(Sen) - To many, the Apollo program retired at the peak of its powers. It was 40 years ago this month that human bootprints last left their mark on the lunar surface, in the valley of Taurus-Littrow.
The anniversary is prompting laments of a time long past, and questions about when humanity will return. However, private companies are stepping to the fore. The Golden Spike Company recently outlined plans for a return to the moon in seven years. Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Virgin Galactic are tackling the concept of Mars landings, although that is far further off.
The last human lunar mission was Apollo 17, in 1972. The spacecraft America splashed down safely in the Pacific December 19, with a record-setting crew on board.
Eugene Cernan and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt spent 22 hours in their spacesuits exploring the moon, more than any other crew, and hauled back the most rocks of any flight. Additionally, they and their crewmate Ron Evans broke records for the amount of time spent in lunar orbit, and time spent on a lunar mission.
Apollo's end represented the end of an age of optimism in America. The Vietnam War was raging, and there were early questions about Richard Nixon's abilities as President. It was a far cry from the days of Camelot in the White House, and John F. Kennedy's stirring speech in 1962 calling for NASA to send men to the Moon and return them safely to Earth.
Earthrise, as seen from Apollo 17's crew. The moon is becoming an attractive destination again after four decades in the wings. Credit: NASA
But four decades later, computers are faster. SpaceX is making cargo runs to the International Space Station, with other companies soon to follow. We have discovered ice on the moon, meaning it's easier to live off the land there than we thought. The environment has changed enough for industry to propose leading missions, rather than going as part of a larger government program.
One such group is the Golden Spike Company, which includes expertise ranging from NASA veterans to planetary engineers and scientists.
Earlier this month, they proposed missions with objectives such as lunar tourism or moon mining. Each flight would require two vehicles sent separately into orbit, or perhaps together in one shot if a big enough rocket could be found. SpaceX would likely perform the launches. Under the current flight profile, an unmanned lander vehicle would orbit the Moon awaiting another spacecraft, which would have a crew on board, to dock with it.
The company acknowledges that its aims right now are in science fiction, but it is working to make them fact as fast as possible. One thing they are more firm about is price, as they estimate a two-person return trip to the moon's surface would be $1.4 billion. The backers hope to start flights by 2020 - just seven years away. There is a tentative booking already from one potential astronaut, and Golden Spike hopes more will follow.
"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," said Alan Stern, president of Golden Spike and the developer of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto.
Even missions deeper in space are being contemplated, although these ideas are still in the concept stage. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, is contemplating a colony of thousands of people on Mars. First announced at the Royal Aeronautical Society meeting in London, Musk envisions 80,000 people arriving per year at a cost of $500,000 a ticket. But it would require a financial commitment from government, as well as an evolved heavy-lift rocket on the part of SpaceX.
Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures have both expressed enthusiasm in going to Mars. Space Adventures has sent several people into space aboard Soyuz spacecraft, while Virgin Galactic is aiming for its first flights in the next couple of years.
“Mars? What a fantastic destination,” said Space Adventures president Tom Shelley in a Sen interview in January.
“Interplanetary travel is a possibility for private citizens. It might even be that the first mission to Mars will be a mixture of private citizens and government astronauts, with the private citizens offsetting some of the cost. It is a long way away, but part of mankind’s future is to go to Mars.”
In the meantime, Space Adventures' focus is on bringing tourists back to the International Space Station. Flights slowed after the retirement of the shuttle filled available Soyuz seats with NASA astronauts. The company aims to bring singer Sarah Brightman into space in 2015, but the flight is reportedly not finalized yet.