Satellite Technology Feature Article
Golden Spike vs. Apollo - Part 2 - Cost, Technology, Management
By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor
Some skeptics of the Golden Spike company’s plan to put commercial astronauts on the Moon have focused in on the system's price tag (News - Alert), Golden Spike CEO Alan Stern put the R&D costs at $7 billion to $8 billion with single mission costs for a two person crew at around $1.5 billion. The estimated full up cost for the 1960s Apollo program ran to $110 billion in 2012, including the development and testing, averaging out to a whopping $18 billion per landing.
“I would say that Stern doesn’t have enough zeros in his budget,” policy expert John Pike told Wired, asserting there's been no improvements in rocket technology since "the days of Kennedy." Wired also seems to believe the Big Rocket Cabal philosophy that you need something massive and heavy in order to get to the Moon, preferably stacked on the largest rocket you can build.
However, it might be a more true statement to say rocket manufacturing hasn't advanced much since the 1960s, while a host of other enabling technologies has continued to evolve at a rapid clip. For example, Apollo era space navigation problems, which once took over three minutes to calculation on IBM (News - Alert) mainframes, are now run on off-the-shelf PCs and software in a couple of mouse clicks. Materials engineering has advanced significantly. Add in new aluminum and steel alloys, composites, and the low cost of titanium vs. the 1960s to get both weight savings and improved performance over Apollo-era projects.
Golden Spike isn't building a bunch of new systems from scratch. The rockets are either in development (SpaceX (News - Alert) Falcon Heavy) or already exist (ULA Atlas V and the Centaur upper stage). Existing hardware will be slightly modified to enable upper stages to be refueled via a drop tank once in orbit, with the tank released once emptied. It's a dramatically cheaper approach than NASA's new build Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule.
Economies of scale also play a role into lower cost. SpaceX plans to keep cost low by cranking out a bunch of rockets with little variation. While ULA hasn't discussed costs for the Atlas V or upper stages, it certainly would welcome a multi-year buy and steady business to keep its production lines going rather than the stop/start world of government procurement.
Finally, there's the issue of management and knowledge. Apollo's primary goal was get to the Moon before the Soviet Union, with budget and time considerations having to be balanced with the numerous unknowns about how to get humans safety to and from a place no one had ever been before. Golden Spike can take the lessons of Apollo and apply them to its operations as "Known-knowns" while moving at a deliberate pace where money is the pacing item for progress. Less money means slower progress, but money doesn't have to be spent trying to rebuild or outdo Apollo.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman