Reopening the final frontier: Private space companies shoot for the Moon 40 years after last Apollo mission

Last month saw the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission. December 7, 1972, was the last time a crewed lunar mission was launched. Since Eugene Cernan climbed back into the Challenger lunar module 40 years ago, no human being has set foot on the Moon. However, a new company co-founded by former NASA officials Alan Stern and Gerry Griffin and staffed with a number of prominent space experts has ambitious plans to change that.

The company, named “Golden Spike” after the last spike driven into the U.S.’s First Transcontinental Railroad, plans to offer “affordable, reliable, and frequent human expeditions to the Moon.” While they only revealed themselves to the public last month, they have been developing their business model since 2010. Golden Spike aims to provide services to nations, corporations, and even individuals at comparatively low costs.

In recent years private aerospace endeavours have advanced by leaps and bounds. The American company SpaceX succeeded in launching a spacecraft into orbit and docking with the International Space Station (ISS) in May of 2012. In October they carried out their first resupply mission to the ISS, and another is scheduled for March of this year.

SpaceX is one of three companies (the others being Boeing and the Sierra Nevada Corporation) competing for a NASA contract to develop a new crewed spacecraft. While these are not going to be ready until at least 2015, other companies, such as XCOR Aerospace, are aiming to begin operations much sooner with suborbital space planes.

Golden Spike’s plan isn’t unprecedented. Russia sells seats on its Soyuz capsules to nations that otherwise lack the ability to send an astronaut to the ISS—like Malaysia, South Korea, and the United States—and to wealthy individuals like singing actress Sarah Brightman.

Golden Spike’s business model is similar. Their customers would have a variety of reasons for buying a ticket to the moon – national prestige, science, mining, and even individual bragging rights. Their research suggests that there is a possibility of 15-20 expeditions in the decade after their initial landing, which is planned for 2019 or 2020.

The cost for a Golden Spike expedition (which would cover two crew members) would be US $1.4 billion the first time, and US $1.6 billion for each expedition thereafter. By comparison, the Apollo program cost about US $18 billion per Moon landing.

Golden Spike intends to reduce costs so drastically by using as much pre-existing technology as possible. Only a few things, such as the landing module and the space suits, will need to be designed from the ground up.

Are their goals realistic? John Pike, a prominent American space policy expert, doesn’t think so.

“I would say that Stern doesn’t have enough zeros in his budget,” Pike said to Wired.

Rocket technology has not advanced much since the 1960s, Pike says, and it is incredible that a Moon landing could be pulled off at a cost an order of magnitude lower than the Apollo missions. Raising the money to get started is also a problem. One source estimates that they will need hundreds of millions of dollars, and the companies seeking to land robotic probes on the Moon for Google’s Lunar X PRIZE have had trouble raising even a fraction of that.

Regardless of whether or not Golden Spike can manage to do it, they are going to try. Recently they announced that they are contracting Northrop Grumman, the aerospace firm that built the lunar lander for the Apollo program, to design a new lunar lander for use on Golden Spike expeditions. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy, a new launch vehicle which is supposed to undergo testing this year, could potentially bring down the cost of a lunar mission.

It’s an unlikely, ambitious plan, but if it works out, there could be people on the Moon again in less than a decade.


Graphic: Justin Ladia

4 Comments on "Reopening the final frontier: Private space companies shoot for the Moon 40 years after last Apollo mission"

  1. Pretty amazing but I can’t help but think that those with little food in our country and around the world won’t likely see this as a step forward for mankind – I don’t think I do either. It is too much money … for what?

    It will be great to follow and watch but not if you’re hungry all the time.

    • I’ve never understood this sort of point of view. First of all, it is a private company, so they are free to spend on what they want to. Second of all, how does being unambitious as a species get anyone fed? That’s the thing I really don’t understand – that if we somehow pare down our ambitions as a species, people on Earth will mysteriously and magically be fed.

      Quite the contrary, the Apollo program blessed us with all kinds of productivity improvements from modern computing to fuel cell technology, certainly a key to a lower environmental footprint.

  2. Bill hubeny | January 15, 2013 at 9:59 am |

    Give me a break. Anytime a space article needs a negative comment just call in John Pike. Ruined the whole thing for me.

  3. Uncle Steve | January 15, 2013 at 4:18 pm |

    Please… “Give a man a fish, and he will eat today; teach him to fish, and he will eat for life”

    in modern terms, “spend money on welfare and they will eat for this month; spend it on space, and the manufacturers will pay their workers who will spend their money and cause the economy to grow and create more money for those willing to work, who will eat for life”

    A lot of hungry people in this country don’t have to be.

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