The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Golden Spike lander illustration
Golden Spike proposes to land humans on the surface of the Moon commercially as soon as 2020, for a price tag that has raised eyebrows—and some skepticism. (credit: Golden Spike)

Turning science fiction to science fact: Golden Spike makes plans for human lunar missions

Bookmark and Share

The last 12 months has seen the unveiling of a number of commercial space ventures whose audacious plans can’t be immediately dismissed given the technical and financial pedigree of their founders and backers. Almost exactly a year ago, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced the formation of Stratolaunch Systems, an air-launch system that requires the development of the world’s largest airplane. Allen assembled a team that included Scaled Composites and, originally, SpaceX (since replaced by Orbital Sciences), with a board that included Burt Rutan and former NASA administrator Mike Griffin (see “Stratolaunch: SpaceShipThree or Space Goose?”, The Space Review, December 19, 2011). In April, Planetary Resources announced plans for a series of robotic missions to prospect and, eventually, mine asteroids. That company has an impressive list of investors, including Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt as well as Ross Perot Jr. and former Microsoft executive and two-time space tourist Charles Simonyi (see “Planetary Resources believes asteroid mining has come of age”, The Space Review, April 30, 2012).

However, the plans of Golden Spike, the company that formally announced last week its desire to carry out such missions starting as soon as 2020, can’t be easily dismissed.

Yet, the goals of these startups—a giant air-launch system and missions to prospect and mine asteroids—pale in comparison to the goal of another new space startup: sending people to the surface of the Moon. That feat has been accomplished only six times, and by one nation, the United States, with the last such mission, Apollo 17, flying 40 years ago this month. At the time, it was a potent symbol of America’s capabilities, and one of the signature achievements of the 20th century. The scale of that accomplishment, in many respects, grows as the decades stretch on without anyone else repeating it.

Given those factors, the idea that a human landing on the Moon could be done commercially, and for a fraction of the cost of Apollo or any more recent proposal, hardly seems credible. However, like those other firms, the plans of Golden Spike, the company that formally announced last week its desire to carry out such missions starting as soon as 2020, can’t be easily dismissed. The company has assembled an impressive team, including an Apollo veteran and others with experience in technology, science, policy, and finance. But can this lunar A-team overcome what are likely to be giant technical and financial obstacles?

Golden Spike’s “head start” architecture

Perhaps the biggest reason why a commercial human mission to the lunar surface seems so outlandish is the belief that such missions are so expensive that only governments can afford them. Apollo, of course, required massive government spending, with a total cost well in excess of $100 billion in current dollars. More recently, NASA estimated in 2009 the total cost of the now-canceled Constellation program through the planned first crewed landing on the Moon in 2020 at $97 billion.

The high cost of those programs was due in large part to the development of new launch vehicles and spacecraft: Constellation, for example, required NASA to develop two new rockets, the Ares 1 and 5, as well as the Orion spacecraft and Altair lander.

But is there another way? “By adopting what we call a maximally pragmatic strategy, we found a way, a suite of lunar exploration architectures, that can enable our company to do its first lunar mission for a cost of between seven and eight billion dollars,” said Alan Stern, president and CEO of Golden Spike, at a press conference in Washington on December 6 announcing the company’s plans. “This is a breakthrough cost.”

This approach, he said, makes use of existing launch vehicles and spacecraft where possible to lower development costs. “Take a look at what you’ve already got in terms of existing assets, use existing launch vehicles, adapt crew capsules that are already in development,” said Stern. “Only develop new systems, like an expedition lander and surface suits, where no system exists today.”

“Such an architecture, which we call a ‘head start’ architecture, might not be as elegant approach, or as capable, as starting from a clean sheet of paper,” he said. “But it offers enormous and convincing cost, schedule, and reliability advantages.”

“For a [per-mission] price in that is in the $1.5-billion category, we can recoup all of our development costs, and fly the expeditions, run our business, and make a healthy profit,” Stern said.

The baseline architecture the company is looking at, Stern explained, requires two sets of two launches each, using existing vehicles like the Atlas V and Falcon 9. The first two launches place a lunar lander in low lunar orbit, while the second pair of launches send a spacecraft—a crewed version of the SpaceX’s Dragon—carrying two people to lunar orbit, where they dock with the lander and descend to the surface. At the end of the mission, the crew flies the lander back to the orbiting spacecraft for return to Earth.

This approach, Stern said, uses a combination of two techniques originally studied in the Apollo program: Earth orbit rendezvous (EOR) and lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR). The first pair of launches carries the lander and a lunar transfer vehicle, based on the Centaur upper stage, into Earth orbit; they dock in Earth orbit and then transfer to the Moon. The second pair of launches carries the crewed spacecraft and another lunar transfer vehicle into Earth orbit, again docking in Earth orbit and going to the Moon.

A paper on this mission architecture, recently accepted for publication in the AIAA’s Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, also examined an alternative approach, using two launches of the Falcon Heavy rocket under development. One launch would carry the lander and lunar transfer stage (again based on the Centaur), and the other would carry a crewed Dragon spacecraft and transfer stage. The Dragon and lunar lander would dock in lunar orbit, as in the four-launch baseline architecture. The paper estimated the cost of that architecture, through the first mission, of $6.4 billion. (Stern said the company’s cost estimates include “healthy” reserves; the paper’s itemized cost estimate for the Falcon Heavy architecture includes 30% reserves.)

“This is the secret. We are not reinventing wheels. We are starting from what we already developed in technologies and systems,” Stern said.

Science and sex appeal

This “head start” architecture, Stern said, not only significantly lowers development costs, it also allows for relatively low per-mission costs. “For a price in that is in the $1.5-billion category, we can recoup all of our development costs, and fly the expeditions, run our business, and make a healthy profit,” Stern said.

At that price point, Stern said Golden Spike expects significant demand from national space agencies, who he believes would see such a mission as a bargain. “We’ve found a way to send humans to the Moon for the price of a mid-sized scientific flagship [mission],” he said, citing his experience as NASA’s associate administrator for science in 2007 and 2008.

Stern cited an internal market study that identified 15 to 20 “or more” national space agencies that could afford a mission at the company’s current price point. “We’ve already had conversations with some national space agencies, and they’ve expressed their interest,” he said, without mentioning any specific agencies.

These agencies, he said later, would be attracted by the combination of scientific return a human lunar mission could provide and the publicity and prestige it would generate. “We think that the scientific potential is huge,” he said. “When you combine that with the ‘sex appeal’ of flying your own astronauts and enthusing your population about the big leagues you’re in, and the power that that can have for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education, we think it’s going to be a very potent combination.”

While national space agencies—sometimes called “sovereign clients”—are Golden Spike’s initial, and perhaps largest, customer base, Stern said they’re looking at other potential customers, including tourists and even companies interested in lunar activities, perhaps to make use of its resources. “One individual who could be in a position to arrange such a mission has approached us, very seriously,” Stern said, declining to identify the person.

Gerry Griffin, former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and current chairman of Golden Spike’s board of directors, fields a question at a press conference in Washington on Thursday. Golden Spike president and CEO Alan Stern is at right. (credit: Golden Spike)

Seeking financial reality

Despite the relatively low cost for Golden Spike’s plan—at least when compared to past proposals for human lunar missions—and the promise of government and other customers, there’s still perhaps the biggest challenge of all: raising the $7–8 billion the company estimates is needed to develop the system and fly that first mission, and then flying enough missions after that to pay off the development costs. That seemed to raise the most skepticism among those at the Thursday press conference: in the words of one veteran reporter, in a question to Stern, “There doesn’t seem to be any financial reality here.”

Stern indicated that Golden Spike would attempt to finance the development of its lunar system in much the same way companies like Airbus and Boeing finance a new airliner. “They invest some of their own resources, and get the design and the capabilities, then they start making advance sales. When they make enough advance sales to convince the banker to loan them the balance, they start the project,” he explained. “That’s the model that we’re following.”

Stern also suggested that other sources of revenue, such as media rights, naming rights for the spacecraft, and merchandising would play a part in the company’s overall business model. “This can be a moneymaking business if we sell the right number of expeditions,” he said. That “right number,” he added, was more than three or four missions, but was consistent with their market studies on the size of the market and not a “ridiculous number.”

“It’s apples and oranges,” Griffin said of any comparison between Golden Spike and GLXP efforts. “You can’t compare this to Google Lunar X PRIZE. It’s just not the same, it’s not the same animal.”

Even with advance sales and the company’s “enterprise financing plan,” Stern said the company will still need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from investors. In the weeks leading up to the formal announcement, there were rumors that Golden Spike had the support of billionaire investors ranging from Sir Richard Branson to Warren Buffett. Stern and Gerry Griffin, the former NASA Johnson Space Center director and Apollo flight director who is chairman of the company’s board of directors, declined to go into specifics about the company’s investors and the amount of money they’ve invested, but shot down the rumors that the company had billionaire backers.

“There’s been some pretty wild speculations about Golden Spike,” Griffin said, including about both investors and potential customers. “Let me just say that we’re in an earlier stage of this company than some people may think. On the other hand, if any of you know Warren [Buffett], I’d be grateful if you’d point him my way.”

Raising that outside investment, and lining up customers, will not be an easy task, given the difficulties faced by other commercial lunar ventures. The two dozen teams competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP)—the number dropped by one last month when Odyssey Moon, the first team to enter the competition, announced it was merging with another team, SpaceIL, under the latter’s name—have struggled to raise far smaller amounts of money to develop robotic lunar landers (see “The Google Lunar X PRIZE at five: can it still be won?”, The Space Review, October 1, 2012).

Space Adventures, meanwhile, has been marketing for several years a circumlunar mission, where two paying customers, along with a professional cosmonaut, would fly a Soyuz spacecraft around the Moon. The company originally offered the seats at $100 million each, later increasing the price to $150 million each. In a February 2012 video, Space Adventures chairman Eric Anderson said that the company had sold one of the seats and “the second seat is very close to being sold.” A Space Adventures spokesperson said Friday that that remained the current status of the mission.

Griffin and Stern argued that what Golden Spike was proposing was so exciting and compelling that the challenges GLXP teams are facing raising far smaller amounts of money, or Space Adventures has signing up customers for one-fifth the price, simply didn’t apply to them. “It’s apples and oranges,” Griffin said of any comparison between Golden Spike and GLXP efforts. “You can’t compare this to Google Lunar X PRIZE. It’s just not the same, it’s not the same animal.”

“We have a completely different product, human lunar expeditions, that we think are going to attract a lot more interest,” Stern added. One difference between his company’s lunar lander plans and Space Adventures’ circumlunar flyby mission was that a lander mission could be better justified on the basis of science, he claimed. “These are serious scientific expeditions, so you don’t have to justify it as a stunt.”

Setting expectations

In addition to refuting rumors of billionaire backers, the company used Thursday’s announcement to make clear that they are only at the beginning of a long-term effort. “We are a startup company with a long road ahead,” said Griffin. Later, Stern described the company as being in the equivalent of “phase A” in the NASA lexicon of project development, a phase devoted to concept and technology development.

However, there has been several years of study leading up to the announcement. Stern asked a group of aerospace professionals several years ago to study if commercial human lunar missions were feasible. Those results, Griffin said, were presented to an independent group of reviewers at a “secret meeting” in August of 2010 in Telluride, Colorado. “The findings of the Telluride study group, and vetted by the independent review,” Griffin said, “was that the time was ripe for commercial lunar exploration and that it can be accomplished at prices low enough to create a marketplace made up of countries and corporations already able to afford robotic flagship missions.” Three months later, Golden Spike was formally established.

What makes Golden Spike’s plans difficult to dismiss, despite how outlandish they may seem to some, is the caliber of people involved with the company. Besides Griffin and Stern, the company’s board of directors includes investor Esther Dyson; space systems expert James French, lead author of the company’s AIAA paper; and Taber MacCallum, co-founder of Paragon Space Development Corporation. The company’s board of advisors is even more diverse, including former Space Shuttle program head Wayne Hale, authors Andrew Chaikin and Homer Hickam, Lunar and Planetary Institute director Stephen Mackwell, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, and former House Science Committee chairman Bob Walker. Also on the board is former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who made headlines—and generated a fair bit of ridicule—in January when he said the US should have a goal of establishing a base on the Moon by 2020.

“We realize that our plans may generate some skepticism. I think that’s only natural,” Stern said.

The near-term progress the company makes will be modest, Stern said. The company has some initial agreements in place with companies to begin studies of lunar landers and surface suits; among those companies are the two winners of NASA’s Lunar Lander Challenge in 2009, Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems. “We have a set of lunar lander studies that will culminate in the next six months,” Stern said after the press conference about the company’s near-term plans. “There are going to be additional companies involved in this, and we’re going to start our marketing and sales activities.”

Stern said the company is planning to organize a conference next year to bring together scientists to discuss the kinds of science that could be done on such missions. That meeting could take place as early as March, in conjunction with the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference in Houston, or as a standalone meeting later in the spring.

“I think it’ll be an interesting story, but it’s going to take a couple of years to really build this to the point where we’ll be ready to go out and put contracts on people’s desks,” he said. “In the interim, we have a lot of homework to do.”

Part of that homework will be addressing the skepticism that Golden Spike has the wherewithal, both technical and financial, to make those plans real. “We realize that our plans may generate some skepticism. I think that’s only natural,” Stern said. He emphasized the “gamechanging” nature of human spaceflight, as demonstrated by suborbital vehicle development and commercial cargo and crew development for the International Space Station, as well as the team of advisors and partners the company has put into place.

That, however, is no guarantee of success. Companies in the past have assembled teams of leading experts to develop new vehicle or go after new markets, only to fail. In the mid-1990s, for example, Kistler Aerospace brought in George Mueller, one of the top managers of the Apollo program, to lead its effort to develop the K-1 reusable launch vehicle. That effort foundered when the company ran out of money, pushing it into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The same threats face Golden Spike and other companies, like Stratolaunch Systems and Planetary Resources, proposing bold concepts that, to many, strain credulity. Even the most talented technical teams and wealthiest backers can face obstacles too great for them to overcome. That’s particularly true when pursuing far-reaching concepts that look a lot like science fiction.

That’s a perception that Stern said Golden Spike was aware of. “We realize that this is the stuff of science fiction,” he said. “We intend to make it science fact.”