A team of former NASA executives unveiled an ambitious new venture on Thursday that will start selling trips to the moon for a staggering $1.4 billion. I use the word "staggering" not because the price tag is so high -- albeit $1.4 billion is a ton of money -- but because it's so low. That's not a per-passenger figure, either. That price apparently covers all of the equipment, training, preparations, fuel, cargo and customer service needed to send two passengers the 238,900 miles from Earth to the lunar landing spot and back. Checked luggage is included, but there are very strict weight requirements. Still, if you have the cash: most epic honeymoon ever. Just be prepared to hold your breath, and spend a good deal more than $750 million apiece.
The new company, called The Golden Spike Company--named after the last spike hammered into the ground that completed the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 and opened up the Western frontier--is focused on a similar goal. "We could not be able to do this without the many breakthroughs NASA made in inventing Apollo, the Shuttle, the International Space Station, and its recent efforts to foster commercial spaceflight," Gerry Griffin, chariman of Golden Spike's board, said in press release."Building on those achievements, The Golden Spike Company is ready to enable a global wave of explorers to the lunar frontier." Presumably they're also ready to make a a whole lot of money.
Before diving too deep into the economics of it all, though, let's talk about how it's supposed to work. For the passengers, the deal is relatively simple: Buy the $1.4 billion ticket and enjoy the ride. There's no need to learn how to fly a rocket ship, since the entire trip will be automated; the company compares the journey to a train ride. (We see what they're doing with the metaphor there, but presumably, the experience of flying to the moon is a little bit different than taking the Downeaster to Boston.)
Just like chartering a scuba diving trip in the Bahamas, all of the equipment that you'll need to survive said flight through space, like moonsuits and rovers, will be used and probably smell a little bit. The rockets themselves will be on loan from national space agencies and possibly the competing commercial space flight company SpaceX. Golden Spike expects to make its first trip to moon by the end of the decade.
Experts, not surprisingly, have their doubts about the feasibility of this business plan. Golden Spike doesn't have much seed funding as they plan to sell enough tickets to cover their costs and return a tidy profit. As Wired points out, the cost of sending cargo and people into orbit has never gotten below $5,000 to $10,000 per pound to cover the fuel and equipment costs, which would put the price of sending a rocket with a moon rover and two pseudo-astronauts up into the heavens at around $1.25 billion, not including the start up and testing costs. They'll also need some gas money to travel the extra 200,000 miles or so to the moon.
That said, those figures might be misleading, since we don't really know how much it would cost to make it all the way to the moon. It's been exactly 40 years, as of today, since Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon, blasted off from Cape Canaveral. (Yes, the timing of Golden Spike's announcment was no accident.) The entire moon program cost the government about $110 billion, which amounts to about $18 billion per moon landing. This was NASA, too, not some scrappy startup. That fact can be interpreted two ways. One would give credit to the stunning amount of manpower needed to plan, develop and launch a mission to the moon. The other would be to chalk up the high price tag to to NASA's bloated bureaucracy, of which Golden Spike's ex-NASA founders are well aware.
NASA, for its part, is taking the "go for it" attitude. “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,” NASA spokesman David Weaver said in a written statement.
Another way to consider the economics of Golden Spike's moon missions is to get speculative about the whole thing. What if, for instance, somebody invents a super cheap and ultra powerful rocket sometime in the next ten years? As it stands, NASA's iconic Saturn V -- the one that Tom Hanks rode in Apollo 13 -- is the only rocket powerful enough to make it all the way to the moon. A number of newer, bigger, better rockets are in the works. SpaceX, for instance, is getting close to the first launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket that's designed to go as far as Mars. NASA has its own Mars-ready rocket, the SLS, in the later stages of development, though it won't start testing with astronauts on board until 2021.
Since these rockets aren't actually built yet, it's hard to say how much they'll cost to run, though. A sobering benchmark would be President Bush's now-scrapped Constellation program, which hoped to return American astronauts to the moon by 2020, the same year that Golden Spike hopes to fly its first mission. The budget for Constellation was around $100 billion, and it cost $2 billion--almost twice the price of a Golden Spike ticket--just to shut it down.
Maybe Golden Spike will find a way to get it done. Space policy expert John Pike doubts it. "If you could really shoot people off to the moon for those kinds of dollars," he says, "someone would have done it."
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