Jeff Bezos, of both Amazon and Blue Origin, may ruminate about moving a lot of industry off the planet, but the United Launch Alliance, that joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has a concrete plan to do so. ULA is working on an idea to have 1,000 people operating in Earth-moon Space by 2045, less than 30 years away. The vision is based on three space vehicles that will rely on rocket fuel refined from lunar and asteroid water.

The ACES (Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage) is an upper stage for the Vulcan launch vehicle that is designed to be reusable and refueled in space. The ACES will be able to move things around Cis-Lunar space or help boost payloads into deep space after being refueled at depots located at, say, one of the Lagrange points between the Earth and the moon.

The second part of the plan is a spacecraft called the XEUS, being developed by Masten Space Systems.

The XEUS will be able to land horizontally on the moon, load up with fuel, and then take it to a depot at one of the Lagrange points to top off the ACES and whatever payload it is carrying.

The Vulcan is a previously announced launch vehicle that is designed to be reusable.

ULA has even gone so far as to estimate prices for fuel depending on where it is launched from. Fuel brought up from Earth will cost $1,360 a pound. Lunar derived fuel will cost $225 a pound. Finally, asteroid-derived fuel will cost $450 per pound. Whether these estimates will hold over the next three decades are open to question, but they do provide something for space mining companies such as Moon Express and Planetary Resources to shoot for in developing their operations.

The key to developing space as an economic zone has always been lowering launch costs.

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If ULA succeeds in jump-starting space-based mining and rocket fuel refining, launch vehicles will be able to take off with only enough fuel to get their payloads to the refueling depot. Since fuel is roughly 80 percent of the mass of any rocket launching from Earth., this capability will change the economics of space flight in profound ways, enabling more private sector operations beyond the Earth within the lifetimes of most people.