I say that this is pretty significant because I think that, from what I can tell, it is doing the best to describe a natural major option for opening up space permanently. This plan is very much (though not exactly) like my plan which I have termed the Plan for Sustainable Space Development (SSD).
Here is their Plan in a nutshell. For an estimate of $88 billion, NASA begins a whole series of relatively small steps in a detailed series of equipment development and missions to the Moon. The Plan requires no single large development or very expensive single missions. As a result, it is less likely to be outrightly cancelled in lean times. Rather the Plan would be slowed during these times but would still make progress.
An extremely important concept in the Plan is to use teleoperated equipment initially to establish infrastructure. This includes the extraction, processing, and separating into fuel water ice from the northern lunar pole. Then landing sites, habitats, some life support, and return fuel would be robotically prepared prior to the return of astronauts to the Moon. It seems as though the purpose of humans there would be for equipment repair. By the 16th year of the Plan, the lunar base would be producing about 150 metric tons of cryogenic fuel. This would be stored on the Moon but with a eye towards returning it to LEO so as to open up LEO servicing and BEO activities.
I also agree (and this is a new thought for me) that this Plan has the advantage of being able to be accomplished in incremental steps. Constellation died, IMO, because it would cost so much money to accomplish the first mission that it became vulnerable to being cancelled (which it was) before it could prove its first worth. The Spudis Plan would start by launching landers and equipment using existing launchers.
I also believe that Spudis & Levoie are exactly right in saying that it is teleoperated equipment and robots first and that they can and should prepare things before humans arrive.
They are also right on the money in recognizing the central value in lunar polar water ice. Its main value is that it can be turned into rocket fuel which makes later steps less expensive. It is the classic bootstrap approach. IMO, this is the major advantage over other plans such as Constellation, Orion to an asteroid, or Mars Semi-Direct. The others don't lead to a self-sustaining system such as the market.
I also agree that astronauts should follow teleoperated robotic preparation although we may disagree on the reason for this. They seem to say that humans need to be present for repairs. Frankly, I don't believe this. We can safely conduct teleoperated surgeries. Certainly we can teleoperatically repair equipment on the Moon. Perhaps there is also this deep seated felt need for humans to be there in order to have our representatives experiencing space first-hand (i.e. the manned space program). I have no problem with this (Apollo was awesome!). But for me, the absolutely dominating reason for humans to go soon is to start developing a self-sustaining human colony off-Earth in case we destroy ourselves with our own self-replicating technology. The Spudis Plan would head us there and so this is the main reason why I support it.
I would not have thought that a Plan for Sustainable Space Development (SSD) would cost $88 billion. They don't explain all of their cost calculations but they did say that they ran their numbers past NASA Marshall who supported the numbers. My guess is that Spudis & Levoie probably used somewhat inflated cost estimates so as to protect themselves from being legitimately accused of trying to make their plan appear better by underestimating costs.
$88 billion dollars will purchase 926 Falcon 9 Heavy launches for 17 missions? OK, certainly much of the money would need to go towards the development and operation of equipment which is landed and operated on the Moon. But $88 billion? I was hoping for something in the neighborhood of $30 to $45 billion.
Along this point, I think that a major flaw is that this Plan does not apparently apply a COTS-like approach. Their Plan proceeds in relatively small steps. It seems to me that each step is small enough that individual pieces of the Plan could be put out to commercial companies to develop for a set price and, at the end of the day, allow them to own the system of delivering fuel to LEO for commercial buyers, servicing military satellites, and NASA itself. IMO, COTS/CRS has been so amazingly successful and cost-effective that it would be stupid not to apply this approach to expand commercial space to the near frontier including the lunar surface.
Another gripe I have is, I believe, that they state that a HLV will be needed to land the humans. I disagree. How much of that $88 would go to the development and operations of a HLV? Don't know if they include that. But when I look at the minimalist SpaceDev rocketchair I don't see anything that requires a HLV.
Along this line, they don't seem to attack the HLV and Orion directly. I think that this is a tactical error. They state that they are "agnostic on the need for any specific launch vehicle solution". But the HLV is going to cost at least $7 billion and Orion another what, $5 billion? The maintainence of the standing army and operations of the HLV is going to cost ??? $1-2 billion per year. So over the 16-year time frame all of that is going to cost $20-30 billion? IMO, they shouldn't be agnostic about these things. $20-30 billion competes with the Spudis Plan and I'm not sure that the Spudis Plan could continue unless the HLV and Orion aren't killed once-and-for all.
My hope is that a Plan for SSD could be done on the cheap. Using the same minimalist lander for equipment, robots, and humans, and with teleoperations first until Lunar Ice To LEO (LITL) could be achieved. At that point, the cost of operations would not be a great deal more than what it costs to launch to LEO. Since LITL has great commercial value, hopefully companies (such as SpaceX has done) would invest some of their own money since they would be given ownership to their LITL system and product. In this case, NASA may have had to put billions (perhaps tens of billions) less into developing the system. If NASA could develop this system for cheap, my hope (maybe unrealistic) is that it could be done while the administration continues to pursue a manned mission to an asteroid and Deimos.
I was also disappointed with the relatively small amount of water that would be produced each year at the end of year 16 -- 150 metric tonnes. Its not bad since it might be enough to support initial humans and ascend three per year (I'm guessing). But it seems that commercial quantities in LITL would have to come in yet later years. So, up to that point, economic sustainability would still be a long way off. The good folk of NEOfuels describes a nuclear thermal approach which could deliver 3,800 tons of water per year to LLO. That amount would revolutionize the use of space.
One more thing. Trent Waddington comments at SpacePolitics that having a human mission following the robotic precursor just makes it a political punching bag. I hate to but have to agree. Again, with teleoperations, I don't believe that humans are actually necessary. So, the way that I get around this is for NASA to COTS-like develop a LITL system for it's own needs. Then NASA puts up enough prize money, covers at-cost for cis-lunar transportation, gives expertise, pays for data/demonstrations, and donates LITL. Then it is left to private entities to land humans for the goal of establishing a colony. If someone dies, they took the risk privately. Bill Stone might be able to pull together a private consortium for this purpose.
I'd sure like to think we could put a program together for $15 billion. Even in the aerospace world where every bolt and chunk of metal has a notebook full of paper following it around, I still can't fathom spending $88 billion on this program. Of course, I can't see doing anything with the Shuttle except letting it die a natural death, either. That whole system needs to be allowed to quietly go away.
Also, I think the lunar production rates could be much higher, given the research I've seen.
http://www.higp.hawaii.edu/srr/SRR-VI-p ... g_SRR6.ppt
Using these numbers, I estimate that each "set" of equipment could produce some 800mt of fuel and water per year. In a year's time, we could have 7 full equipment sets up and running, with a production capacity of over 5000mt per year. That represents collecting some 2000mt of material per day, but it doesn't include processing that material for anything but water.
The discrepancy is because the areas of water ice we find at the north pole may not be as concentrated as what LCROSS found. If the deposits around Peary Crater are that rich, then it's all good. Also, it takes power to extract - and crack - that water, and we may not be able to carry enough solar panels to process that much.