For-Profit Moon Mission Slated for October

John Roach
for National Geographic News
January 29, 2003
A satellite whose creators hope will be the envy of NASCAR is slated to deliver business cards, personal notes, fine jewels, and cremated human remains to the surface of the moon later this year.

The mission is a commercial enterprise of TransOrbital, Inc., a company based in La Jolla, California. The company's logo-plastered satellite will capture detailed video and photographs of the moon's surface and crash-land a capsule full of personal mementos on the moon's surface.

The launch, scheduled for October, is just the beginning of company's commercial designs on the moon.

"What I'm looking for is the opportunity to create commercial enterprise with the moon as its focus point," said Dennis Laurie, president of TransOrbital.

Laurie's vision of the moon's business potential includes a staging area for exploration of other planets and moons and the ultimate data backup system for Earth-bound computer information systems. Laurie envisions the latter as a type of communications server that could retrieve and store information free from Earth-borne disruptions.

The company's Trailblazer mission will launch from a former Russian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) modified for commercial space flight. It is the first of many private space missions TransOrbital plans for the near future.

The firm has a US $20 million contract to launch missions for the next three years with International Space Company Kosmotras, a Russian-Ukraine firm that has authorization to use decommissioned ICBMs.

"Five years ago that rocket had a warhead on it and was probably aimed at the U.S.," said Laurie.

Permission to Fly

TransOrbital is the first and only commercial company licensed by the U.S. Department of State and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for private sector flights to the moon.

Even though the U.S. government agencies do not have legal authority to regulate lunar commercial enterprises, they do have strict control over the ability to get off planet Earth with a rocket, said Laurie, who noted the complex licensing processing required by the agencies for commercial space flight. "You have to be detailed with what you are doing, where, and what for," he said.

The U.S. government agencies granted TransOrbital permission to launch their moon shoot in September 2002, but only after the company agreed not to harm the lunar environment and to preserve historical sites, such as the original unmanned U.S. and Russian lunar landing sites from the late 1950s and 1960s.

Nevertheless, the pending commercialization of the moon is causing some critics to raise questions about the ethics of such endeavors.

"A generation ago, our interest in space and the moon was driven primarily by scientific curiosity and an interest in understanding what was out there," said Margaret McLean of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California.

"But our voyages of discovery seem to be giving way to voyages of profit, of launching a true 'pay load' to the moon—i.e. a load of anything whatsoever as long as someone pays for it," she said.

To the Moon, For a Price

After TransOrbital was granted permission to fly last September, the firm readied a test satellite for a December launch. The event went off flawlessly, according to Laurie, who said that the ICBM and the satellite separation system worked as planned.

The successful launch put TransOrbital on target to begin routine moon travel starting in October 2003.

To pay for the trips to the moon, TransOrbital intends to sell video and photography of the launch process, "Earthrise" as seen from the moon, and the lunar landscape to the entertainment industry.

The high resolution lunar video and photographic imagery, which is expected to captured lunar features and details as small as one meter (3.3 feet) in size, which will provide unprecedented detail for movies and video games, the firm says. The images will cover the entire lunar surface.

Earthlings can send personal items to the lunar surface at the rate of US $2,500 per gram. In addition, written messages up the 300 characters long can be etched onto a moon-bound disk for U.S. $16.95. For U.S. $13 more, consumers can send a text message of 9,600 characters.

The thought of sending all this stuff to the moon causes McLean, the author of a 1998 paper on the ethics of lunar commercialization, to question human responsibility towards the treatment of the moon.

As a guiding principle, McLean suggests that people should leave the natural world, including the moon and other parts of the universe, no worse than they found it. Under such a premise, sending business cards, photos, and ashes to the moon is just as unethical as leaving such items behind on the floor of the Grand Canyon.

"As the only Earthly creatures which can impact the moon, we have a special responsibility to recognize our propensity for throwing the balance of nature off kilter and actively guard against it," she said.

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