Commercial Moon Flights Coming Soon?

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How much would you like to see humanity travel back to the moon? Or for that matter, how much would you like to stand amongst the craters of Lacus Somnorium yourself and look up to see your home planet above you, a shining blue marble in the darkness? Since Apollo 17 left the Moon in 1972, no humans have traveled further than a few hundred kilometers from Earth’s surface, but an ambitious space travel company has plans to put humans back on the moon — and they’ll take anyone who can afford the asking price.

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The Golden Spike Company, formally announced in December last year, are aiming to provide a means to do exactly that. Riding the wave of enthusiasm for private space flight, they intend to provide reliable transport to the surface of the moon. However, with the cost of the tickets currently expected to be the princely sum of $1.5 billion for a two person mission, their customers are more likely to be governments than wealthy tourists.

Named after the ceremonial “last spike” driven into the first continental railroad to be built in the US, Golden Spike’s intention is, quoting from their website, to “transform human space exploration by putting in place affordably priced lunar orbital and surface expeditions to the only natural satellite of the Earth — the moon,” in much the same way the railroad enabled people to travel across North America in the 19th century. The expected cost of a two person lunar mission for $1.5 billion, while clearly astronomical for private travelers, is an attractive price for government space programs across the world.

Simply, they will be able to launch crewed lunar expeditions for the same price normally expected of robotic spacecraft, making this the cheapest possible way to get to the moon.

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Since the end of the 20th century, Russia has already been running commercial space flights, by charging a fee to ferry astronauts from other countries into space. This enabled countries with no space travel capabilities of their own to run a space program, and also allowed a total of 7 wealthy space tourists to go into orbit. Golden Spike intend to follow much the same business structure. As well as taking passengers to the moon, they also intend on making money in a few other ways, such as transporting items and selling much sought-after samples of moon rock — those collected during the Apollo missions have a history of being stolen and sold on for high prices.

The total expected price is $7-8 billion, plus another $1.5 billion per journey. Quite astonishing, in fairness. If the Apollo program were to have been run today, each moon landing would have cost roughly $18 billion, with the full cost being well over $110 billion! With this in mind, many are understandably skeptical that Golden Spike can accomplish the same thing at such a dramatically lower cost, especially seeing as no currently available rocket has enough power to transport a vehicle to the moon.

The trick may be that Golden Spike intend to use a total of four rockets to make the journey. The first two will launch a vehicle and lander into lunar orbit, with the following two sending a crew to rendezvous with those vehicles. They will then be able to use the lander to descend to the lunar surface, before using the second vehicle to return to Earth. While no announcements have been made of which rockets they intend to use, but their website claims that they will use existing launch vehicles. Partner companies currently include Masten Space Systems, who will construct all the craft involved, and Paragon Space Development Corp. who will be providing space suits and life support systems.

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It certainly seems that Golden Spike has enough expertise behind it to make the plan into a reality. The company was founded by none other than Alan Stern, formerly NASA’s associate administrator for science. During his tenure at NASA, Stern instigated a record 10 major new flight projects and made significant changes within NASA, both in emphasizing the importance of science, and in education and public outreach. From his time in NASA, Stern is also used to accomplishing as much as possible on a tight budget. Among the other notable members of the Golden Spike team are former director of NASA Johnson, Gerry Griffin, former Space Shuttle Manager, Wayne Hale, and space entrepreneurs, Esther Dyson and Taber MacCallum.

Private space companies are becoming ever bolder in their goals, planning everything from suborbital flights around Earth, to mining asteroids, and even lunar mining. However, one thing to remember is that none of these schemes are going to be easy. None of these things have ever been attempted before by private enterprises. While companies like SpaceX celebrate their accomplishments, others will likely be watched with skeptical eyes until they start making progress.

Paying for a trip to the moon may someday be possible, but it isn’t quite a dream come true yet. The cost, at least initially, will high enough to bankrupt all but the wealthiest individuals. That said, lunar tourists may yet have another option. The company Space Adventures, responsible for the 7 space tourists who’ve traveled into orbit so far, have plans of their own. While they may not be able to land you on the surface of the moon, their proposed “Deep Space Expedition” or DSE-Alpha missions are expected to cost about $100 million and will take passengers on a journey once around the moon. This still limits such journeys to millionaires of course. The round trip is over 750,000 kilometers, and it’ll take quite a long time to accumulate that many frequent flyer miles.

Image: Neil Armstrong’s famous 1969 lunar footprint. Credit: NASA