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Private Company Hopes To Build 'Railway' To The Moon

An artist's rendering of the Golden Spike moon lander
The last time a human went to the moon was 40 years ago this month. Now, a private U.S. company called Golden Spike is trying to reignite interest by creating a transport system to the moon that any nation can use. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke to Golden Spike's business manager, Max Vozoff, to learn more.

RFE/RL: Your company, Golden Spike, announced earlier this month that it hopes to build a rocket system that will be able to fly two-person crews to the moon and back for a price of $1.5 billion per flight by 2020. You hope to interest nations around the world in renting your service to send their own astronauts to the moon. But which nations and to do what?

Max Vozoff:
There are half-a-dozen nations that are sending robotic spacecraft to the moon in this decade alone, with orbiters and landers, and the price tags on all of those missions are right in the ballpark of what we are proposing in order to send two people to the moon.

So, clearly there is a need and there is something of a market among those nations. But even beyond those nations which are clearly capable of building spacecrafts themselves, there are many other nations and space programs around the world, countries that are trying to stimulate their industries, stimulate education, and just get a piece of the cachet and prestige associated with space travel and exploration, who don't have the funding or capability to develop a transportation system themselves, certainly not for people.

RFE/RL: Apart from the United States and the former Soviet Union, countries which have sent probes or orbiters to the moon are China, India, and Japan. All of them, with Russia now in place of the Soviet Union, are planning future missions, as are the United Kingdom and South Korea. But when you speak about building a manned transport system, the start-up costs are enormous. Golden Spike estimates a cost of between $7 billion and $8 billion, including development and testing. Can you find investors for this?

I guess the next eight years will see. There are not many major infrastructure projects that start with all the money sitting in a savings account waiting to be drawn, and we are no exception. On the other hand, this cost is a 50th of the price that has been bantered around before for similar capabilities. And what's more, the cost is roughly evenly divided between developmental costs and test costs, meaning that there is a comprehensive spaceflight test program associated with this development before you ever put a person on board one of these things.

But, yes, I think it is obtainable and it is not all dependent on capital, either. Like any business, it is funded by a combination of capital investment and presales revenues.

RFE/RL: You are looking at using some techniques dramatically different from those that took men to the moon previously, up to the last Apollo flight in 1972. I believe your company has spoken about using four separate launches for each flight. Could you explain the concept?

There are various architectures and some of them involve between two and four launches, depending on which rockets you use. We don't have the benefit of a Saturn V heavy-lift launch vehicle [used for Apollo flights], something which could place 100 metric tons into low-Earth orbit. That just is not available these days. But as part of our desire to be pragmatic and minimize risk and development costs, we are not going to build a rocket that big. We are going to use what is available and that limits us to certain architectures that are different from what was used for Apollo.

Whether it is two or four launches, the rockets will place things into low-Earth orbit. And once you are in low-Earth orbit, as they say, you are halfway to anywhere. That's really the hard part, in many ways. And so, we are planning to place upper stages and spacecraft and landers into low-Earth orbit and then join them together in low-Earth orbit, boost them to the moon, have them orbit the moon while the lander goes down to the surface, and then the lander rejoins the lunar-orbiting piece of the architecture, and then boosts back to the Earth.

RFE/RL: Golden Spike’s name is a reference to the final spike laid down in the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, which opened up the western United States. The opening of the West, in turn, set the stage for the United States to develop an economy on a scale that was greater than anything seen before in the world. Do you see bringing the moon into the sphere of human activity in the same epic terms?

Absolutely, and that's really why we chose this name. We are not planning lunar bases, we are not planning any grandiose infrastructure, What we are building is a "railway."

At some point, [the Transcontinental Railroad] became a commercial enterprise and that led to tremendous value and tremendous generation of wealth for American industry. This is, I think, the same thing and hopefully will be a generator of wealth not just for American enterprise but for the world.

RFE/RL: When you talk about the commercialization of space, you could equally well have proposed building a private space station, for example, where pharmaceutical companies might do laboratory work to create products that can't be created on Earth. But Golden Spike specifically chose the moon as the destination. Why? What are the economic dividends there?

There is interest in the moon for a number of reasons, and it is really up to our customers why they go there. But certainly scientific exploration is the traditional reason, and there is still much to learn about the moon, especially on the surface, in situ, and doing it with people rather than robots really opens up the capabilities. And there is a lot we can learn about the moon which teaches us about the Earth and about the solar system.

But, yes, there has been renewed interest lately about space commodities, space resources, space minerals that can be extracted either there or used back on Earth, which can be used to facilitate and support human habitats on the moon for greater expansion and settlement or can be used to manufacture rocket fuel that makes the moon a staging place for further space exploration.