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New company to offer moon flights, for just $1.5 billion

This news story was published on December 7, 2012.
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By Mark K. Matthews, Orlando Sentinel –

WASHINGTON — The idea sounds so preposterous that even its backers admit it seems lifted from the pages of an Isaac Asimov novel.

But the architects of a new aerospace company say they plan to do what kids have dreamed about since the Apollo age: create a business that can blast tourists to the moon — maybe by the end of the decade.

“This sounds like science fiction. We intend to make it science fact,” said Alan Stern, a former NASA science director who is now leading the company behind the moonshot effort, dubbed Golden Spike.

Stern and a team of aerospace insiders, including former Apollo Flight Director Gerry Griffin, unveiled their vision Thursday during a media conference at the National Press Club.

The overarching idea is to use rockets and capsules already built — or under development — to blast two astronauts to the moon for the (relatively) low cost of about $1.5 billion, roughly $750 million a seat.

Stern said the company’s intent is not to attract eccentric billionaire tourists — though they would be welcome — but instead sell seats to other countries’ space agencies looking to see their astronauts’ boot prints on the lunar surface.

“It is going to energize people around the world,” said Stern, adding that he hoped regional rivalries could spur countries to fight for the prestige of reaching the moon. “It’s not about being first or second; it’s about being part of the club.”

Before that happens, though, lots of questions must be answered. Replicating the Apollo landings — even 40 years after the launch of Apollo 17 — is no small step.

For instance, Stern was not specific on which rockets or capsules were being considered. But he said the company was talking with industry players, including SpaceX of California, which is working on a so-called “heavy-lift” rocket. He added that Florida was a possibility for a launch site.

Company executives also have initiated studies with small and large aerospace companies to sketch out designs for lunar landers and spacesuits, which would have to be built, he said.

“We would like to think, and it’s achievable, to have a landing by the end of the decade,” Stern said.

But the biggest question of all may be: Where will the company get the money to do it?

Although Golden Spike’s board of directors includes at least one venture capitalist — investor Esther Dyson — the initial amount of money required is sure to be staggering. Stern compared it to the “cost of building a major airport” — about $8 billion.

Indeed, Stern admitted that financing was the “long pole in the tent” — a phrase often used by engineers when referring to a project’s thorniest problem. But he said the company would look to make advance sales to interested countries and parties and leverage that money to get financing. He said it was also exploring the sale of naming rights and merchandising possibilities.

“We’ve already had conversations with some national space agencies, and they have expressed their interest,” said Stern, who would not name the countries other than to say they were in Europe and Asia. China is the only nation actively working today to send an astronaut to the moon.

Stern said there was precedent for international interest in spaceflight, pointing to how the Russians flew astronauts from other countries to its space stations. The U.S. and Russia also have made room for foreign astronauts — and even space tourists — aboard the International Space Station.

In fact, Stern said, “one individual who could be in a position to arrange such a mission has approached us and said very seriously … that they would like to find a way to be on a lunar expeditionary crew.” He would not name that potential customer.

Howard McCurdy, a space expert at American University, said the idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Although the financial burden was “certainly a large one,” he said the international market could be ripe for either space agencies or thrill seekers looking to put their mark on history.

“I know you could get some Russians and some Saudi princes with the nerves to take on the odds,” McCurdy said.

The company itself is named after the ceremonial spike driven to celebrate the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Its motto is “Extend your reach.”

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