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The Sciences

That's one small step for a capitalist . . .

By Kathy A SvitilDecember 1, 2002 6:00 AM

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When Dennis Laurie, the President of TransOrbital Inc. in La Jolla, California, looks at the moon, he sees green—and not the cheesy kind. He wants to go to the moon to make money. "We're talking lunar video games, lunar videos for business advertising and movies, a high-resolution line map of the moon, and other products," he says. Lots of other people have thought about the private exploitation of the moon. But TransOrbital is the first company to wrangle approval from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the State Department for a commercial lunar venture.

Laurie's moon mission, a small robotic orbiter slated for a 2003 launch, is just the first leg of TransOrbital's master plan. Next, the company intends to drop Electra, a lander, onto the lunar surface. The ultimate goal, human colonization, could start within a decade, Laurie says. Veteran space analysts will believe it when they see it. At the very least, TransOrbital's debut spacecraft, TrailBlazer, is already under construction. It will take off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, spend four days en route, and then orbit the moon for 90 days. The craft will snap detailed high-resolution images of the lunar surface, including the neglected farside. Finally, the mission will crash-land onto the surface, carrying with it a time capsule of personal items—business cards, jewelry, computer disks—provided by paying customers. At $2,500 per gram, the cargo should defray $5 million of the mission's $20 million price tag.

Photograph courtesy of NASA/JPL

rd_step.jpg

Photograph courtesy of NASA/JPL

Private plans for the Moon

2003

TransOrbital plans to launch TrailBlazer, a lunar orbiter carrying a video camera.

2004

LunaCorp, based in Fairfax, Virginia, and sponsored by RadioShack, plans to launch the SuperSat digital-video orbiter in 2004, followed by IceBreaker, a rover to explore the lunar poles.

20??SpaceDev of Poway, California, is collaborating with Boeing to develop small moon orbiters that would weigh less than 500 pounds and cost $20 million each.

20??Applied Space Resources of Long Island, New York, is in the early stages of developing a lunar sample return mission.

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