Officially revealed to the world barely a month ago, the Golden Spike Company last week announced a contract with aerospace giant Northrop Grumman to begin design work on a lunar landing vehicle which could see astronauts back on the surface of the Moon by 2020. Although Golden Spike—founded by Alan Stern, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in 2007–2008 and Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and including former Apollo Flight Director Gerry Griffin as Chair of the Board—remains in what it calls “Phase A” of its forward path, the contract with the only company to have a proven track record of building human-rated lunar landers is a significant advance and brings the goal of bootprints on the Moon closer.
Named in honor of the original Golden Spike, driven by Leland Stanford at Promontory Summit, Utah, in May 1869, to join the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States, the startup company provoked a flurry of excitement, even in the months preceding its formal announcement of plans at the National Press Club on 6 December. Speculation of a “privately circulated proposal” had been highlighted by Florida Today as early as May 2012, following a conference in Hawaii, which noted that one of Golden Spike’s fundamental goals was the establishment of “a reliable Cislunar Superhighway.” Scientific American, writing about the company in early June, described its goal with a single word: “Audacious.”
At present, the Obama Administration and NASA have formally distanced themselves from a human return to the lunar surface, although the first piloted voyage of the Orion spacecraft—known as “Exploration Mission-2” (EM-2)—is expected to perform an Apollo 8–type circumlunar jaunt. This mission is officially targeted for late in 2021, but some scope exists to move the date forward to 2019, the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic landing. According to NASA documentation, EM-2 will despatch a team of four astronauts atop the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) booster to spend up to four days in high lunar orbit. Further downstream are a series of nebulous “Design Reference Missions,” whose objectives vary from the emplacement of an Exploration Gateway at one of the two Earth-Moon Libration (EML) points to low lunar orbit and surface expeditions. None of these goals are realistically expected to be attainable until the mid-2020s at the earliest.
A quick perusal of Golden Spike’s website makes it difficult not to see a trace of the frustration felt by many space enthusiasts, engineers, and visionaries over government reluctance to commit the dollars and political will to return humans to our closest celestial neighbor in over four decades. Mount a Lunar Expedition with Us … It’s the 21st Century, the website proclaims, but such pledges will remain hollow if insufficient markets exist to support Golden Spike’s grandiose plans. The company believes that upwards of 15–20 countries, foreign space agencies, corporations, and private individuals would be willing to sign up to two-person lunar surface missions, each costing approximately $1.5 billion, for exploration or adventure between 2020–2030. Costs are expected to be kept down by utilizing current launch vehicles and hardware built by American companies, leaving Golden Spike with the task of constructing the lunar lander, surface experiments, and the suits required for lengthy stays on the surface. By avoiding the desire to design everything from scratch, the company expects to run its operation through what it describes as a “maximally pragmatic” strategy.
And it is upon this final pivot that last week’s announcement of the study-level contract with Northrop Grumman has triggered so much excitement, for the Falls Church, Va.–based aerospace corporation is the only organization in history to have successfully developed and flown a human-rated lunar landing craft. That craft, the spider-like Apollo lunar module, ferried 12 astronauts to the surface of the Moon between July 1969 and December 1972, and directly enabled the survival of the ill-fated Apollo 13 crew in April 1970. According to Lindsey Clark of NewSpace Watch, the contracted tasks of Northrop Grumman include “reviewing requirements and synthesizing a set of study ground rules and assumptions emphasizing system reliability, automated/ground command operability and affordability, establishing velocity budgets from and to low lunar orbit for pragmatic lunar landing sites,” and “exploring a wide variety of Lunar Lander concept options.” The last task will involve the reusability and autonomy of the landing system’s architecture, together with requirements for staging, propellants, and rocket engine design. The Northrop Grumman work is expected to provide the technical foundations necessary for a fully-fledged industry contract competition to actually build the landing craft itself, said Golden Spike’s Lunar Lander Systems Study Engineering Chief James R. French.
Although Golden Spike at present seems to have a relatively modest financial backing, its strategy for what it describes as “monetizing these expeditions” is very much based on the anticipated consumer demand for lunar surface access. This includes not only the sales of the expeditions themselves, but also public participation and membership, media rights, advertising and brand licensing, mission naming rights and merchandising, sale of flown items and returned lunar samples, and the release of related entertainment products. The company’s list of associated staff members is impressive in its scope: as well as Stern and Griffin, the board includes space business leaders and entrepreneurs such as Cindy Conrad and Esther Dyson, aerospace attorney Doug Griffith, spacecraft systems engineer David Lackner, orbital mechanics and mission design expert Michel Loucks, life-support systems expert Taber MacCallum, and former SpaceX Dragon Development Program Manager Max Vozoff. Affiliated with the company are former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bobby Block, former Shuttle commander Jeff Ashby, former Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale, and renowned planetary scientist Bill McKinnon.
At the time of writing, Northrop Grumman has yet to issue a public news release of its study contract with Golden Spike, but Stern gushed with pride last week over working with a company “which has the most experience and successful performance record for human lunar lander designs in the world.” The total cost of the effort to plant the first boots on the Moon in almost 50 years is anticipated to be around $7–8 billion, and although Golden Spike has yet to settle on a launch vehicle of choice, the website NASASpaceflight.com noted that SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V may be strong contenders. Certainly, ULA was one of the nine partners listed by Golden Spike at their 6 December unveiling conference.
“Our vision,” explained Gerry Griffin in December, “is to create a reliable and affordable U.S.–based commercial human lunar transportation system that enables the exploration of the Moon by humans from virtually any nation, corporation, or individual wishing to accomplish objectives on the Moon—including activities based around science, around business, around national prestige, and personal accomplishment.” Golden Spike’s website is currently sparse in terms of detail, other than a handful of videos and infographics, but it appears that the company aims to stage as many as three unmanned test flights to the lunar surface, possibly as early as 2017, before the first piloted landing. Each mission will feature a two-launch architecture—the first pre-positioning the lander in lunar orbit and the second despatching a two-member crew to meet it. Destinations were described by Alan Stern as “customer-driven,” which lends credence to the suggestion that Golden Spike may cater to organizations keen to exploit the Moon’s mineralogical wealth, as well as for science.