It has been 40 years since the last Apollo mission traveled to the Moon. The Golden Spike company says it can conduct manned lunar missions within a decade at a bargain-basement price of $5 billion to $7 billion in development costs and a per mission cost of $1.5 billion, using a lot of existing or in-development space hardware. There are some key differences in how Apollo worked vs. how a Golden Spike mission would be conducted.
Apollo was built around the concept of a single massive launch on a Saturn V to put three astronauts and all of their exploration gear into earth orbit. The command module and lunar lander were sent to the moon with a relight of the Saturn V third stage, followed by the command module turning around, docking with the lander.
Upon arrival at the moon, the command module would fire to put the two craft into lunar orbit. Two of the three astronauts would load into the lander and descend to the surface for exploration, leaving the third astronaut tending the command module for one to three days. At the end of lunar exploration, the top part of the lunar lander would take off from the surface, rendezvous with the command module, crew and lunar samples transferred, followed by release of the lander segment and a command module burn to send the crew home to Earth for splashdown.
Golden Spike's approach borrows from a different concept researched during the Apollo era, a rendezvous with the lunar orbiter in lunar orbit. In one notational design, a SpaceX (News - Alert) Falcon Heavy would be used to launch a lunar lander and upper stage into Earth orbit, with the upper stage putting the lander into lunar orbit awaiting a crew. A second Falcon Heavy launch would carry a SpaceX Dragon and an upper stage or propulsion module into earth orbit, with the upper stage putting Dragon on its way to lunar orbit. If Falcon Heavy isn't available, four ULA Atlas V launches would be needed, with the first pair lofting a lunar lander and transfer stage into orbit with the second pair combining a manned capsule and a transfer stage.
In lunar orbit, the Dragon would rendezvous with the awaiting lunar lander. The two astronauts would load in and descend to the lunar surface, leaving Dragon on autopilot and tended remotely from Earth. Expected surface time on the moon would be at least 36 hours and include two EVAs, or "moonwalks." The explorers would have up to 50 kilograms of lunar experiments and other equipment at their disposal -- no golf cars or lunar rovers -- and could bring back up to 50 kilograms of lunar samples for return to earth. Lunar stay time with a Golden Spike mission is expected to exceed the total stay time of both Apollo 11 and 12 missions. At the end, the two explorers load up into the lander, blast off, rendezvous with the awaiting Dragon, pile in, jettison the lunar lander, and conduct a burn to head home for Earth for reentry and landing.
Clearly, Golden Spike has advantages and complexities over the Apollo approach. By using smaller launch vehicles and less total mission mass -- one less astronaut to tend to the command module in lunar orbit, costs can be kept down. Multiple launches and one or two rendezvous add more moving pieces to bring together, but nothing crazy; automated supply operations to the International Space Station (ISS) have been conduced both by governments and commercial operators.
Rendezvous with a pre-positioned lander in lunar orbit isn't a new concept. NASA evaluated the option among several alternatives during the Apollo program.
One other interesting point not mentioned at yesterday's Golden Spike event is the ability to add capabilities to the baseline at incremental cost once the initial transportation system has been demonstrated. A re-usable (and potentially remotely operated when humans aren't around) lunar rover for explorations and an inflatable habitat for a base camp could be delivered in single flights. Upper stage fuel tanks, upper stages, and lunar landers could evolve from being disposable to reusable items, lowering cost and/or adding capabilities.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman