AUSTIN, TEXAS — If Alex Ignatiev has his way, your future vacation might include a trip to the moon.
Soon, the physicist says, tourists may be able to travel to the moon for weeklong excursions at a privately run hotel, paying between $50,000 to $100,000 to experience weightlessness, take a guided tour of a nearby crater, or simply watch Earth rise over the moon's horizon.
"Technologically, there's nothing holding us back," says Dr. Ignatiev, director of the Space Vacuum Epitaxy Center at the University of Houston. "I see this as a real possibility in my lifetime."
Thirty years after American astronauts first landed on the moon, lunar exploration is suddenly gaining attention, and not just from the telescope-and-beaker crowd. Corporations large and small are taking a hard look at everything from tourism to mining for water and potential fuels like helium-3. It's a fundamental departure from the days of government-led space missions, but it may be a sign of times to come.
This week will be a crescendo of sorts, as scientists, astronauts, and entrepreneurs gather in a Houston suburb for the Lunar Base Symposium.
The grand concept behind this two-day moonfest is that a permanent lunar base is not only technologically feasible, but it can be done relatively cheaply. Some folks even argue that costs could be cut by half or more if government would get out of the way.
"The business world realizes that [space] is a new field of commerce," enthuses Alan Binder, director of the Lunar Research Institute in Gilroy, Calif. Dr. Binder points to his current five-year project, the unmanned Lunar Prospector orbiter. It has gathered reams of data about the moon's surface, at a fraction of the cost of a normal government mission. "The reason I did Lunar Prospector was to prove that you could do a mission inexpensively if you did it outside the controls of government. It worked."
Such a notion turns America's longtime space policy on its head. Since the late 1950s, when the US was losing the "space race" with the USSR, space exploration has been considered a matter of national security, to be entrusted only to a government agency like NASA. Today, with Moscow more likely to launch a new fashion trend than a nuclear missile, the businesses at this week's symposium in League City are champing at the bit to go into space.
"The chief barrier to space exploration is cost," says David Gump, president of LunaCorp, a private company that has designed a lunar rover to search for ice. "Half of the cost at NASA is paperwork and meetings. If you have the private sector involved, you'll bring down the costs."
Among the speakers at the symposium are some familiar names, such as astronauts John Young, Harrison "Jack" Schmidt, and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.
"Obviously, I have an interest in the moon," says Mr. Aldrin, one of the two Apollo 11 astronauts who took the first steps on the moon. His company, Starcraft Enterprises in Los Angeles, is exploring options for replacing NASA's current fleet of space shuttles. "With a heavy-lift vehicle, we can put people in space, for adventure tourism. That would be the first step to taking ordinary citizens to the moon."
Along with such familiar names, the symposium will also be a minor trade show for gadgets and bizarre concepts. Consider the whiplash tether system of transport proposed by Robert Forward, a futurist, physicist, novelist, and founder of Tethers Unlimited in Clinton, Wash.
In theory, Dr. Forward's system would include a satellite that would circle the Earth, waiting for payloads that it would snag and propel into space with a sturdy, 200-kilometer-long tether made of high-strength fibers. Forward says his system could transport ships full of people or supplies to the moon in 2-1/2 days. Above the moon would be a similar orbiting tether satellite, which would grab the payload and place it on the surface of the moon.
"It's like a David and Goliath sling; You pick up a rock and sling it to the moon," says Forward, who's now considering a tether system for transporting ships to Mars in 90 days.
Whether they are slung into space or travel aboard a standard rocket, earthlings may have the option of staying a night at a Lunar Hilton. One Hilton executive says the hotel chain is actively considering 16 different viable space hotel plans, and would love to set up shop on the moon, given the right conditions.
"We're very interested, but we need to do a heck of a lot of research to see that this is feasible," says Hilton's American spokeswoman Jeanne Datz. "Is this something that people really want? Is it safe? And what are you going to do up there besides just float around?"
Of course, not all the lunar predictions are pie in the sky. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to commercial space exploration may be a set of laws that date back to the cold war, when the USSR was the leading power in space and in the United Nations.
Legal stumbling blocks
Under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, for instance, no private industry can claim property rights in space. Lacking those rights, no business could lay claim to minerals or water or any other item of value found on the moon.
"Do you think ... American businessmen or individuals are going to go up to settle the moon if they didn't believe they can own the land they settle?" says Art Dula, adjunct professor of space law at the University of Houston. "We can fix the problem. Since federal statutes override international law, it just takes getting Congress to pass a statute."
Other scientists wonder if business will have the patience for long-term planning.
None of this dampens the spirits of astronomer Binder, though. "I want to get humanity back on the moon - including myself."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society