The entire Apollo mission cost the U.S. government around $20 billion dollars — but if a U.K. start-up has its way, you could charter a trip for a flight around the Moon for the modest price of $150 million. In order to get you there, the company is looking to use tried-and-true technologies developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s for its Mir and Zarya programs.
Aside from figuring out how you're going to come up with that sum of money, the only question you need to ask yourself now is, do you dare?
The Isle of Man is starting to become a really interesting place –- what some are calling a space-tech cluster. A self-governing dependency of the U.K., it's already home to nearly 30 of the world's 54 satellite companies. And now they have a new neighbor, the ambitious Excalibur Almaz program.
Led by CEO Art Dula, a lawyer and the literary executor of the acclaimed author Robert Heinlein, Excalibur's seeking to become a major player in international commercial space transportation. And the company's goals are anything but modest. Not only is Excalibur looking to tap into the space tourism industry, it's also hoping to provide services for cargo transportation, astronaut training, space-based laboratories, and even asteroid mining. The company's stated goal is to provide "affordable and reliable transportation of humans and cargo to Low Earth Orbit, libration point, the Moon and beyond."
And Excalibur's special claim is that they'll be able to build a private space program in a way that's far more affordable and efficient than their would-be competitors. They plan on doing this by using "heritage hardware", namely technologies and launch services that were developed by the Soviet Union. They figure that this will save them about $2 billion in development costs. And by using these tried-and-true technologies, the company also claims that there's a smaller risk of safety problems.
Specifically, Exalibur is the proud owners of four reusable reentry vehicles (RRVs) and two large Salyut-Class spacecraft. The four capsules will be able to carry three passengers to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The two spacecraft are carbon copies of the Russian Mir core and the International Space Station (ISS) Zarya module, which have a capacity of 95 cubic meters. Thankfully, the new owners plan on replacing all the Soviet-era electronics with modern parts.
The Almaz program itself is an offshoot of the Soviet Union's military space program developed by MIC JSC NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPOM) in the 1970s.
To get the space stations in orbit, Excalibur will use Russian Proton rockets that will be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The astronauts themselves will use the RRVs to get to and from the spacecraft. And yes, that means you'll have to suffer through re-entry and a splashdown, or hard-surface landing, should you want to get back to Earth.
Still in its nascent start-up phase, the company is looking for investors. But that hasn't stopped it from outlining an ambitious suite of initial service offerings, including lunar, libration point, and deep space missions, along with LEO crew and cargo delivery, and environments for microgravity research.
Very recently, as a part of their effort to provide space tourism services, Excalibur announced an agreement with California-based XCOR Aerospace to develop suborbital flight. Their initial goal is to see four flights per day and at a price that is less than one sixth of their main competitors. To do so, the company will use Lynx, a vehicle that's currently under development. And Excalibur hopes to start testing in 2013, while the flights themselves are scheduled for 2015.
And the company also wants to send space tourists to the Moon for what would undoubtedly be a spectacular flyby. The plan is to get the RRV crew capsule and the larger Salyut-type spacecraft to rendezvous and dock in LEO. From there, they would be able to send a spacecraft towards the Moon in any number of paths, including lunar transfer and low lunar orbits. Excalibur can also use low energy transfer orbits for travel to gravity-stable Lagrange Points. And along with a traditional chemical injection stage and Hohmann transfer technique, the company could schedule an Earth-Moon cycler orbit every two weeks.
The trips could cost between $100 to $150 million for each individual, and require six months of training (better book your time off work now). According to research conducted by EA, there is a demand for at least 29 such tickets over the next 10 years – what the company feels is the tip of the iceberg.
The company is also looking to provide the means for asteroid mining. In particular, it's trying to get investors and would-be space miners excited by the prospect. Take the asteroid Apophis, for example, which may have significant nickel deposits –- and which sells for $19,000 a ton on the open market.
Excalibur may or may not fly as an operation, but its approach certainly seems sound. By not trying to re-invent the wheel, and by keeping their strategies simple, this company may actually beat many of its competitors to the punch. This could prove to be no small thing, as their initial earnings in a largely uncompetitive market could quickly boost the company. From there, Excalibur could forge stronger alliances with other companies, and start to develop more sophisticated technologies to supplant the ones developed forty years ago.
Plus, as more international commercial space companies emerge, and as their technologies continually develop, it's safe to assume that prices will eventually drop. So, for the average consumer, it may only be a matter of time before trips to the Moon become slightly more affordable.
Image via Shutterstock.com/holbox. Inset images via EA, Essex Group, HowItWorksDaily, XCOR.