In recent years, a unique mix of 21st century technology and marketing ethos has provided entrepreneurs with an opportunity to explore the profit potential of Earth's moon. To that end, TransOrbital Inc. has an objective: to develop a commercial infrastructure that will lay the groundwork for a permanent human presence on the Moon and beyond.
In 2002, the U.S. State Department granted permission for the La Jolla-based firm to proceed with the first commercial Moon mission attempted by a private company. TransOrbital subsequently completed a successful satellite test run and has now scheduled an October 2004 launch date for its TrailBlazer lunar orbiter, which will take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The company's market research on "saleable" mission-related products has resulted in a list that comprises "advertising, web content, dramatic uses for the high-resolution imagery obtained, books and a film documentary telling the story of how TransOrbital has written and implemented the business model for the next chapter in the commercialization of space."
"On a given day, you probably access a satellite in orbit a half a dozen times and don't even know it," said TransOrbital President and CEO Dennis Laurie, who cited as just a few common examples as most credit card transactions, plus telephone, television, video, weather and GPS applications.
In July 2003, TransOrbital announced an arrangement with Hewlett-Packard through which TrailBlazer's use of iPAQ Pocket PC h5550 technology will allow individuals to interface with the orbiting satellite via computer.
"We're trying to open up space so that all the people that are interested in it can find some way to participate," Laurie said.
He also noted that TrailBlazer will be equipped with specialized camera equipment to photograph "every part of the moon's surface" and that the spacecraft's streaming video capabilities will capture such visuals as the de-orbiting satellite's descent onto the Moon's surface, the decades-old Russian Lunakhod and American Apollo landing sites and the "earthrise" (described as "The Earth rising over the limb of the moon").
TrailBlazer will also transport inert cargo-thousands of items-including the cremated remains of numerous individuals, jewelry, artwork, messages and some scientific items, all stowed in an ultra-strong time capsule. Laurie explained that although the small satellite will likely disintegrate on reaching the Moon's surface, the enclosed time capsule is expected to stay intact and penetrate approximately three to four meters into the Moon's surface.
A banner on the TransOrbital website flashes a picture of Egyptian pyramids, followed by the words, "Their thoughts and treasures are forever lost. Yours can last forever. Permanently enshrined on the Moon"
On the lower price end of the site's online catalog, visitors can purchase a "Time Capsule message" up to 300 characters in length for $16.95, and, for a few dollars more, an entire letter-sized page (maximum 9,600 characters) of text and/or image. Less economic, but in keeping with the spirit of enterprise: sending one's business card to the Moon for $2,500.
TransOrbital will also approve, "on a case by case basis, the transportation of... any relic such as valentines, love letters, rings, objects with metaphysical characteristics, anything and everything personal that cannot harm the spacecraft." The cost: $2,500 per gram.
On the subject in sending cremains to the Moon, Laurie commented, "Our original thought was... somebody might like the idea of having at least a portion of the ashes someplace that they wouldn't be disturbed forever-and forever." As it turned out, however, most individuals who purchased passages to the Moon for cremains did it "so that every time the moon comes up, they can remember a loved one.
But Laurie also revealed that in some cases, loving memories might not be the motivation for some ashes being sent into orbit-"but we don't know that for sure. We've been told that sometimes it could be... someone they didn't like."
Although Laurie called most public reaction to the venture "pretty supportive," he said he was aware of people who believe humankind, with its environment-polluting tendencies, has no business, real or imagined, going to the Moon or any other destination in the solar system.
But noting that the Russian SS-18 to be used as TrailBlazer's launch vehicle once possessed enough nuclear capability to destroy the entire U.S. West Coast, Laurie said TransOrbital "wanted to show that you can take component parts that were supposed to be used as weapons of mass destruction and convert them over to a benign use."
And if commercial motives are not enough, Laurie pointed out that the tenuousness of existence alone could serve as rationale for establishing a self-sustaining human presence on the Moon.
"We live in pretty dangerous times," he observed. "There's always the opportunity that some kind of a man-made or natural disaster will strike the planet. It's a very good idea to have mankind in other locations."