While President Bush's new out-of-this-world vision has generated worldwide debate over whether private industry should play a bigger role in space exploration, one company is poised to answer the question with an enthusiastic thud later this year.
Thousands of people have paid to have messages, business cards, art or the ashes of loved ones sent to the moon on the Trailblazer robotic probe, which if successful will slam into the lunar surface and squash any doubt about the looming commercialization of space.
The mission is a private venture of California-based TransOrbital Inc., which is also drawing on corporate sponsorships and advertising to fund the effort.
After years of delay, launch is now slated for this fall, company President Dennis Laurie said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Individuals can book items for the flight at the company's Web site, TransOrbital.net. Sending a business card to the moon costs $2,500. Other relics or mementos can fly for $2,500 per gram. A text message costs $17.
Trailblazer will orbit the moon for about three months, sending back high-quality and potentially salable photos of Apollo landing sites, plus HDTV-quality video that might be sold for advertising use. Data will be collected to create a new, high-resolution lunar map, also potentially salable.
TransOrbital initially had planned a July 2001 launch. Trailblazer was later expected to go up early this year. But a new deal struck with Hewlett Packard last summer, which will allow anyone with a properly equipped handheld computer to communicate with the lunar orbiter, forced additional engineering, Laurie said.
"We'd like to have as many people either send things to the moon or access the satellite while it's in orbit around the moon as possible," he said. Terrestrial communicators would get a confirmation message that the craft had received a signal.
Despite delays, the 242-pound (110-kilogram) orbiter is under construction, the launch vehicle is in place at a Russian facility, and it looks as if liftoff will occur "in October or November of this year," Laurie said. He added that he's 80 to 90 percent confident in that forecast.
Good model for NASA
Proponents of expanded space exploration and the commercialization of space are eager for a private mission like this.
Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society, said TransOrbital's concept is sound.
In fact, he said NASA could learn a thing or two from the approach.
Chase thinks the space agency should provide incentives for the private sector by buying data, rather than just doling out contracts for spacecraft construction. The current way of doing business leaves the space agency, in many cases, in charge of overseeing construction, running flight operations and doing the scientific observations, "a lot of details that probably NASA doesn't need to worry about."
Given Bush's call to put humans back on the moon, Chase told Space.com, "Now is a great time" for a mission like TransOrbital's to succeed.
"I think it bolsters the case that there is a role for the private sector in space exploration," he said, adding that unlike some advocates of privatization he sees the government continuing to play a dominant role.
TransOrbital appears to have little immediate competition.
Nearly four years ago another company, LunaCorp, got $1 million in backing from Radio Shack to design a robotic craft that would be assembled on the international space station and launch from there to the moon. Like TransOrbital's probe, it would generate high-resolution pictures and video and involve public participation.
LunaCorp President David Gump said Wednesday that the mission awaits further funding before construction could begin.
"Our prospects obviously improved with the president's declaration," Gump said, adding that LunaCorp's mission would be one way to repurpose the space station toward lunar exploration. Bush had said research on the station should be refocused to support his grand vision of putting people on the moon and Mars.
On the verge
Meanwhile, TransOrbital appears to be the only company on the verge of launching a privately funded spacecraft beyond Earth orbit. Yet, because the company is private, it is not known with certainty whether it is financially prepared for liftoff.
In a test in 2002 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, TransOrbital put a dummy craft into Earth orbit using a Russian Dnepr rocket. The same setup will be used for the moon launch.
Laurie said the Baikonur success should convince potential supporters that the company has the finances, engineering and planning resources to make the lunar trip a reality. "You just go that one step farther," he said.
TransOrbital plans to make money off this and future planned missions to the moon by selling advertisements and sponsorships in addition to the revenue it collects on its Web site.
Laurie would not divulge sales figures but said "thousands of messages and products" have been booked for the flight. The cards and other personal items "will contribute significantly" to the revenue of the project, he said.
Additional revenue could come from Trailblazer's lunar map, which will be the highest-resolution ever and could help NASA and other private firms plan future lunar forays, he said.
The mission is expected to cost less than $20 million.
Critics of the project have expressed worry about littering the moon. Most of the critics, Laurie said, are environmentalists "who would like to make sure the moon won't suffer some of the ungracious treatment the Earth has experienced."
TransOrbital has been addressing the environmental concerns from the outset, he said, and the Trailblazer mission is the only private, beyond-Earth-orbit spaceflight plan presently approved by State Department. The agency required TransOrbital show that the impact "wouldn't disturb the normal environment in any untoward way," he said.
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