The recent anniversary of Apollo 8’s historic Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbit gives pause to wonder when humanity will again sink its boots into our moon’s dusty surface.
To many, the answer lies not in traditional space agencies, but commercial ventures like Golden Spike, Bigelow Aerospace and Space Adventures.
The Colorado-based Golden Spike Company aims to democratize access to the moon by providing all-encompassing turnkey access to reasonably-priced lunar missions for countries with a will to get there, but not necessarily with a space-program to take them.
However, for $1.55 billion, Golden Spike plans to offer two astronauts two moonwalks, surface stay times of at least 36 hours, and enough cargo space to handle some 50 kilograms of return samples. The company also says it plans to provide a two-astronaut crew with the option of $900 million week-long orbital missions.
To learn more, Forbes.com turned to Alan Stern, planetary scientist and former associate administrator for the Office of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, and President and CEO of the Colorado-based Golden Spike Company.
Why has it been 40 years since humans have walked on the moon?
When Apollo ended and after we got the space shuttle flying, most people in the space business thought we’d be back to the moon pretty quickly. But it’s been a long series of gaffes — [whether] the wrong president; the wrong NASA administrator; the wrong part of the economic cycle; or, the wrong timing, because we’re at war. It’s always been one tumbler shy of making it work. I’m surprised myself.
What do you see as Golden Spike’s prime market?
For Golden Spike, we don’t think there’s a tourism market at the prices one can offer. The primary market we’re looking at is offering Apollo-like expeditions for other countries’ space and science agencies — at prices much like robotic flagship missions.
Where does the venture stand now?
Golden Spike started very quietly in 2010. We didn’t even announce our existence until 2012; roughly 14 months ago. We’ve been doing a lot of quiet engineering, working with savvy aerospace firms. We’ve [also] done a great deal of business planning. We’re undertaking a slow methodical development effort [which] is on target.
Where are you getting the majority of your funding?
We’re really a commercial concern. We’re not looking for a billionaire who’s in love with our idea to be a central backer like a lot of space firms. I don’t think that’s a sustainable way for space development to proceed.
Instead, we’re developing our business the way you would develop any business. You develop a product and then you go out and make sales. Since our product is human lunar expeditions, and there’s a lot of up front development that goes with that, we have not yet offered a sales contract because we’re still in the engineering and development phase.
But you’re currently not out seeking flight contracts?
We hope to start selling expeditions by 2016 with flight tests completed by 2020 or 2021.
How does your venture differ from a government-funded space program?
Golden Spike’s philosophy is quite different from NASA’s past lunar programs. Our mantra is called “maximally pragmatic.” That means we’re going to look at existing flight systems and use them wherever they work for our needs. As examples, we’re looking at Atlas and Delta rockets. We’ve found they have the means to fulfill our missions; as do Falcon rockets.
What sort of crew transport vehicles are you expecting to use?
For crew transport, the low earth orbit capsules that NASA is already planning to field by 2017 can, with modest modifications, fly lunar flights. Because capsules like Dragon or Boeing CST-100 are developments that have been underway for years, our development cycle is quicker. We don’t have to develop rockets and capsules from scratch.
We do have to build the lander. But lander technology is very well in hand. The U.S. has multiple planetary landers that we’ve put on Mars. [So], in effect, we need to put a crew cabin on top of a lander system. That only requires the application of existing technologies.
How can you improve on NASA’S Apollo program?
Most of the things that Apollo had to develop are now well within standard practice. They pioneered the technology, and because of Apollo, people are not skeptical that what we’re doing is technologically doable. Instead, the hard part today is building the business and making the sales. We’re very much pioneering a business around lunar exploration.
What’s the key to your business plan?
Our secret sauce is that we’re offering human planetary exploration for the price of robotic missions. With Golden Spike, a foreign space or science agency can use humans to do better exploration, better science, make a bigger world impact, and excite their populous for the same price that they can send a robot.
Why are you going with a two astronaut crew instead of a three astronaut configuration?
We’re offering Apollo-like lunar exploration capability to nations around the world. [That means] two people to the surface for two days; where they will do two moon walks each. As soon as you go to three people, you need much larger rockets than the ones already in the inventory, and the price increases steeply.
What’s the typical astronaut profile for Golden Spike?
Our Golden Spike vehicles will fly the flight in an automated manner, controlled from mission control, like a typical robotic space mission. In conducting missions that way, we don’t have to fly pilots; we can fly scientists, researchers, entertainers, educators, people involved in media and public outreach. In this day and age we can get a safer system by automation.
What about crew training?
We think our customers will concentrate their training on their crew’s surface expeditions. Other flight training will take place in vehicle simulators where the flight vehicles are built. For surface expeditions, we think that individual countries may want to set up their own lunar training facility and have it within their borders.
How do you expect a lunar landing expedition to actually play out?
We launch our [uncrewed] lander into lunar orbit where it waits for its crew. Then we launch the crew capsule (with crew aboard) to dock with the lander. They then leave the capsule (which is also their return vehicle) for the lander. They go to the surface, do their surface exploration, then get back in the lander and [transfer] back to the waiting capsule. They [undock with the lander]; the crew capsule’s engines light up and it flies back home to earth.
I see that your name was inspired by the Golden Spike marking completion of the U.S.’ first transcontinental railroad. Is Golden Spike a first step towards a lunar shuttle?
We’re an American railroad to the moon that’s going to give people of the world access to lunar exploration. Golden Spike will fly people from almost any country. We think that a lot of customers are going to be interested in flying multiple expeditions, really exploring the moon and setting up an infrastructure for their country’s predominance in spaceflight.
Source: Forbes Business