Thursday, October 4, Houston’s Lunar and Planetary Institute hosted Gerry Griffin and Alan Stern of Golden Spike Company in a public presentation to the Houston Space community on their proposal for resuming manned lunar expeditions by 2020. Although Golden Spike went public with the outline of their plan in December, 2012, many in the audience were surprised at the scope of today’s proposal for a turnkey human lunar exploration transportation system.
The current technical model is simple.
1. Adapt a proven LEO (low earth orbit) taxi such as ULA Atlas 5 or SpaceX Falcon/Falcon Heavy for lunar missions.
2. Use an existing capsule, such as the SpaceX Dragon, which already has a lunar capable heat shield.
3. Design a new lunar lander, based on modern Mars lander capabilities.
4. Design new lunar suit, which has requirement quite different from modern zero G suits.
The estimated development cost is $7.1 Billion using existing LEO taxis and could drop to $5 Billion with the new Falcon Heavy capability. At a price of $1.5 Billion per flight, about the cost of current robotic missions, 4-5 flights would cover development costs. Testing is planned to low earth orbit in 2018 with an unmanned, robotic lunar landing as early as 2020. They have decided not to over-promiseGolden Spike Human Lunar Scientific Exploration, so they are only selling inexpensive places in line until procurement is finished in 2015, at which point mission sales will start. The major market is foreign space and science agencies.
In 1975 after the demise of the Apollo program, Jack Schmidt and Leon Silver hosted the Fairchild Conference at Caltech. Asking what went wrong on the way to the moon; Neil Armstrong suggested that big government decisions in the USA are often a response to a perceived threat. However, to make something happen, bold leadership, resources and public support are also required. If any of these drivers are out of sync, big government efforts are unsustainable. In our current financial crisis, resources are extremely limited. NASA is no longer able to mount major programs. The old economic model that had centrally planned effort and massive government funding as the driver for space exploration has failed. Perhaps Golden Spike can help the Aerospace Industry return to the entrepreneurial style seen in the 1930’s as aviation was emerging. However, a large part of NASA’s job has been managing the high risk of space flight. That risk management still has to be proven commercially. Can it sustain a failure the way Apollo did?
Alan Stern remembered the excitement of the Apollo program from childhood. Many of us from that era couldn't wait to join the human space exploration in the 1960’s. Can a private space venture get the public excited again? Could it jump-start STEM education now as it did in the 1960’s? All humankind could go into space using US technology. Perhaps a viable commercial space industry would be a good place to start rebuilding US capacity.