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San Diego, Russian Firms Shoot for the Moon in a Race to Profit in Space

Times Staff Writer

After a 30-year hiatus, the United States looks to be going to the moon again.

Only this time, the government will have nothing to do with it. And instead of trying to touch down gently on the lunar surface, the idea now is to crash the craft, scattering business cards and bric-a-brac everywhere.

San Diego-based TransOrbital Inc. came one step closer to its long-planned moon mission Tuesday when it signed a $20-million contract with Russian space company Kosmotras. The deal calls for a test flight that will blast off from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan and put a satellite into Earth orbit Dec. 20. The launch vehicle will be a mothballed rocket that once carried nuclear warheads aimed at U.S. targets.

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TransOrbital President Dennis Laurie said the actual moon shot, scheduled for October 2003, would cost about $40 million.

The point of the mission? Profit.

TransOrbital is selling space aboard the moon-bound spacecraft -- not for people but for items such as business cards, photos or personal messages at $2,500 a gram. The craft also will carry a list of people who have staked “claims” to lunar acreage.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration declined to comment on the Trans- Orbital project. But NASA officials have been critical of the company in the past, accusing TransOrbital of “taking pot shots at the moon” and possibly causing “ethical and ecological” problems.

If successful, TransOrbital would become the first commercial venture to go to the moon. Backers say it could open the floodgates to business ventures there, ranging from a resting place for cremated remains to a luxurious vacation spot for the very rich.

Other lunar advocates talk of the moon as the ultimate depository of knowledge, to guard against a time when a cataclysmic event might wipe out life on Earth.

They also speak of the moon as the perfect place to train space travelers as they prepare to explore even deeper into the universe.

“My estimate is that in eight to 10 years, you should have tours going to the moon,” said Laurie, who came on board the project two years ago. “It doesn’t take any longer to go to the moon than it does to drive across the country.”

But there are serious doubters, among them former astronaut and moon walker Alan Bean, who called the venture nothing more than a “pipe dream.”

“There’s no way to make any money going to the moon and back,” said Bean, who makes a portion of his living painting moonscapes. “Someday, it will be an excellent business, but not now. If you do it once it would be nice, but there’s no way to recover the costs. Someday there will be traffic between us and the moon, but it’s probably 200 or 300 years away.”

In 1969, the United States became the first nation to put men on the moon. But manned moon exploration stopped three years later, and no one has been to Earth’s satellite for the 30 years. Part of the reason has been that NASA has set different priorities since then and has virtually written off the moon as a lifeless body that needs no further exploration.

In short, been there, done that.

Others, however, remain infatuated with the idea of eventually colonizing the moon, then spreading mankind to the outer reaches of space.

“Think of the government as the Lewis and Clark of space,” said Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, an organization whose members are proponents of space settlement. “Now it’s time to hand off to the settlers and shopkeepers that will make it a new domain.”

Commercial space flight is not new. Satellites by the dozen circle Earth, performing tasks that include communication and spying. But all the commercial rocket launches have been for orbital work, not landing anywhere.

“Admittedly, there is a pretty high giggle factor to the project,” said Paul Blase, chief technical officer for TransOrbital.

Blase, who is based in Trans- Orbital’s Virginia office, said the project began when he and several others teamed up via the Internet to discuss what kind of moon mission could be commercially viable. He said the launch will take place in Kazakhstan because the Russians offered the lowest price quote.

Besides the business cards and other cargo, the satellite, called Trailblazer, will orbit the moon for three months. One project will be to map the surface using high-definition cameras. It also will attempt to photograph hardware left over from U.S. and Russian space missions.

Blase said the most difficult part of the project was obtaining clearances from U.S. officials. The State Department had to be convinced that the project would not export valuable technology to the Russians.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needed, among other things, assurances that the lunar module and its contents would not contaminate the moon. The process of getting through both bureaucracies took two years before final approval was granted in September.

“The big breakthrough was when we finally got the export license,” Blase said. “With that, it turns from a wild idea to something that may be feasible. It’s the legislative and procedural barriers that are the hardest to overcome.”

Laurie said the company has “thousands” of orders already, with some people asking about sending cremated remains to the moon. “They’d like to have some part of a family member in a place that they can see every day,” he said.

Laurie said that at one point he was contacted by a representative of a prominent Middle Eastern family. The request: to transport a chair to the moon.

“It turned out that it was a throne, not a chair,” Laurie said. “We had to pass on that one.”

One thing the satellite is set to transport is a compact disc containing the names of people who have purchased land on the moon from Dennis Hope, who laid claim in a clever entrepreneurial move to all the known planets and moons in 1980.

Since then, he has been busy selling land on those celestial bodies for $19.99 an acre. He’s also been selling space on the disc that will be sent on the first mission.

Hope, who calls himself the Head Cheese, said actually having their names on the moon strengthens buyers’ claims of ownership.

“It’s a claim of property with the intent to occupy,” Hope said, deadpan.

TransOrbital isn’t the only company that wants to go to the moon.

LunaCorp hopes to have its own orbiter by as early as 2005. It scored something of a coup recently when it negotiated a deal for Radio Shack to film a commercial at the International Space Station. But David Gump, the company president, said the major difficulty in the space business is the tremendous cost.

“Money’s tight,” he said. “Space suffers from the fact that most projects have at least two more zeroes than sponsors want to pay.”

For TransOrbital, an even bigger headache may be the fallout that would come when its satellite slammed into the moon.

NASA received a lot of criticism when its last probe, the Lunar Prospector, mapped the moon in 1998 and then crashed into it. That apparently upset the Navajo Nation, which holds the moon sacred.

Times staff writer Peter Pae contributed to this report.


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