A group of space veterans and big-name backers today took the wraps off the Golden Spike Company, a commercial space venture that aims to send paying passengers to the moon and back at an estimated price of $1.4 billion or more for two.
The venture would rely on private funding, and it's not clear when the first lunar flight would be launched — but the idea reportedly has clearance from NASA, which abandoned its own back-to-the-moon plan three and a half years ago.
"A key element that makes our business achievable and compelling is Golden Spike's team of nationally and internationally known experts in human and robotic spaceflight, planetary and lunar science, exploration, venture capital formation, and public outreach," Stern said in the news release.
Stern, a planetary scientist who was NASA's associate administrator for science in 2007-2008, is Golden Spike's president and CEO, while Griffin is chairman of the board. Other board members include new-space entrepreneur Esther Dyson and Taber McCallum, co-founder and CEO of Paragon Space Development Corp. The lineup of advisers tap into a who's who of space figures, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, NASA shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, former NASA engineer Homer Hickam and Bill Richardson, who has served as U.N. ambassador, energy secretary and the governor of New Mexico.
The venture also numbers United Launch Alliance, Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems and several other space-industry players on its team for the lunar lander system.
Golden Spike said market studies indicated that 15 to 20 expeditions could be undertaken in the decade after the first landing. However, no time frame was given for that landing. That's just one of the gaps in Golden Spike's plan. Among the other questions yet to be answered: How will Golden Spike fund its operations during the buildup to the first flight? Can private-sector efforts produce a workable lunar launch and landing system at a cost far less than the $100 billion that NASA said it would cost in 2005? Are Golden Spike's assumptions about the demand for lunar missions correct, even if the price point is in its estimated range of $1.4 billion and up? And what relationships would Golden Spike be able to forge with NASA and international space efforts?
Note - Newt Gingrich is an advisor. Newt was ripped in the recent presidential primaries for proposing a permantent moon base by 2020.
Golden Spike's news release said the venture would make use of existing rockets as well as commercial spacecraft that are currently under development to send expeditions to the lunar surface, with the estimated cost of a two-person lunar surface mission starting at $1.4 billion. "This price point enables human lunar expeditions at similar cost as what some national space programs are already spending on robotic science at the moon," the company said.
Wired has coverage as well
During their press conference on Dec. 6, Golden Spike said their plan requires four separate launches. They will first launch two exiting rockets to bring a spacecraft and lunar lander into orbit around the moon. A second two launches will get people to the lander, where they will descend to the lunar surface and conduct an expedition before launching back to lunar orbit and then back to Earth. Golden Spike did not name the rockets that will be used for this effort nor their prices.
Stern and his team could construct their ships in Earth orbit before jetting off to the moon but Pike estimates that a lunar orbiting and landing system would weigh between a quarter and a third of a million pounds. That means the limiting cost for Golden Spike is the price to get a pound of material to orbit, which has not yet gotten reliably lower than between $5,000 and $10,000 per pound. A single manned moon mission then has a ballpark baseline launch cost of $1.25 billion, which doesn’t include any new flight hardware testing or development.
Golden Spike estimates starting their entire operation will cost between $7 billion and $8 billion, “soup to nuts,” said Stern. “That includes developing, flight testing, and any rainy day funds.” He compared the figure to the cost of a major metropolitan airport, though airports are typically funded by governments.
The company said it can cut costs by partnering with other aerospace companies and using existing rockets or rockets already in development, needing to only build a lunar lander and a specialized spacesuit for astronauts on the moon. Among their partners are Masten Space Systems, which builds vertical take-off and landing spacecraft, for the lander and the Paragon Space Development Corporation, founded by Biosphere 2 crewmembers Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, for the suits and life-support systems.
Golden Spike knows there are many challenges ahead and that, so far, they only have a plan. Based on the early speculation and rumors, Stern said that it seemed that people expected them to have constructed and filled a 50-story skyscraper in secret. “It’s much more like we’ve created the architecture for a new 50-story building we want to build,” he said.
Golden Spike’s announcement is similar to the earlier unveiling of the private company Planetary Resources, which is backed by wealthy tech billionaires and intends to mine near-Earth asteroids for platinum metals and water. Both companies have lofty and expensive goals that could either pan out or end up crashing and burning.
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