Sen— Weeks of rumour and speculation ended this week when a new company was unveiled that aims to operate regular commercial expeditions to take humans back the Moon.
The Golden Spike Company, which has been set up by a mixture of NASA veterans, planetary scientists and engineers, plans to develop a range of missions from lunar tourism to the mining of the Moon's resources.
It declared its objectives on Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the launch of the last manned mission to the Moon by Apollo 17 in 1972.
The company was set up by its President and CEO Alan Stern, whose projects with NASA included developing the New Horizons mission that is currently sending a robotic probe hurtling towards Pluto. He was associate administrator at NASA and is already Chief Scientist and Mission Architect for Moon Express, a contender for the Google Lunar X Prize.
The chairman of Golden Spike's board of directors, Gerry Griffin, is already expert in the business of sending humans to the Moon. He was Apollo Flight Director for four missions, including Apollo 17, and Director of NASA's Johnson Space Center Director.
Golden Spike says it will slash the cost of flying to the Moon to levels comparable to sending robotic probes, with the price of a two-person return trip to the surface by 2020 starting at $1.4 billion.
It says it already has a provisional booking from one unnamed, but clearly extremely wealthy, adventurer. It hopes the services they provide, based on current rocket designs, will also attract business from companies and nations around the world, allowing them to fly 15 to 20 expeditions in the decade following the first landing.
For each mission, the company plans first to send the lander vehicle to go into orbit around the Moon while it awaits its astronauts, and then to send a manned capsule to rendezvous with it. Each of those components would require two separate launches, likely to be by SpaceX, to put hardware into Earth orbit to start with, but these could each be accomplished by a single launch if a heavy launch rocket can be adapted with an extra stage.
Golden Spike's concept artwork for a lunar lander. Credit: Golden Spike
Describing Golden Spike as a "game changer", Dr Stern said: "The Moon has much to teach us about the origin of our Earth, the evolution of our Solar System, the workings of small planets, and perhaps even the origin of life on Earth.
"We also know the Moon’s surface contains valuable stores of resources, ranging from water that can fuel lunar bases, to platinum and other elements of economic value. Simply put: The Moon is of high interest to both the worldwide scientific community and to the commercial development of space."
He added: "The Golden Spike Company believes that interest in lunar exploration is only beginning, and that the capability we plan to provide to send people to explore the Moon will further multiply interest in the scientific and commercial returns possible from lunar exploration.
"By adopting a maximally pragmatic strategy, Golden Spike has found a suite of lunar exploration architectures that can enable our company’s first human lunar expedition for a cost of only about $7-8 billion, including all required systems development and integration, a careful multi-mission flight test series, and a healthy level of project reserves.
"This breakthrough cost—far lower than other recent estimates—will, we believe—allow us to initiate a sustainable and profitable wave of lunar exploration. What makes this lower cost possible is the direct result of our plan to use existing launch vehicles and crew capsules already in development. We only plan to develop new systems—such as an expedition lander and surface suits—where no existing system exists or is in development."
Dr Stern continued: "We have calculated the price at which Golden Spike can offer repeated expeditions like this, while also recouping our development and flight test costs, and creating a healthy profit stream. That price is in the $1.5 billion category, which is a real breakthrough.
"We realize that Golden Spike is the stuff of science fiction, and that much of what we want to accomplish is in a conceptual stage. But we intend to make it science fact."
Golden Spike's announcement video. Credit: Golden Spike
While admitting there was "a long road ahead", Gerry Griffin said: "Our vision is to create a reliable and affordable US-based commercial human lunar transportation system that enables the exploration of the Moon by humans from virtually any nation, corporation, or individual wishing to accomplish objectives on the Moon—including activities based around science, around business, around national prestige, and personal accomplishment.
"We further plan to create and monetize wide-scale participatory involvement in Golden Spike lunar expeditions, something we will have more to say about later. These are big goals worthy of a new century and an American space industry that has led the world for 50 years."
Why Golden Spike? The company is named after the ceremonial moment when the US's first transcontinental railway was completed in 1869 by the driving of a spike into the ground in Utah.