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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Fly Me to the Moon

By Phil Plait

Wanna go to the Moon? Itâll cost you $750 million.

Thatâs the price announced yesterday by the private company Golden Spike, which plans on using existing hardware as well as specifically designed spacesuits and landers to put people back on the Moon.

This is no joke. The President and CEO is Alan Stern, a planetary scientist, former associate administrator for science at NASA (the scientific top dog at the agency), astronaut in training, andâfull disclosureâa friend of mine. Have no doubts, Alan is a go-getter. He spearheaded a nationwide rally to restore funding to NASAâs Planetary Science program and started Uwingu, a private company that takes donations to help fund research (again, to be open, I am on the Board of Advisors for Uwingu, but I am unaffiliated with Golden Spike).

So heâs not some guy with big dreams and nothing to back them up. Think of him more as a sciencey Elon Musk.

The rest of the team on Golden Spike is made of heavy-hitters as well. Former Apollo flight director Gerry Griffin, angel investor and space enthusiast Esther Dyson, several experts in spaceflight engineering, and many more. I know a few of the others listed there, and theyâre good folks. Iâll note Newt Gingrich is on the Board of Advisors. I still think his plan to colonize the Moon by 2020 was nonsense and more politically driven than based on reality, but mostly due to the date he chose and the way he wanted to fund it (with tax dollars that wouldâve destroyed NASA). Make it privately funded and with a target date of, say, 2030, and Iâm listening.

And since this is a private company, not the government, they can charge for tickets. At $750 million a seat it may not be for everybody, but at least it's a round trip ticket.

Hereâs a promotional video they put together:

Their goals are clear. They want to make space travel easier and cheaper, and get rich doing it:

âOur space expeditions will be marketed and sold to governmental agencies, companies, and individuals in the United States and around the worldâfor science, for commerce, for tourism, for entertainment engagement, and for education.â

Iâm OK with this. In fact, I support it. I have written on this topic many times and Iâve been clear: We need agencies like NASA to pave the way for spaceflight, do the heavy lifting in developing the technology, engineering, and systems needed to go into space. Then once they do that, private companies can then follow, making the process simpler, faster, and cheaper. This argument has become a lot more persuasive now that SpaceX has flown to the space station twice.

Speaking of which, the hardware needed for the simplest version of this venture (a single launch to the Moon) doesnât exist yet. If it did, weâd be going now! However, NASA is working on a heavy lift rocket, and SpaceX is working on its Falcon Heavy (which may be ready for its first test flight as early as next year). This is the first step in taking people back to the Moon; it takes a lot of oomph to do this, and no existing rocket has that capability right now (though a smaller rocket could be used to lift the crew capsule to orbit, and second launch to lift the Moon transport rocketâthere are several options here, though they get expensive quickly).

Theyâll also need a crew capsuleâagain, both SpaceX and NASA are working on one, as are Boeing and Bigelowâand a lander. Theyâll need a lot of auxiliary equipment as well, like spacesuits and such, but thereâs plenty of time to design those. Itâs hard for me to guess, but given the need to design, build, and test the hardware, realistically it seems like itâll be about a decade before the first Golden Spike flight.

But the thing is, there will be a first flight. This will happen, whether itâs Golden Spike or some company yet to be created. Iâve been waiting for this a long time. Yes, itâs terribly expensive, and yes, at first it will be very difficult, and yes, only a very few will be able to do it. But thatâs been true of every new mode of transportation for a thousand years. Space travel is a whole level harder, but weâve done it before.

Iâm very much looking forward to when weâll be doing it again.

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