Houston, TX, Oct. 3, 2013
Gerry Griffin, former Director of the NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, was in in Houston Thursday to explain his new role as Chairman of the Board of the Golden Spike Company (GSC). Forty (40) years after Apollo, GSC believes now is the time to return humans to the moon. The technology is ready and the price is affordable.
So what has changed? Why now? According to Mr. Griffin, with the current financial crunch, it has become clear that governments no longer have the resources to do the huge $100-500 billion programs, such as Constellation, that NASA has been driving. Meanwhile, an entrepreneurial commercial sector has been emerging. Ten to fifteen years ago, when NASA faltered there was nobody (except the Russians) to pick up the slack. Today, SpaceX is now docking their Dragon capsule with the Space Station using their Falcon rocket as a vehicle for LEO (Low Earth Orbit) insertion. United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin has proven LEO capabilities in their Atlas 5. Northrop Grumman, an enthusiastic supporter, was a co-sponsor of the Houston Workshop.
Meanwhile, NASA, funded by American taxpayers, has built impressive US capabilities. Standing on NASA’s broad shoulders and fifty years of American know-how, GSC can help America build cutting-edge technology and create STEM jobs, capturing continuing value from our previous investments in space. GSC intends this to be an American lunar transportation system. GSC can rent existing Florida launch facilities to provide the capacity for 2-3 missions per year. Interoperability considerations required by NASA have already driven US aerospace manufacturers towards compatibility among their equipment. Using existing commercial capabilities with minimal modifications will simplify the process, lower cost and mitigate risk.
Mr. Griffin reminds us that space is a dangerous business. One of his biggest jobs at NASA was to manage the risk in a reasonable way. Risk can never be taken to zero; that would mean humans do nothing. Astronauts have died in space, but to put this in context, people in the aerospace community have also been killed on the highway on their way to work. Transportation, in any form, does not currently have zero risk. Safety is important. An early failure, such as the Apollo Launch pad fire, would be a problem for commercial viability. Design will require a reasonable middle ground with some redundancy, but not to the point of adding massive weight or prohibitive costs. Technology is so much better today and designers have fifty years of operating history to guide them. The physical demands of working in space are so intense that a momentary distraction could prove fatal. However, more is known about human error factors and training could better manage those.
The risk may be high, but so is the potential gain to science, technology, the world economy and perhaps most of all to regain some of the Apollo “magic”. The entire world was glued to their screens as Walter Cronkite counted down to Apollo 11’s “giant leap for mankind.” The landing captured the imagination of American youth. STEM enrollment soared and technology outside aerospace benefited by the atmosphere of hope and the perceived ability to tackle the big ones.
GSC intends that all humankind will have access to space using US technology as the transportation platform. Hence, the name Golden Spike was selected to remind people of the early days of American rail transportation. At a price of $750 billion per seat, human space travel is within the budget of many countries who are interested in building their own local STEM capacity. Primary customers will be foreign space and science agencies. Particularly in areas like the Middle East, a lunar mission might help a nation catalyze internal STEM capacity at their own universities around engineering design, preparation, training and post-mission science. The US and USSR elected to compete in space instead of lobbing missiles. Most of us would like to see a new Space Race replace the current Middle East Arms Race. A Golden Spike sale in the Middle East could be a clear signal of a positive change in direction and might provide the same beacon to Arab youth that Apollo provided for Americans. The next person to set boots on the moon will probably not be an American, but they can go there using American know-how. That would indeed be a WIN for all humankind.
Meanwhile, China continues to develop its capacity, planning to launch a Chang'e-3 robotic lunar lander in Dec, 2013. This will be the first lunar landing (unmanned) since the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976. China is not working alone. Hawaii’s International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA) plans to use the telescope on Chang'e-3 for galactical and astronomical imaging. Meanwhile, South Korea’s International Space Exploration Research Institute (ISERI) is also sponsoring an international collaboration with US Honeybee Robotics around space sampling, drilling and mining. ISERI is already thinking about re-purposing their space technologies for use on earth in applications such as inexpensive housing and better roads.