Commercial access to the moon could soon become a reality if a new venture is able to secure enough pre-sales to build out a mission infrastructure that it says will make lunar travel affordable enough for corporations and potentially several world governments.
The former director of NASA's Johnson Space Center and planetary scientist Alan Stern announced the venture, named Golden Spike in homage to the 1869 completion of the U.S. transcontinental railroad, at a press conference on Friday. Golden Spike intends to price round trips at an estimated US$1.4 billion after an initial investment of $7 billion to $8 billion to make repeat missions possible.
The company claims that its architecture is a cost breakthrough, but that claim has drawn skepticism from space sector analysts. GlobalSecurity.org's John Pike told NBC News' Alan Boyle that he was deeply skeptical about Golden Spike's business plan, and suggested its founders were taking "happy pills." A NASA spokesperson that Boyle interviewed was more optimistic about its potential for success, citing NASA's continued involvement in space R&D. However, that spokesperson was mostly championing NASA policy.
Golden Spike intends to use commercially available spacecraft (such as SpaceX's Dragon capsule) and rockets. It has spent the past two years planning a two-phase launch process that would commerce by orbiting a lunar lander around the moon followed by a separate launch that would rendezvous with it to transport the crew and returning them back to Earth. This would be accomplished at a cost that's is remarkably lower than the $100 billion NASA has estimated that it would have to spent to return astronauts to the moon in 2018.
Funding for Golden Spike's operations would come from pre-sales, which the company compared to how aircraft manufactures finance the development of new jet planes. The company estimates that at least 20 governments could afford the $1.4 billion price tag, and cites the success of Russia's program to commercialized its space assets as precedent that it will have enough demand to realize its vision.
I'm left wondering whether there is some magical thinking happening or if ‘affordable' commercial space travel will become the new norm through private enterprise. There are plenty of start-ups that fail on Earth - sans the rocket science. Here's more on the mission architecture: