Apollo 13 Astronaut Jim Lovell Joins Private Moon Flight Company

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Apollo 13 Astronaut Jim Lovell Joins Private Moon Flight Company
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An artist's illustration of a Golden Spike Company moon lander on the lunar surface.

Legendary Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell has signed on with a commercial lunar exploration firm to help make private trips to the moon a reality, the company Golden Spike announced today (May 15).

Golden Spike aims to launch private citizens on round-trip visits to the moon starting in 2020 for a fee of $1.5 billion per flight. The firm, named after the final spike that joined the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, is pitching these lunar voyages to corporations, countries without their own space programs, and even wealthy individuals.

Lovell, who commanded the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission in 1970, has signed on as a member of Golden Spike's board of advisors, and has already consulted on possible designs for Golden Spike's crew module and other issues. [Golden Spike on the Moon: Private Lunar Trips (Photos)]

"Finally there’s a company, Golden Spike, that plans a purely commercial approach to returning to the moon" Lovell said in a statement. "I am pleased to be part of this enthusiastic group of engineers and scientists working together with the aerospace industry to design and build cost effective lunar flights."

Moon hero

During Apollo 13, Jim Lovell and his crewmates struggled to return home to Earth safely after an exposed wire in their spacecraft's oxygen tank sparked a fire that damaged the vehicle, threatening their lives and foiling their plan of landing on the moon. Ultimately, after a tense few days, the three landed safe and sound.

Before that mission, Lovell flew on the first mission to orbit the moon, Apollo 8, as well as two Gemini missions in the 1960s.

"Having flown to the moon twice, and trained for landing, and been a part of probably the most harrowing space mission anyone's ever come back from alive, Jim's a tremendous source of experience," Golden Spike president and CEO Alan Stern told SPACE.com.

Stern and other company leaders, including chairman of the board of directors Gerry Griffin, a former Apollo flight director and NASA Johnson Space Center director, began talking to Lovell about joining the team about a year ago, six months before Golden Spike's private moon mission venture was publicly announced last December.

Lovell ultimately decided to get involved a few weeks ago after a four-hour meeting at his home in Marble Falls, Texas with Stern and the others.

"At the end of the conversation Jim said something along the lines of, 'I'm convinced, how can I help?'" Stern recalled.

The business model

The involvement of a bona fide moon hero certainly gives a boost to the company as it aims to choose a design for its moon lander and settle other technical questions, such as which rocket it will use to launch its missions and which capsule to transport its cargo and crew to the moon. Golden Spike recently announced that the Northrop Grumman company, which it had hired to study potential lunar lander designs, completed a study confirming the feasibility of its "Pumpkin Lander" concept.

"To my knowledge, this is the first Apollo astronaut to join a commercial human spaceflight company," Stern said. "And since we're a lunar company, obviously we are interested in lunar astronauts. There are only a few people that have that experience."

Golden Spike is one of a growing number of private companies aiming to send people to space. Some, such as suborbital space outfit Virgin Galactic, aren't aiming quite as far as the moon, while others like the non-profit Mars One foundation are reaching even farther, hoping to send humans on one-way trips to Mars by 2023.

Golden Spike stands in contrast to some commercial space companies with wealthy backers, such as Virgin's Sir Richard Branson, SpaceX's billionaire founder Elon Musk, and the Blue Origin company, which was founded by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos. Golden Spike doesn't need that kind of cash infusion, Stern said — the firm's business model is strong enough on its own, and sales alone should fund its operations once it gets up and running, he said.

It was this business model in part that finally sold Lovell on joining the project, Stern added.

"It's confirmatory," Stern said of Lovell's support. "I am really excited to have Jim join."

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