think there's certainly a lot of parallels, right? It is a new frontier. It is a long and arduous journey. It's very expensive at the moment to get there and to do anything. You mostly have to take everything with you. You know, for it to be long term and sustainable, you need to find a way to live off of the land, live off of local resources. And certainly, you know who controls that early infrastructure is set to control the direction of things and to make a lot of money, You know, in the same way that the railroads made a lot of money for a lot of families and continue to do so. You know, we see a similar sort of opportunity economically on the moon.
Kevin Fong: Chad Anderson, many thanks for joining us on Next Giant Leap.
Chad Anderson: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Kevin Fong: To bring this episode to an end. Let's hear again from NASA astronaut Raja Chari. The Artemis program is vast, but in a sense it's merely the foundation for NASA's and its partners to voyage much further all the way, perhaps to Mars.
Raja Chari: Artemis itself is in what's called the Moon to Mars program. And as the name would imply, it is the program that's to moon and then moon as a stepping stone to Mars. And so the best analogy I like to explain of NASA's job is kind of where the outside of a beach ball that you're blowing up. Right. And we want industry to fill in behind us inside that beach ball, but we want to be on the outer edge of it. So our I wouldn't say we're done. We haven't made low-Earth orbit easy, but you can start to see the expansion of commercialization of low-Earth orbit space, which is great. That's our goal. And now we're trying to we want to be the ones that take the risk, do the development to get us to the moon, learn how to operate there. I'd much rather have some system break on the moon what's at seven days away than have it break on Mars, which is, you know, maybe a year or two years to be able to fix that. And so, yeah, it is absolutely a stepping stone, whether it's to learn how to operate there, to learn how to, you know, the vehicles we need to get there, the infrastructure, because all the, you know, the SLS, the Orion, all these things are stepping stones to the vehicles, the technology, the life support systems that we need to get to Mars. So it is absolutely an incremental step on the way to get our our species to Mars.
Kevin Fong: The moon four days out, roughly four days back, 250,000 miles, Mars, 6 to 9 months out, 6 to 9 months back, hundreds of millions of miles. Would you hold your hand up for that mission? If it was on offer?
Raja Chari: I would absolutely go, Yeah, I you know, I came into this job wanting to explore and and help push humanity further. So I would absolutely be a part of that.
Kevin Fong: Raja, thank you so much for talking to me today. It's been fascinating to hear about the Artemis program.
Raja Chari: Yeah, well, appreciate you guys taking the time to do this. Thanks very much.
Kevin Fong: For now, that's it from Next Giant Leap from GZERO Media in partnership with MDA. I'm Kevin Fong and next time I'll be talking about the booming satellite revolution that's just getting started in low-Earth orbit. To hear the rest of the series, check out the GZERO World Podcast feed. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts.