How Realistic Are Golden Spike's Plans?

On Friday, it will have been forty years since the last man walked on the moon, and prospects of a return within half a century, at least by NASA, have been dim for a number of years now. But this past Thursday, on the eve of the anniversary of the launch of that last mission, a new company called Golden Spike announced plans to do it with a couple years to spare. As Alan Stern, company CEO, notes, the key to getting the cost down and the schedule accelerated is to use the rockets you have, and not the ones you’d like to have. To the degree that NASA has spent money on a lunar mission over the past decade (and it has spent billions) it has all gone to new rockets that aren’t needed, while virtually none of the funds have gone to things like landers that are needed.

Golden Spike’s mission architecture proposes to send people back to the moon with existing (or soon-to-be existing) launchers (like Space Exploration Technology’s Falcon Heavy) and existing capsules (such as SpaceX’s Dragon). They are focusing development resources on lunar orbit insertion stages and landers. They describe a number of scenarios utilizing United Launch Alliance Atlas Vs, and SpaceX Falcon 9s and Falcon Heavies. The latter vehicle allows a full lunar mission in only two launches. Utilizing the smaller Falcon 9 or Atlas could require four.

They have a variety of potential approaches. For the lander, they range from expendable separate descent and ascent stages (as Apollo used) with solid-rockets, to a fully reusable single-stage vehicle utilizing liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellants (the latter could in theory eventually be refueled from water at the lunar poles). Whether the lander will have a pressurized compartment or its inhabitants will just live in space suits (the latter would mean shorter, riskier and less comfortable missions) hasn’t yet been determined.

For getting the hardware into low lunar orbit, they propose an option of launching the lander into earth orbit with a Centaur upper stage, and then launching another “tanker” vehicle to refuel it to allow it to go on to the moon.

Which approach they take will depend on how much money they raise and how many orders they get. The larger the number of projected missions, the more sense it will make to invest in the development of more reusable hardware with lower marginal costs. It will also depend on the progress in development of the Falcon Heavy (SpaceX still claims that it will fly next year), and in getting the Dragon capsule ready to fly passengers.

The only fully new development is the lander — everything else is modified versions of existing systems. But we’ve come a long way since the sixties, and the companies who competed for the Lunar Lander Challenge, Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems, have developed a lot of expertise in vertical takeoff and landing vehicles. Both companies are involved with Golden Spike. In addition, computers and control algorithms are light years beyond the primitive systems used in Apollo. As Stern points out, in the sixties it took several minutes to compute a lunar trajectory using an IBM 360. Today’s desktop computers do it in a few seconds, using commercial software.

A lunar-capable Dragon will require some modifications, but not as much as one might think. SpaceX claims that it was designed from the beginning for lunar return (the heat shield has to be capable of handling about twice the energy of entry compared to a return from low earth orbit), but the life support system will have to last long enough, and they may have to beef up the avionics against radiation. The last mission to the International Space Station sustained several “single-event upsets” when stray radiation caused some computer resets. The radiation situation will be worse on the way to and from lunar orbit, without the protection of earth’s magnetic field existing in low earth orbit. In addition, Golden Spike will have to develop itself, or hire SpaceX to develop a larger propulsion/service “trunk” to handle the longer mission and higher velocities. But given the latter company’s cost history to date (the Dragon was developed for anywhere from four to ten times less than the Air Force and NASA cost models would have predicted), there is no particular reason to think that such an effort will exceed the estimates. The key factor is stated in their technical paper:

Efficient operations, focusing on the job itself, rather than on the number of jobs created.

When NASA went to the moon over four decades ago, it was important to actually accomplish the goal of beating the Soviets there, but since then, Congress has been much more concerned with where the money goes than with whether NASA actually sends people into space, which is why NASA human spaceflight programs tend to run behind schedule and over budget. As SpaceX, Masten, Armadillo and others have shown, tremendous gains can be made with relatively modest resources when a team is allowed to focus on the goal, rather than where and by whom it is accomplished. Golden Spike will be operating in a similar goal-oriented environment.

The biggest barrier to their plans are not technical or cost, but whether they will be able to raise the money, particularly amid skepticism, justified or not, about their plans. As the old saying goes in space policy, no bucks, no Buck Rogers.