Within the past month or so, the commercial space firm, The Golden Spike Company, has burst onto the public consciousness with its announcement that it will be working to send people to the surface of the Moon for the first time in more than 40 years. AmericaSpace recently sat down with The Golden Spike Company’s Alan Stern, a man with an extensive history in space exploration, and he explained Golden Spike’s plans.
Stern noted that there was a misperception about how the company was going to accomplish its objectives and worked to set the record straight. He also wanted to clarify who The Golden Spike Company’s primary clients will be.
AmericaSpace: Dr. Stern, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today!
Dr. Stern: “My pleasure.”
AmericaSpace: In an article that detailed The Golden Spike Company’s announcement of its plans to send people to the Moon, one of those individuals interviewed in the article stated that the dollar amount posted by your company was missing a few zeroes. What do you say to that?
Stern: “The two things that initially come to mind to answer your question are as follows: what was a big-lift in the ’60s technologically is not such a heavy-lift today, approaching some 50 years later, and secondly, by using the approach we call the maximally pragmatic approach, which begins with flight systems, that we use or adapt whenever possible instead of starting over with a clean sheet of paper and inventing something new. Those two items conspire to drastically reduce the costs of sending humans to the Moon, and we ourselves discovered this in 2010. It’s part of the basis of the Golden Spike business plan. If the costs were an order of magnitude higher, our business case would not close.”
“Now, I can provide you with a little information that will help to justify the assertions I just made. You know you can go back and look at the numbers and adjust for inflation. The inflation-adjusted cost to send Alan Shepard suborbitally is between two and three orders of magnitude more expensive than tickets one can now purchase to fly suborbitally on a Virgin or an XCOR or what have you, and that’s because what was hard in 1961 is, although still not trivial, not the kind of heavy-lift undertaking in 2012–2013.”
“You can also look at the costs when you start with newly-designed and newly-built rockets and capsules compared to when you use a naturally pragmatic approach as to what launch vehicles and spacecraft are already flying. What you need to ask is what capsules could fit on them? How do I have to modify those capsules? Questions of that nature. What you find is that if you adapt existing systems, the vast, vast majority of the non-recurring engineering and some of the flight test costs go away, so you get very far down the field in development terms on dramatically less expenditure.”
AmericaSpace: You mentioned XCOR and Virgin (Galactic)—when those names come into play there are those that will say that they are charging “X” amount for tickets. But to be fair, these companies have yet to launch a single paying customer. In fact, many will argue they haven’t demonstrated that they can do what they say they can, other than Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X PRIZE. So the argument can be made that the estimated numbers issued by these companies don’t come from proven track record that these companies have demonstrated, but rather just what these companies have said that they will charge.
Stern: “Our business case does not depend upon their success—that misses the point I’m making. What I’m telling you is that over the course of 50 years, what once was difficult is now easier. It used to cost millions of dollars for a computer and it took up an entire room and required massive air conditioners to keep it cool, and today we have cell phones that cost a hundred or so dollars, has orders of magnitude more computing power, and it fits in your pocket. So, again, what was once hard in the ’60s is not so difficult in the early 21st century. In many respects and, as it turns out, what we are trying to accomplish is one of these things that isn’t as difficult as it was a half century ago. We don’t have to invent rockets from scratch, and we don’t have to invent capsules; we can use capsules that already in development.”
“I was an executive at the very top of NASA during the VSE. That program was architected on the assumption that we would build more-or-less exactly what we needed. Not adapt what we had but start from scratch and build the rocket, the capsule, the landers, the spacesuits, the everything from scratch so that they would all be as closely optimized as possible to the desires of the agency at the time. That along with some other factors is what drove the VSE’s budget up to $150 billion dollars when it collapsed. I would assert that if NASA’s leadership at the time had taken the approach like the maximally pragmatic approach we’ve taken at Golden Spike and simply said, ‘How fast can we get humans back to the Moon? Because that will attract the public and allow us to build a more capable system with the resulting level of excitement,’ then we might today have astronauts on the surface. There could have been a lunar outpost.”
AmericaSpace: You mentioned the VSE, or the “Vision for Space Exploration”—it should be highlighted that, in fact, much of the systems that were to be employed under the VSE was comprised of so-called “Legacy” hardware (those derived from existing systems). The Constellation Program, which was the key component of the VSE, was to fly the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles—both of which were to employ legacy hardware extensively. The boosters were derived from the space shuttle and the engines were to be derived from both shuttle and Apollo. Perhaps you can help us out with how that is “built from scratch”?
Stern: “I think that if you go back … I encourage you to call Mike Griffin or others that were there. You will find that the vehicle that they ended up with was very far from the vehicle that they started from. You’re in effect asking whether I can buy Atlas V’s less expensively than I can start over and design my own vehicle called the Golden Spike One. The Atlas V has launched numerous times so that the development costs are spread over a wide swath that includes future users, and this is a commodity price. The same applies to the Delta IV and the same applies to the Falcon 9. I can go to a catalog and look at catalog prices, and they are far less expensive than what I would pay to start over and design and test a new launcher.
AmericaSpace: You mentioned Atlas V—one of the questions that we wanted to ask you directly is, are you looking at United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V or are you looking at Soyuz or are you looking at Falcon 9? Have you focused in on any one specific launch vehicle that you’re looking at?
Stern: “We’re looking at all the vehicles that exist today which are capable of accomplishing the task. We are currently not focused on any one vehicle in particular. Later we will conduct procurement and a vehicle will be selected from those available that can do the job.”
AmericaSpace: Can you detail a bit of your plans as to how Golden Spike plans to employ these launch vehicles to send crews to the Moon?
Stern: “As you know, we published a technical paper about a couple of architecture variants that we develop. In one scenario—and this is publically available through our website and soon to be in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets of the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics)—a combination of two Atlas Vs and two Falcon 9s does the job, for a total of four launches to conduct a lunar expedition. In another scenario a combination of two Falcon Heavys does the job; in this scenario it only takes two launches to do the mission. There are other scenarios, but they all still consist of two to four launches. We have no scenario that’s just one launch because there is no super-heavy lift out there for us to buy.”
AmericaSpace: Obviously the economics are driving these scenarios as you stated earlier; it is far less expensive to launch on two or four proven launch systems than it would be for you to design a completely new rocket.
Stern: “You’re exactly correct; our business case is designed to provide affordable prices. If we couldn’t accomplish that then we would need to go home. As it turns out, however, we can accomplish it.”
AmericaSpace: It’s been announced that you’ve tapped Northrop Grumman to design the proposed lunar lander …
Stern: “Can I jump in right there? We actually have several lunar lander design efforts underway. Northrop Grumman is one of them, but not the only one of them. I want to avoid the perception that we’ve tapped Northrop Grumman at the exclusion of all others. Similarly, all the Golden Spike system elements, from the spacesuits to the rockets to capsules to the landers and even to the ground communications and mission control segments, will be competed. No company will be picked and given a job without competition. It will be a competition the same way as others, such as communication satellite companies, remote-sensing satellite companies, and NASA seek out their service providers competitively.”
AmericaSpace: What role will Zero Point Frontier play in your plans to send people to the Moon?
Stern: “Zero Point is a part of our LLaSS, which is an acronym for Lunar Lander Systems Study. They are looking at some of the architectural variants for us.”
AmericaSpace: There are a great many very recognizable names involved with Golden Spike. We must profess that until your announcement of what The Golden Spike Company is planning to do, we had never heard of your company. Was this done intentionally? Were you keeping your plans “below the radar”?
Stern: “I don’t know if you heard the story behind this, but when Constellation was collapsing I personally wanted to do a study, since it looked like NASA wasn’t going to be able to do this, to find out if the private sector was far enough along to do this. You probably know that I have a well-earned reputation for cost-cutting in space activities, for bringing in missions at or lower than initial estimates whenever possible. New Horizons was two dimes on the dollar compared to Voyager for example. I did a couple shuttle NASA experiments for a couple million bucks that competed well with a $100 million space observatory. And during my time with the agency I was known as ‘Dr. Cost Control.’ So, I went out and found some really smart people and we gathered a study team to look at the problem (of sending people to the Moon) and I asked the question, ‘How can we get to the Moon for single-digit billions to first footprints?’ The group conducted a study in 2010 and it culminated with a review by outside experts in Telluride, Colo., in August of 2010, and we were so encouraged by that that we formed The Golden Spike Company. We signed NDAs with the participants in the company and for two years we made sure that the basic findings in the Telluride Study Group were correct. What we found out was that, in fact, they were correct; in fact, the facts got a little bit better in terms of cost projections and we kept it quiet because it’s just our company philosophy we like to aim before we fire. We know that some like to fire before they aim but that’s not our company.”
“We elected to go public with the story last year in part just because it was time; you can’t go and market yourself unless you are public, and, frankly, we wanted the story to come out on our terms. So we did a pretty good job of keeping it a secret for more than two years. We kept mum and wanted to make sure that the story was solid, and we went to unusual lengths to keep it that way. This included writing up our lunar architecture and sending it up for peer review at a prestigious technical journal and doing that very, very quietly.”
AmericaSpace: Our next question is comprised of one word—When? We know that Golden Spike has already stated this, but we were hoping you could elaborate. When can the public expect to see the first launch under Golden Spike?
Stern: “We are aiming for our first ‘boots on the Moon’ at the end of the decade. I cannot tell you a day or a month. It may occur on 2019, it might be in 2020, and, frankly, speaking for myself, if that date were to slip a little bit, placing it in the next year or the year after, and we succeed, I’m going to be very pleased. But, we’re aiming for 2019–2020.”
AmericaSpace: If there were one thing that you think is important that the public know about The Golden Spike Company’s efforts, what would it be?
Stern: “Can I answer with two?”
AmericaSpace: (Laughs) Yes, you can answer with two!
Stern: (Laughs) “One of the things that I would like them to know is that this team is laser-focused on the job.”
AmericaSpace: What’s the second thing?
Stern: “The other thing is to try and correct a misimpression that is currently in the public following our press conference last December. It’s as follows: we thought we were very clear in our messaging, in that we think the bulk of our business is in flying expeditions for foreign science and space agencies. So, nations that could not mount missions like this on their own can accomplish this through Golden Spike by teaming up with numerous others and dividing the development and non-recurring costs down to make it affordable. Unfortunately, many of the lay press, not the aerospace press, have tagged our efforts as ‘lunar tourism,’ and while we would be very happy to fly lunar tourists who could afford it, that is not the primary component of our architecture, and it’s a mischaracterization that I would like to correct.”
“I’ll give you an example. I thought of this because about three weeks ago I was on a United Airlines flight. There was a woman sitting there with her pet in a caged box. She had bought a seat for her dog! So, you see, while United Airlines does fly pets for money, that isn’t their main business line—that’s a rarity. This analogy serves to correct the misimpression about us that we’re primarily a space tourist company—which we aren’t. We’ll fly a tourist if that’s what they want to do, but we don’t think there’s a very big market there. We do think that there is a substantial market in flying expeditions to the Moon for foreign countries and, for some cases, corporations.”
AmericaSpace: That’s pretty much what we have heard, but also understand that the misunderstanding about your company’s business model has entered the conversation about Golden Spike. We know that you’re pressed for time and appreciate you taking the opportunity to speak with us today.
Stern:“It was my pleasure; I look forward to seeing the article!”
Trained in physics and astronomy, Alan Stern earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and worked in the aerospace industry during the early 1980s on small scientific payloads. He found himself gravitating more and more towards science and became a project scientist and, ultimately, an instrument Principal Investigator (PI). After receiving his Ph.D. in astrophysics, Stern went into a full-time research career, built up a research group ultimately of about 70 people, and became a PI on a host of instruments and two NASA missions.
In April 2007, Stern was appointed as Associate Administrator (AA) for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters.
Stern also has extensive experience with private space companies and efforts including, but not limited to, Blue Origin, the Google Lunar X PRIZE, and The Golden Spike Company.
The Golden Spike Company is named in honor of the ceremonial spike that was placed in the transcontinental railroad upon its completion. The company was founded by Stern, as well as Gerry Griffin, the former Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center located in Texas, as well as several others. Advisors for the company include Newt Gingrich, Homer Hickham, and former NASA Shuttle Program Director Wayne Hale. Golden Spike unveiled its plans on Dec. 6, 2012.