Not long after the first commercial resupply mission to the ISS or the unveiling of private asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, another private company is promising more efficient space trips — this time, to the Moon. At a press conference today, Golden Spike announced its plans to send manned crews to the Moon by 2020, charging governments or possibly private stakeholders $1.4 billion a flight to put their astronauts on board. The company is headed by Alan Stern, a planetary scientist who served for about a year as the associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Its site names Apollo Program Flight Director Gerry Griffin and investor Esther Dyson as members of the Board of Directors, while author Homer Hickam (best known for Rocket Boys, which became the film October Sky) and politician Newt Gingrich (who famously proposed building a Moon base during his 2012 presidential campaign) are listed as advisors.
Golden Spike's plans have been rumored for some time, but the proposals on the table still aren't too clear. In an interview with Wired, Stern said that the company would partner with groups that had already built spacecraft, then offer countries — rather than individual space tourists — "an expedition to [the] surface of the moon for two people." He also promised that the initial cost of "developing, flight testing, and any rainy day funds" would total $7 to $8 billion, detailing a system that would involve launching two rockets to put a spacecraft and lunar lander into orbit around the Moon, then another two launches to get passengers into the lander and then return them to orbit after landing. He also says that countries "both east and west of the US" are in talks to "join the lunar club."
In principle, Golden Spike is offering a private version of Russia's Soyuz capsules, which NASA uses to get its astronauts to the ISS for a cost of around $63 million a seat. But while the ISS orbits Earth about 220 miles out, the Moon is a thousand times as far, and the Apollo Program is estimated to have cost over $100 billion in today's dollars (The Space Review puts each mission at around $18 billion). Even if costs have come down since then, it's far from certain that Golden Spike will be able to get off the ground for $1.4 billion per flight. Right now, Stern says he has the "architecture" of the plan, leaving the future timeline somewhat enigmatic, though a conference is expected in 2013. His company, meanwhile, has just unveiled its website and a promotional video, which features historical reenactments of the Transcontinental Railroad's completion (the source of the "Golden Spike" name) and footage from both the Moon Landing and SpaceX's first ISS docking.