Fly Me to the Moon

Contributed by
Dec 7, 2012, 8:00 AM EST

Wanna go to the Moon? It’ll cost you $750 million.

That’s 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, and—full disclosure—a friend of mine. Have no doubts, Alan is a go-getter. He spearheaded a nationwide rally to restore funding to NASA’s 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 he’s 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 they’re good folks. I’ll 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 would’ve destroyed NASA). Make it privately funded and with a target date of, say, 2030, and I’m 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.

Here’s a promotional video they put together:

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

“Our space expeditions will be marketed and sold to governmental agencies, companies, and individuals in the United States and around the world—for science, for commerce, for tourism, for entertainment engagement, and for education.”

I’m OK with this. In fact, I support it. I have written on this topic many times and I’ve 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) doesn’t exist yet. If it did, we’d 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 rocket—there are several options here, though they get expensive quickly).

They’ll also need a crew capsule—again, both SpaceX and NASA are working on one, as are Boeing and Bigelow—and a lander. They’ll need a lot of auxiliary equipment as well, like spacesuits and such, but there’s plenty of time to design those. It’s hard for me to guess, but given the need to design, build, and test the hardware, realistically it seems like it’ll be about a decade before the first Golden Spike flight.

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

I’m very much looking forward to when we’ll be doing it again.