As warned on Reason 24/7 earlier this week, a big new announcement in privately operated space travel was imminent, and now it's here.
Wired has the detailed skinny on this new Golden Spike operation, less about private citizen space tourism or business, more about helping governments outsource their space programs:
A private enterprise named the Golden Spike Company announced today that they have plans to fly manned crews to the moon and back for a price of $1.5 billion per flight by 2020.
Golden Spike, whose board includes former NASA engineers and spaceflight experts, has been working under the radar for the last two and a half years to develop their mission architecture, and unveiled their company after several weeks of internet rumors. Their intended clients are not private individuals for a space tourism scheme, but rather governments….
Golden Spike will follow a model like that of the Russian spaceflight industry in the 1980s and '90s, when they charged money to take other nation's astronauts to the Salyut and Mir space stations for scientific experiments…
"We can give countries an expedition to surface of the moon for two people," planetary scientist and aerospace engineer Alan Stern, co-founder of Golden Spike and former head of NASA's science mission directorate, told Wired. He added that the company is already in talks with several countries "both east and west of the U.S.," hinting that China may be a possible customer. "Country after country, everyone will want to join the lunar club."
Get to the moon for the price of a terrestrial airport!
Golden Spike estimates starting their entire operation will cost between $7 billion and $8 billion, "soup to nuts," said Stern. "That includes developing, flight testing, and any rainy day funds." He compared the figure to the cost of a major metropolitan airport, though airports are typically funded by governments.
The company said it can cut costs by partnering with other aerospace companies and using existing rockets or rockets already in development, needing to only build a lunar lander and a specialized spacesuit for astronauts on the moon. Among their partners are Masten Space Systems, which builds vertical take-off and landing spacecraft, for the lander and the Paragon Space Development Corporation, founded by Biosphere 2 crewmembers Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, for the suits and life support systems.
But will it work, or be cost-effective?
The private sector has definitely changed and challenged many existing models for rockets and spaceflight. But they have so far had a mixed record. Companies like SpaceX can be commended for accomplishing something that until now only governments have been able to do – orbiting a spacecraft around the Earth and docking it with the International Space Station. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, which is expected to begin testing next year, may further drive down the price of reaching space, but it remains to be seen exactly when and how cheaply they will deliver their product. Other commercial space businesses, like Virgin Galactic, have seen constant delays and broken promises with their flight hardware….
Golden Spike knows there are many challenges ahead and that, so far, they only have a plan. Based on the early speculation and rumors, Stern said that it seemed that people expected them to have constructed and filled a 50-story skyscraper in secret. "It's much more like we've created the architecture for a new 50-story building we want to build," he said.
The private science fiction visionary in me is hoping for the day when more than governments are willing to pony up for trips to the Moon, even if they are paying a private company to do it. Still, every attempt to prove there could be private profit in space is a potentially positive step toward our human future off-planet and to be encouraged.