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Wired.com December 06, 2012

Golden Spike Company Unveils Plans to Fly Commercial Crews to the Moon

By Adam Mann

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. As yet, the company is not disclosing its investors or how much money it has backing the venture but among its directors and advisers are venture capitalist Esther Dyson and millionaire former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

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 nations’ astronauts to the Salyut and Mir space stations for scientific experiments. Many governments, including Finland, Japan, the Czech Republic and Malaysia took Russia up on its offer.

“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.”

Besides scientific expeditions, the company hopes to stimulate an increased manned presence in space. Golden Spike’s name is a reference to the final spike laid down in the transcontinental railroad in 1869, opening up the western U.S. The company hopes to similarly bring the lunar frontier into the sphere of human civilization.

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 the reality is that rocket science is hard and there are many reasons not to break out the champagne and declare that humans are going back to the moon. The company may not be starting from scratch with rocket design but they also don’t have any magic way to break the laws of physics and economics.

“I would say that Stern doesn’t have enough zeros in his budget,” said space policy expert John Pike, who directs GlobalSecurity.org and worked for 20 years with the Federation of American Scientists.

The 1960s Apollo program, including development and testing, came to around $110 billion dollars in today’s money or roughly $18 billion per landing on the moon. Trouble is, rocket technology matured quickly in the ’50s and ’60s and “has seen essentially no improvement since the days of Kennedy,” said Pike. It seems a bit unbelievable that a private company can recreate Apollo at an order of magnitude lower cost.

While there are now rockets that can bring a payload to low-Earth orbit, only the enormous Saturn V could launch a vehicle to space large enough to take people to the moon and back. No rocket available today, public or private, has that kind of power.

Stern and his team could construct their ships in Earth orbit before jetting off to the moon but Pike estimates that a lunar orbiting and landing system would weigh between a quarter and a third of a million pounds. That means the limiting cost for Golden Spike is the price to get a pound of material to orbit, which has not yet gotten reliably lower than between $5,000 and $10,000 per pound. A single manned moon mission then has a ballpark baseline launch cost of $1.25 billion, which doesn’t include any new flight hardware testing or development.

During their press conference on Dec. 6, Golden Spike said their plan requires four separate launches. They will first launch two exiting rockets to bring a spacecraft and lunar lander into orbit around the moon. A second two launches will get people to the lander, where they will descend to the lunar surface and conduct an expedition before launching back to lunar orbit and then back to Earth. Golden Spike did not name the rockets that will be used for this effort nor their prices.

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. Richard Branson, the CEO, once wanted to have tourist flights to the edge of space in 2007, which was later pushed to 2010, then 2012. He recently said that he doesn’t know when flights will begin and has stopped counting.

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.

Golden Spike’s announcement is similar to the earlier unveiling of the private company Planetary Resources, which is backed by wealthy tech billionaires and intends to mine near-Earth asteroids for platinum metals and water. Both companies have lofty and expensive goals that could either pan out or end up crashing and burning.

Until Golden Spike begins producing real results, there will be many in the spaceflight community skeptical of its plans. Stern said they still need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Companies involved with the Google Lunar X Prize, which are competing to land a robotic probe on the moon, have had trouble raising even tens of millions of dollars. Pike related a well-known story about the economist Milton Friedman who, while walking with a friend, spotted a $10 bill on the ground. Friedman’s friend asked him if he was going to pick it up. No, replied the venerable economist, because if it were real somebody else would have already grabbed it.

“If you could really shoot people off to the moon for those kinds of dollars, someone would have done it,” said Pike.

Post updated with information from Golden Spike’s press conference on Dec. 6.

© Copyright 2012, Condé Nast