It's been exactly 40 years since NASA's last manned lunar mission, Apollo 17, launched from the Kennedy Space Center. This week, the National Research Council released a report that said that the space agency was losing its edge and needed to hone its goals. (See related items at left for Los Angeles Times coverage.) But a team of former NASA officials and other backers hope to bring back some of the old Space Age glory with a new commercial space venture, Golden Spike.
At an announcement in Washington on Thursday, former Apollo flight director Gerry Griffin and former NASA science chief Alan Stern, the chairman of the board and chief executive of the new company, outlined their ambitious plans. Using existing rockets and "emerging commercial-crew spacecraft" -- a la SpaceX -- the outfit hopes to operate two-person lunar missions starting at a cost of $1.4 billion by the end of the decade. in a press release (PDF format), Golden Spike said that the company was already working with aerospace companies to begin designing a lunar lander, lunar space suits and surface experiment packages that might be put to use by future moon walkers. The company will also sponsor a 2013 conference on potential lunar science opportunities its missions might pursue.
"Mount A Lunar Expedition With Us," Golden Spike's website pitched. "It's the 21st Century."
On the Web, reaction to the announcement ran the gamut.
Los Angeles Times consumer columnist David Lazarus expressed intense doubts that any average person would pony up for a ticket. "Me, I'm kind of figuring that private-sector moon travel is still a bit of a pipe dream," he wrote.
I’m OK with this. In fact, I support it. I have written on this topic many times and I’ve been clear: We need agencies like NASA to pave the way for spaceflight, do the heavy lifting in developing the technology, engineering, and systems needed to go into space. Then once they do that, private companies can then follow, making the process simpler, faster, and cheaper. This argument has become a lot more persuasive now that SpaceX has flown to the space station twice.NASA spokesman David Weaver also praised the project, commenting in a written statement that "this type of private sector effort is further evidence of the timeliness and wisdom of the Obama Administration’s overall space policy — to create an environment where commercial space companies can build upon NASA’s past successes, allowing the agency to focus on the new challenges of sending humans to an asteroid and eventually Mars."
But some science and aerospace commenters expressed concerns about the plan's likelihood of success. In this report from the Associated Press, Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell said that Golden Spike's moon-launch service was "unlikely to be the one that will pan out." He said that the $1-billion-plus pricetag would likely be too expensive even for nations that might want to send astronauts to the moon through private services. In the same report, Scott Pace, space policy director at George Washington University, said he doubted the plans would prove financially feasible.
Golden Spike will need around $8 billion to get ready for its first launch, the AP also reported.
For more, check out Scientific Americans's coverage of the announcement. Space.com offers this infographic showing how the lunar travel program might work.