To the Moon Alice! with Golden Spike


Yesterday, the Golden Spike Company presented its plan for a return to the Moon beginning perhaps as early as the  end of this decade. The technical aspects of the plan, and that’s all it really is at the moment,  is described in some detail in this document, posted on the website. Coming as it does both a day after the release of a yet another report critical of  NASA’s lack of a compelling vision, and a day head of the 40th anniversary of the last launch of an Apollo mission to the Moon,  that of Apollo 17, the timing alone is noteworthy.

The plan as it currently exists, calls for short duration, two person lunar landing trips using  both Earth orbit and Lunar orbit rendezvous, with launches carried by either an Atlas V 551, or 552,  and a Falcon Heavy, or else potentially with two flights of Falcon Heavy, equipped with a ULA/Centaur transfer stage or a separately developed SpaceX transfer stage.

The part of the architecture which is really going to raise some eyebrows is the proposed lunar lander, which is either unpressurized, or as depicted in the illustration above, a truly minimalist craft with a cabin resembling that of the smallest two person helicopters. In the first case, the spacesuits clearly stay on from the moment the two astronauts depart the baseline Dragon transfer craft to go down to the lunar surface, until after rendezvous with the same ship following  ascent from the lunar surface. Either way, the extremely sparse nature of the landing craft, which like Apollo does not have an airlock, but also lacks the capacity for a rover or much in the way of scientific equipment may somewhat temper enthusiasm for the project, even if recurring mission costs fall under  $2 billion.  Also, based on the minimalist accommodations, there is this  to consider as well.

While the proposal is going to be a source of sheer joy for those who like to tinker around with speculative mission architectures and trades,  it  is certainly due for a heavy dose of criticism based on the fact that, despite some early rumors to the contrary, the up front funding is at the moment only theoretical.

Nevertheless, it is worth considering that the plan is only a starting point, and only represents a baseline built around the very sensible notion of getting as much done as possible using only what you have in hand. If either by design or by accident, the proposal triggers a serious bout of self-reflection concerning the  grotesquely expensive SLS/Orion program,  then it will have well been worth it.

If subsequent developments beyond the baseline plan presented yesterday open the door for a slowly accumulating permanent infrastructure, including  a reusable surface transfer vehicle (mentioned in the plan)  surface hab modules, rover and power systems for extended duration trips, then the prospects of long-term success  would appear to strengthen considerably.

Much will be written about Golden Spike in the coming weeks and months until it either gains significant funding  or fades away, but the operative factor is without a doubt a successful debut of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle late next year, or early 2014.  If Falcon Heavy is a success anywhere within range of the current cost estimates, then many presumptions based on the current launch environment will go out the window, and damn near anything, including Golden Spike, becomes not only possible, but inevitable.

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