HOUSTON — When veteran space tourist Mark Shuttleworth recently remarked that his next space adventure would have to involve a moon visit, observers could be forgiven thinking that the South African multimillionaire was in some sort of zero-gravity-induced delirium from his orbital flight two years ago.
But now a private group of spaceflight planners has developed a strategy for lunar tourist missions using existing or modified space hardware. Even with an estimated cost per ticket in excess of $100 million for a simple lunar fly-by, the scheme appears remarkably doable, in the view of some space experts.
Constellation Services International, a small California space firm founded in late 1998, recently disclosed details of the Lunar Express project to resume human flights to the moon funded by private passengers. Chief executive officer Charles Miller discussed it with MSNBC.com in an interview this month.
“The key is getting the cost down using existing assets to make it viable,” he stressed. The mission design his team developed makes use of upgraded versions of existing spacecraft, from the Russian Soyuz that transports crews between Earth and the international space station, to the mighty Proton rocket that can carry more than 20 tons into orbit.
In their strategy, Constellation Services imagines a modified Soyuz spacecraft performing a baseline six-month space station crew exchange mission. A new Soyuz is launched with two new station crew members and the paying passenger. They perform the standard weeklong crew exchange, and then the old Soyuz, the returning station crew and the tourist unhook from the station.
Here’s where it gets interesting: The Soyuz does not return directly to Earth, as in the past. Instead, it approaches a rocket stage that has been launched separately with a special payload, and docks with it. That stage then ignites, pushing itself and the Soyuz and its passengers toward the moon. The flight, which slingshots around the moon but does not actually enter lunar orbit, will take six days.
“The biggest cost is paying for the Proton,” Miller said. But other boosters, ranging from new U.S. vehicles to the European Ariane 5 to the still-untested Chinese Long March 4, could also serve.
“To me that sounds like a great idea,” Apollo 11 moonwalker and space tourism advocate Buzz Aldrin told MSNBC.com. The mission concept was no substitute for the "mature U.S. exploration program” that NASA envisions for the moon, he said, “but it supports it very strongly.”
Pioneering space lawyer Arthur Dula in Houston also was impressed by the idea. “Wow, zow, this is a great idea. The project is entirely possible. Wish I had thought of it.” he wrote in an e-mail.
“What a paradigm shifter this would be,” he added.
Dula, who has been involved in start-ups of several space industrial endeavors over the past 20 years, sees the idea as potentially profitable: “It would pay for itself in media attention to the person [or] group that bought it. Three or four billion people would hit the passenger's blog during the flight. Seriously, a private lunar mission could pay for itself in media hits alone.”
The idea also received positive feedback from Jonathan Goff, engineer and co-founder of Masten Space Systems, who has been studying commercial lunar development.
“I'd say that from what I've seen of their proposal, that it is actually quite technically solid, and quite creative,” Goff said.
Neither Miller nor Constellation’s chief operations officer, David Anderman, minimizes the engineering challenges of such a mission. The challenges have to do with the capabilities of the Soyuz vehicle itself as well as the logistics module it would dock to at the booster stage.
Although the Soviet Union did send human-qualified Soyuz-style spacecraft around the moon in preparation for sending cosmonauts — a plan that was canceled after the success of Apollo — today’s Soyuz spacecraft has undergone decades of evolution and fine-tuning to make it an efficient Earth-to-low-orbit transport. Requalifying it for a lunar mission would involve much more than just slapping on a thicker heat shield and a more powerful radio, experts said privately.
The booster-mounted ‘mission module” could look a lot like the storage hold of a Russian Progress space freighter, or like the transfer module carried to Mir aboard a space shuttle in 1995 to act as the U.S.-Russian interface hardware. And the booster itself could be a standard upper stage already developed for carrying commercial communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit. Transportation is thus the easier part of the challenge.
Who will pay?
The commercial purchase price of a Proton-class launch vehicle is in the $60 million to $80 million range, and that doesn’t even count the additional hardware and modifications. This is already several times as much as Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth paid for their weeklong orbital excursions.
But Miller is hopeful that the Russian will find the cash to subsidize some of these development costs: “We assume every nation will consider it prestigious and will pay for a seat,” he said. “The commander will be a Russian — so they probably will be flexible on price.”
Miller asserted that his team had been in touch with Russian space officials, and “they are interested” — even though nothing is on the record and the plan has not struck sparks in the Russian press.
Staking a space claim
So far, then, Constellation’s moon tourist proposal remains just an idea. The obvious question is what would prevent the Russians, or some other international space business, from simply stealing the idea and blowing off Miller and his associates.
It’s happened before. Critical concepts of spaceflight operations — such as multistage rockets, 24-hour stationary orbits for communications relays, or pressurized spacesuits — were developed by theoreticians decades before they were implemented, and they were never patented. Some features of early U.S. manned space capsules, such as the escape rocket for launch abort rescue, were patented, but the Soviets copied the idea anyway. Space engineering ideas and concepts seem to cross international borders with dizzying speed.
But not this time, today’s inventors insist. “It’s a unique and non-obvious idea and nobody thought of it before,” Miller insists. And the strategy has a patent pending, he announced, that he expected the Russians to honor. As to the specific features of the patent that make it illegal for any other spacefaring nation to use the idea without permission, Miller was circumspect: “I’d rather not describe the aspects of that,” he stated.
Extending the protections of terrestrial law to outer space may not be entirely unearthly, Goff told MSNBC.com. “I think it may be quite possible that the specific way they want to use the Soyuz is actually patentable,” he wrote.
“For technical feasibility, I give them very high odds of pulling it off, “ he continued. “The real sticky part isn't the technology, it's the financing and the market. It will remain to be seen if they can pull it off.
“The real question they need to answer is: Can they really offer flights at a price point low enough that somebody can actually afford to buy from them? We've already seen that there are some people who'll fork out $20 million to fly on a Soyuz to the station. I'm sure people would love to fly a Soyuz around the moon. That would be the ride of a lifetime! The question is, though, will there actually be anyone who can afford to pay the price that CSI will have to charge to make a profit?”