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Updated Friday, December 7, 2012 at 07:22 AM

To the moon? Firm hopes to sell $1.5 billion trips

By SETH BORENSTEIN
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Attention wealthy nations and billionaires: A team of former NASA executives will fly you to the moon in an out-of-this-world commercial venture combining the wizardry of Apollo and the marketing of Apple.

For a mere $1.5 billion, the business is offering countries the chance to send two people to the moon and back, either for research or prestige. And if you are an individual with that kind of money to spare, you, too, can go to the moon for a couple days.

Some space experts are skeptical of the firm's financial ability to get to the moon. The venture, Golden Spike, was announced Thursday.

Dozens of private space companies have started up recently, but few will make it — just like in other fields — said Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who tracks launches worldwide.

"This is unlikely to be the one that will pan out," McDowell said.

NASA's last trip to the moon launched 40 years ago Friday. The United States is the only country that has landed people there, beating the Soviet Union in a space race to the moon that transfixed the world. But once the race ended, there has been only sporadic interest in the moon.

President Obama canceled NASA's planned return to the moon, saying America had been there.

But former NASA officials behind Golden Spike were unfazed.

The firm has talked to other countries, which are showing interest, said former NASA associate administrator Alan Stern, Golden Spike's president. Stern said he's looking at countries such as South Africa, South Korea and Japan. One rich individual — he won't give a name — has also been talking to Golden Spike, but the company's main market is foreign nations, he said.

"It's not about being first. It's about joining the club," Stern said. "We're kind of cleaning up what NASA did in the 1960s. We're going to make a commodity of it in the 2020s."

The selling point: "the sex appeal of flying your own astronauts," Stern said.

Many countries did pony up millions of dollars to fly astronauts on the Russian space station Mir and American space shuttles in the 1990s, but a billion-dollar price tag seems a bit steep, Harvard's McDowell said.

NASA chief spokesman David Weaver said the new company "is further evidence of the timeliness and wisdom of the Obama administration's overall space policy," which tries to foster commercial space companies.

Getting to the moon would involve several steps: Two astronauts would launch to Earth orbit, connect with another engine that would send them to lunar orbit. Around the moon, the crew would link up with a lunar orbiter and take a moon-landing ship down to the surface.

The company will buy existing rockets and capsules for the launches, Stern said, only needing to develop new spacesuits and a lunar lander.

Stern said he's aiming for a first launch before the end of the decade and then up 15 or 20 launches total.


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