In the wake of the announcement of a company called Golden Spike, formed by a group of ex-NASA officials, to develop private space flights to the moon, some skepticism concerning the cost and the market for such ventures has been expressed.
Concerns about the $7-8 billion price tag for the private moon venture
In a piece published in The Space Review, Jeff Foust offered an exhaustive analysis of the venture. Foust found that the main stumbling block for private lunar ventures is the cost of the startup, which Golden Spike estimates to be $7-8 billion dollars. Foust noted that some of the participants in the Google Lunar X Prize have struggled to raise much smaller amounts to build robotic rovers designed to land on the lunar surface. Space Adventures has yet to sell the second seat of its proposed around the moon flight at a cost of $150 million. A seat on the Golden Spike lunar mission would cost $750 million.
Foust notes that the Golden Spike venture should be taken seriously because of the caliber of the people behind it, though similar commercial space ventures have failed even though they have been run by space experts.
Markets for Golden Spike's lunar missions called into question
NBC News' Alan Boyle interviewed John Pike, the head of GlobalSecurity.org and long time space pundit, who questioned whether there is a sufficient market for private moon ventures to justify Golden Spike's proposed enterprise at the price it quotes. He expressed doubt that there are 20 or so countries, such as China or Russia, willing to spend money to send their space explorers to the moon on someone else's spacecraft.
Non space exploration countries may be tempted
On the other hand, countries that are not necessarily connected to large scale space programs may be tempted to buy Golden Spike's service. Singapore, a wealthy Asian rim country, had a GDP of just over $239 billion in 2011. The United Arab Emirates had a 2011 GDP of $360 billion. Either country could afford the $1.5 billion price tag for a trip to the moon for two of its citizens. The question arises would national prestige be a sufficient motivation or could a "sovereign customer" find a way to make such a venture pay?
NASA could be a customer
NASA, the only space agency to land people on the moon, could be tempted to become one of Golden Spike's customers. It is currently spending almost hundreds of millions of dollars on the commercial crew program to develop private spacecraft to service the International Space Station. $1.5 billion is estimated to be the cost of the repeat of the Mars Curiosity, slated for a 2020 launch. If all of the technical hurdles are overcome, the small price tag for a manned lunar mission, the same as the repeat of Mars Curiosity, might be too tempting for the United States to pass up.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.