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.
Creative financingTrailblazer 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.
The craft will then deorbit and disintegrate upon impact. About 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of personal effects will remain intact, housed in a protective capsule that will tunnel 13-16 feet (4-5 meters) into the lunar surface.
TransOrbital initially had planned a July 2001 launch. Trailblazer was later expected to go up early this year. But a 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.
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.
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,