Space the Final Frontier

Fly Me to the Moon? New Company Wants to Do Just That

Where's a Kennedy when you need one?
Sick vacation spot. (Photo: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sick vacation spot, bro. (Photo: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons)

Looking for a lift… to space? Today, after a week of Internet speculation, a new commercial aerospace startup called the Golden Spike Company made its official debut. Headed by former NASA administrators, the company wants to get regular missions to the moon going by 2020–and at a fraction of the current cost. The name is meant to evoke the transcontinental railway that opened up the American west for settlement.

Yeah, they basically want to build a train to space. NBD.

Leading the charge are former NASA science head Alan Stern, who’s CEO, and former Apollo flight director Gerry Griffin, who’s chairman of the board. Legendary investor Esther Dyson is also on the board; advisors include former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, Rocket Boys author and former engineer Homer Hickham, and noted space nut/zoo enthusiast Newt Gingrich.

The company estimates they can send two people to the moon for a mere $1.4 billion. For comparison’s sake, the Mars Curiosity project ran about $2.5 billion. In a press conference today, Mr. Stern explained that they plan to keep costs low by using existing rocket design and partnering with other aerospace companies, like SpaceX. That means they only have to build elements like the lunar landers and space suits.

But before anybody stocks up on freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches for their trip, there are a quite a few obstacles these guys are going to have to surmount.

For one thing, this isn’t something you can launch out of a Brooklyn coworking space on $50,000 in seed capital. And there’s a reason that the newer ventures in commercial spaceflight–SpaceX and Virgin Galactic–are backed by men with immense personal fortunes. Commercial aerospace tends to be a dicey bet for even the most adventurous of venture capitalists.

In a briefing earlier today, Mr. Stern declined to comment on where the money is coming from, other than to say that, “We don’t have any billion-dollar backers,” adding, “for most businesses, you don’t need to do that.” Rather, Mr. Stern cited the example of Boeing, which takes advance orders based on a solid design then begins building once they’ve got the scratch. Of course, Boeing is a known quantity, a company that’s been around for almost a century.

It’s also not exactly easy-peasey to make money off regular flights to Nebraska. You want to try running a commuter shuttle between here and the moon? The announcement says that “market studies” suggest they could do as many as 15 to 20 trips in the 10 years after an initial landing:

Golden Spike expects its customers will want to explore the Moon for varying reasons—scientific exploration and discovery, national prestige, commercial development, marketing, entertainment, and even personal achievement.

The people who already climbed Everest need something new to aspire to, we suppose.

To make the economics work, Mr. Stern said, they’d need “the right number” of missions. He wouldn’t elaborate other than to say that means “a bunch” but not “ridiculous numbers.” He also alluded to the possibility of multiple revenue streams, include the possibility of advertiser involvement and media rights for some sort of international competition, like the Outer Space Olympics.

It’s a long shot, and the company has a long way to go before it’s taken seriously, but God bless them for trying. Beats the hell out of watching another Color Labs, which burned through millions of dollars chasing what was, in the end, a pretty underwhelming dream.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com