Texas Firm Draws up Plans for Orbital Gas Station
Future home for lunar dwellers? Radar image captures Shackleton crater. Setting up a lunar outpost at the south pole rim of Shackleton is getting high-marks by some NASA planners. This area of near-permanent sunlight on the rim provides access to power and proximity to a cold trap that may contain water ice. The site is on the floor of the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin, the oldest and biggest impact feature on the Moon.
Credit: Bruce Campbell/Center for Earth and Planetary Studies.

A Texas-based firm has drawn up plans for a manned expedition to the Moon to seek out the raw ingredients for what amounts to an orbital gas station for future spacecraft.

Under the plan, from Bill Stone of Austin's Stone Aerospace, Inc, a vanguard team of industrialists would explore the Shackleton Crater at the Moon's south pole to determine how much, if any, frozen water and other materials sits locked beneath the lunar regolith [image].

If enough resources are found, they could then be processed into spacecraft fuels and hauled into low-Earth orbit (LEO) for propellant-thirsty spacecraft at one-tenth the cost of launching them from Earth, according to the plan.

"Once initial funding is received to initiate the detailed planning effort, we expect to be open for business in LEO in the 2015 timeframe," Stone said in a statement, adding that the ambitious plan would likely cost about $15 billion and require significant international partnerships. "Only by operating commercially will this enterprise be successful."

To that end, Stone has formed Shackleton Energy Company (SEC). He discussed his plan in a March 10 presentation at the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conference in Monterey, California.

"This is water exploration first," SEC president Dale Tietz told SPACE.com Wednesday. "And if it's there, then our whole business plan is based upon, by 2015, having a very aggressive program to then process that with our own crews...bring it to low-Earth orbit and then open for business."

Among potential customers for SEC is NASA, which plans to launch astronauts aboard its new spacecraft - the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle - no later than 2015, with lunar missions slated for 2020. The Virginia-based firm Space Adventures, too, has announced plans in the past for space tourist flights around the Moon aboard a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA's plans for crewed flights to the Moon, coupled with other programs in development by China, Russia, India and a host of space tourism firms, led the Shackleton Crater Expedition's announcement, Tietz said.

"If we have fuel up there at a reasonable price, they will come," he added.

A likely lunar base camp

Etched into the south pole of the Moon, Shackleton Crater is 12-miles (19 kilometers) wide with a floor perpetually cast in shadow, though regions of its rim are nearly constantly bathed in sunlight.

Scientists have long thought the crater, and others like it [image] that serve as cold traps, are the most likely hunting ground for buried water ice on the Moon based on data from NASA's Lunar Prospector mission and the U.S. Pentagon's Clementine Moon orbiter [image]. If present, such resources could be separated into liquid oxygen and hydrogen that serve as modern rocket fuel. Shackleton Crater, in particular, has been an attractive focus for possible future Moon bases among experts in and outside of NASA.

Stone's plan calls for a privately-funded industrial team would to set up base camp in inflatable structures on Shackleton's sunlight rim, burying the habitats beneath the lunar regolith for heat insulation and radiation protection.

The scenario is based, in part, on a 2003 proposal entitled "The Shackleton Crater Expedition: A Lunar Commerce Mission in the Spirit of Lewis and Clark" and rejected by the Bush Administration, Stone Aerospace officials said. In addition to water, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, an SEC refueling station could also possibly offer gaseous hydrogen and oxygen, nitrogen and methane, they added.

NASA chief Michael Griffin said in 2005 that a private spacecraft refueling depot in low-Earth orbit, among other commercial spaceflight services, could aid the U.S. space agency's future goals of returning astronauts to the Moon. The U.S. space agency is actively pursuing activities with several private firms, among them California's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Oklahoma's Rocketplane Kistler, to support future crew and cargo services to and from the International Space Station.

"We have a long way to go," Tietz said. "But we have a plan and we think we can execute it if we have the right kind of relationships and funding."

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