Over the last several weeks there’s been growing rumors that a new commercial space venture with an audacious goal—human missions to the lunar surface—was under development. In mid-November, NASASpaceFlight.com reported that there would be “a ‘game-changing’ announcement as early as December that a new commercial space company intends to send commercial astronauts to the moon by 2020.” Since then, more details have emerged, including the name of the company: Golden Spike. On Wednesday, the company issued a release confirming it plans “to offer routine exploration expeditions to the surface of the Moon by the end of the decade,” which it will discuss in more detail at a press conference Thursday afternoon in Washington.
With that background in mind, there are a few areas to think about when considering whether the company has a viable plan or not.
Technology: Many people will focus on the technical elements of the company’s plan, but in some respects this is not as big an obstacle as some might think. Any venture planning commercial human lunar missions by 2020 will be able to leverage a fair amount of infrastructure that already exists or should exist in the next several years, including commercial crew transportation systems under development by Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX to get people to low Earth orbit. In addition, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, slated to make its first launch next year, could play a major role in providing more affordable heavy-lift needed for lunar missions.
Still, such a venture will require some new infrastructure, most notably a lunar lander. The venture may also require a vehicle to go from earth orbit to lunar orbit (which could be adapted from a commercial crew vehicle), transfer stages, and lunar surface infrastructure (hab modules, rovers, etc.). All of these will significant development time and expense.
Finance: To develop that infrastructure, and to keep the company running until sufficient revenues come in, will require significant investment. How much? It will depend on the specifics of the business plan, but it’s hard to see how this could be done for less than a few hundred million dollars, and potentially a billion or more. Who will provide that? Keep in mind that Google Lunar X PRIZE teams, seeking to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon, have struggled to raise tens of millions of dollars for their efforts.
Business Case: Who are the customers who will be lucrative enough to make a compelling case for potential investors, and to maintain the high costs of running human missions to the Moon? Tourism is one option, but how many people, and at what price? It’s worth noting that Space Adventures has been selling seats for a circumlunar mission (going around, but not landing on, the Moon) at $150 million each, but has yet to line up both customers needed for the first such flight (the company has reportedly signed one and has several prospects for the other.) What other businesses are so compelling that they can support—and require—human missions to the lunar surface by 2020?
These challenges don’t mean that a commercial human lunar venture is impossible, but that Golden Spike will have to make a compelling case that they have lined up not just the technology for such missions, but can also close the business case to fly such missions profitably. We’ll see soon enough.