WASHINGTON — A U.S. company called Golden Spike unveiled plans Dec. 6 to launch privately financed missions to the lunar surface sometime next decade but kept substantially all of the details of its ambitious business venture close to the vest.
Golden Spike plans to use existing space hardware and designs to send paying customers to the surface of the Moon. The group bills itself as a “commercial space company” but it is counting for now on foreign governments for the $7 billion to $8 billion in advance sales it will need in order to launch its first mission around 2020.
If the company can secure a stable of customers on top of those it needs to finance the nonrecurring costs associated with the first mission, subsequent lunar landing missions would cost about $1.5 billion each, Golden Spike Chief Executive Alan Stern said Dec. 6 during a press conference at the National Press Club here. Stern led NASA’s Science Mission Directorate from 2007 to 2008.
“We’ve found a way to send humans to the Moon for the price of a mid-sized scientific flagship mission,” Stern said. “That’s a game changer.”
Golden Spike would use contractor-provided hardware for every mission it flies. The company would also provide in-house ground support for these missions. Prior to the first Golden Spike lunar excursion, the company plans to do a demonstration flight to low Earth orbit around 2018, Stern said.
Stern said Golden Spike, which was formed in 2010 but stayed off the public’s radar until recent weeks, believes there is “a $20 billion to $30 billion lunar expedition market” ripe for the picking. He said the company performed a market study in which it identified “15 to 20 or more expeditions of this type out there — nations that can afford to do this that do similarly priced projects in space already.” Some of those nations, Stern said, might want to buy more than one Moon mission from Golden Spike.
Stern said Golden Spike had met with representatives from several foreign space agencies already, but he refused to say which ones.
Stern likewise would not say how much money the company has raised so far, or from whom it had raised it. He did say that Golden Spike had not secured the financial backing of billionaire donors, as Internet rumors in the days leading up to the company’s public unveiling suggested.
Stern said Golden Spike will derive most of its revenue from ticket sales, but that it will also depend on “substantial, but not majority,” revenue from what Stern called media activities. These would include video coverage of missions, naming rights to Golden Spike mission spacecraft, and merchandise.
Stern is not the only former NASA official in the company. Gerry Griffin, former Apollo program flight director and one-time head of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, is chairman of Golden Spike’s board of directors. Another board member is James French, an aerospace engineer who worked for government contractors during the Apollo era and later at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on landmark missions such as the Viking probe.
One former NASA official who does not work for Golden Spike said the new company appears to have a plausible business case.
“I think they have a very good business model,” Charles Miller, president of the Arlington, Va.-based consulting firm NexGen Space, told SpaceNews at the Golden Spike briefing here. Miller was formerly senior adviser for commercial space at NASA headquarters. His three-year stint in that position wrapped up in January. “Anyone who’s been up to the international space station or has been up to [the deorbited Russian space station] Mir is a potential customer for these guys. There’s also Japan, all the European countries, Canada, South Korea and India.”
Miller said he had no relationship with Golden Spike, either as a consultant or as one of the independent reviewers the company engaged in 2010 to vet its business model.
For planning purposes, Golden Spike has assumed it will launch its missions aboard either United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 or Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets. Falcon Heavy, a 27-engine variant of the nine-engine Falcon 9, has yet to be built. It is expected to be ready in 2015 in time to launch the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program 2 experimental satellite.
For a typical mission, “it requires two launches of two sets of existing launch vehicles for each expedition,” Stern said. “That’s four launches per expedition. The first pair of launches allows us to preposition our lunar lander in low lunar orbit. The second pair of launches then sends the crew in a capsule … to meet the lander in low lunar orbit. The crew then enters the lander; they leave the automated capsule in orbit; they descend to the surface and conduct their exploration mission. Now to do this we need to build the equivalent of the Apollo service module to break us into [lunar] orbit. But we know how to do that.”
Other things that would have to be developed for the missions Golden Spike has in mind are space suits and a lunar lander. Golden Spike is working with a plethora of aerospace companies to build that hardware. Among its partners is Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif. That company is working on an experimental lunar landing vehicle called Xeus, which would use the tank from ULA’s Centaur upper stage and proprietary Masten propulsion systems.
Masten spokesman Colin Ake, reached by email Dec. 6, could not immediately confirm whether Masten’s Xeus concept would be part of Golden Spike’s hardware lineup.
Stern said that Golden Spike’s roster of suppliers was for now under contract only for studies and designs, not for hardware. These contractors would receive what Stern called “preferred provider status,” which would put them high on Golden Spike’s list of vendors to buy from but not guarantee any sales. Other than that, Stern would provide no details about these agreements.
Among the entities Golden Spike is partnering with are:
- Armadillo Aerospace, Dallas.
- International Lunar Observatory Association, Kamuela, Hawaii.
- Moon Express, a Moffett Field, Calif., startup and Google Lunar X-Prize entrant that proposes sending resource-sniffing robot landers to the lunar poles.
- Paragon Space Development Corp., Tucson, Ariz.
- Space Florida, the state’s arm for aerospace-related economic development.
- Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.
- ULA, Denver.
- Zero Point Frontiers, Huntsville, Ala.