In May, SpaceX rocketed up to the space station and showed that commercial cargo was possible. In the next several years, people could start riding those rockets, and commercial crew will come into being.
Next up, says Gerry Griffin, is what you might call ‘commercial Moon’. Griffin’s startup company, called Golden Spike, after the spike used to complete the first US transcontinental railroad, was unveiled on Thursday in Washington DC. The company plans to sell regular trips to the surface of the Moon for two people for about $1.4 billion — a price that Griffin thinks is within reach for many countries and corporations. “The time is ripe for commercial human lunar exploration,” says Griffin, former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The company’s CEO, planetary scientist Alan Stern, quashed rumours that had been circulating on the Internet about the company. “We don’t have any billion dollar backers,” says Stern, of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Instead, the company’s business plan is founded on lining up buyers who are willing to commit to a mission. “We need to sell a bunch.”
More like an airline company rather than an aircraft manufacturer, Golden Spike has not committed to specific vendors who will build the various components for the mission, though Stern acknowledged that one mission formulation could rely on SpaceX rockets. The only piece that needs to be designed from scratch is the lunar lander.
It is entirely possible that those manufacturers could compete with Golden Spike. But one of those people, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has so far been more interested in going to Mars with a space capsule called Red Dragon. “He has no interest in ‘Grey Dragon’,” says Steve Mackwell, an adviser to Golden Spike and director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.
Another issue is whether there is a big enough market. Stern says as many as 20 nations could afford the price tag, and would do it for reasons of prestige or science. Eventually, tourism might play a part. While the first mission would cost about $8 billion, the cost to Golden Spike would quickly come down upon subsequent missions. The company also plans to make money off of media rights, naming rights, and merchandising.
Mackwell says Golden Spike needs to ensure that the missions are worthwhile scientifically, otherwise the prestige in having Golden Spike do all the work is not so high. “If all you get is a taxi ride, the number of buyers will be very limited.” But Stern points out there were plenty of nations who lined up like a “stack of pancakes” to pay the Soviet Union for rides to the Salyut and Mir space stations in the 1980s and 1990s.
Golden Spike is one in a flurry of commercial space efforts underway that have been enabled in part by the cheaper access to space that companies like SpaceX could provide. In April, a company called Planetary Resources announced plans to mine asteroids. And in June, a private foundation called B612 announced plans to launch a space telescope to spot hazardous asteroids.