In 1961, President Kennedy said mankind would go to the moon. Eight years later we did. Would you believe a company that said the same thing?
On Thursday, at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., a startup company called Golden Spike announced its intention to organize manned commercial expeditions to the moon by 2020, selling seats or cargo space to wealthy individuals, nations, and corporations.
The effort is led by former NASA officials who intend to use commercial rockets such as the Falcon Heavy Lift Vehicle, now in development by SpaceX, the aerospace company started by entrepreneur Elon Musk.
The company’s founder, former NASA science chief Alan Stern, estimated that Golden Spike would have to spend $7 to $8 billion to reach the moon, including the costs of designing its own lander and space suits. Thereafter, the company predicted it could begin offering “two-human lunar surface missions” for around $1.5 billion per mission.
A recent boom in commercial space technology is allowing entrepreneurs to dream bigger than ever. The availability of large commercial rockets for hire—the debut launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is scheduled for next year—has spurred growing interest around private exploration, including of the moon, asteroids, and Mars (see “Asteroids Could Be Mined for Fuel, Says Company”).
“Today, it’s not a problem of technology. It’s a problem of financial resources and the will to go after it,” said Jason Crusan, director for Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA headquarters. “I will be interested to know if they have a business model beyond doing a stunt.”
One company, Space Adventures, has already offered trips into space for wealthy tourists on Russian rockets. Similarly, Stern said he believed many countries would be willing to pay for the prestige of putting their own citizens on the moon and that the expeditions would be a valuable media commodity as well.
“We expect these expeditions to be the equivalent of the Olympics for foreign countries,” said Stern. “Naming rights to a sports stadium go for $100 million, and we’ve got landers, launch vehicles, and capsules. We have lot of opportunities.”
Huge, powerful rockets are needed escape Earth’s gravity and travel to the moon. The Saturn V, which launched the Apollo missions, is the largest rocket ever flown successfully. Golden Spike’s idea is that multiple smaller rockets could be used to more affordably carry separate payloads like fuel, a lander, and a crew.
Stern is the former head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, where he gained a reputation as a cost-cutter before leaving NASA in a dispute over budgets in 2008. Gerry Griffin, an 80-year-old who was the flight director for several of the original Apollo missions, is the company’s cofounder and chairman. The name Golden Spike is taken from the ceremonial railroad spike that completed the first transcontinental railroad across the U.S.
“The breakthrough thing here is we can fly manned lunar missions for the price of a robotic mission,” Stern said, adding that the company would be publishing technical feasibility studies. Indeed, Golden Spike’s plans remain mostly on paper. By going public now, the startup appears to be hoping to stir interest among investors and potential partners. Stern declined to say how much money the company had raised.
Stern is currently chief scientist for Moon Express, a company that has entered the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million commercial competition to send an unmanned rover to the moon. Zak Williams, director of marketing for Moon Express, said Stern would remain with Moon Express in addition to his work with Golden Spike.
Plans by private companies to reach the moon could be seen as a challenge to NASA. While the agency has encouraged commercial space entrepreneurs, many still think of the moon as a government franchise and even as NASA’s birthright.
“Nobody owns the moon. And according to the current legal framework, no one can lay claim to it either,” said Williams.
Stern and Griffin have been critical of NASA in the past. Writing in Space News last year, the pair criticized NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, the government’s own planned heavy-lift rocket designed to take astronauts beyond near-Earth orbit, calling the program politicized and slow moving.
It took only eight years for NASA to reach the moon in the 1960s, but that many years have already passed since George W. Bush announced plans to return Americans to the moon. Currently, NASA is spending $1.5 billion a year developing the SLS, but has said it won’t launch with a human crew until 2021. There’s still no clear date for a manned mission to the moon or Mars (see “The Deferred Dreams of Mars”).
Golden Spike’s founders think human exploration needs to move faster, and believe it is possible to use commercial rockets to do flybys of the moon or comets. “Pragmatism means exchanging more perfect solutions for more practical ones by using existing systems,” Stern and Griffin wrote last year.
In a statement, NASA said it was focused on “the new challenges of sending humans to an asteroid and eventually Mars.” The agency added that Golden Spike and other private sector efforts are evidence of the success of the Obama Administration’s space policy, which is “to create an environment where commercial space companies can build upon NASA’s past successes.”
Updated 4PM Eastern Time with details from Golden Spike’s launch event.