As humans continue to crawl across the surface of the moon, whether by robotic proxy or with our own fleshly bodies, we are leaving traces of ourselves. Crashed spacecraft, crippled rovers, a pair of boots, and a few bags of astronaut shit currently litter the face of our closest extraterrestrial body.
Perhaps as a symptom of the hyper-optimistic age of SpaceX and Interstellar, we've caught the space junk bug again. Astrobotic, a private Pittsburgh-based space startup, wants to send the artifacts of our intimate moments to the lunar surface: wedding rings, photos of our families, and the like.
Astrobotic has been working towards a privately-funded lunar mission since 2008. Their current launch date is set for October of 2015. The company's ultimate goal is to explore caves on surface of the moon and win Google's $30,000,000 Lunar X Prize, which will go to the first private company that can land a lunar rover on the surface and cover 500 meters of ground.
Today, the company announced the launch of MoonMail, an initiative that will let people mail Astrobotic personal mementos to be shot up into space on the rocket that will carry their rover for as little as $460 for a half-inch wide box.
It's the kind of hokey idea that straddles a thin line between outright tackiness—it's at least part marketing stunt—and an attractive brand of optimistic 1950s retrofuturism.
"I think people want to be a part of space, and to interact with the Moon; everyone wants to be an astronaut," John Thornton, Astrobotic CEO, said in a press conference today. "At the end of the day, it's about inspiration and emotion. It's about being a part of something that's bigger than ourselves."
Place an order with Astrobotic, and in five to eight weeks the postman will leave a tiny cardboard box on your doorstep, prepaid postage included. Put your wedding ring or other memento inside, send it back, and, if all goes according to plan, your ring will one day be on the moon in a capsule fixed to a lunar lander.
Certainly, for some, the idea of sending little Johnny's football hurtling through the cosmos massages the same emotional nerve that the original moon landing, or The Jetsons, might have. Suddenly, space doesn't seem so far away; not just for international organizations and NASA, but for the common person. Well, any common person who has a few hundred or even thousands of dollars to burn on a lark.
MoonMail speaks to an old impulse: a kind of sepia-toned, pre-Kubrick—or perhaps post-Nolan—romance with space. And it's exactly that impulse that Astrobotic is hoping to exploit in its potential customers.
Lest we forget, Astrobotic is a private company trying to do what only well-funded organizations with government ties have been able to thus far. And that takes a lot of money. The company's approach to funding the mission has been to hustle as many sponsors and investors as possible. The average person is now being brought into the fold.
To wit, Astrobotic has agreed to fly payloads from a host of companies, including a Japanese soft drink company, Celestis, a company that plans to send human ashes, and Google. The going rate is $820,000 per pound of payload, with an added $250,000 "integration fee" to cover testing and engineering costs.
"We have to sell a lot of payload to make the economics work," former Astrobotic president David Gump, told Aviation Week in 2011.
Astrobotic is also splitting the costs of the flight with several competitors for the Lunar X prize, who will be sending their rovers along with Astrobotic's to the lunar surface. Once there, the rovers will race to see which can cover the required 500 meter distance first, claiming the multimillion dollar prize. The company is calling it "NASCAR on the Moon."
Thornton noted during today's press conference that although the amount of personal mementos sold through the MoonMail program "is not a make or break" condition for the mission, they hope that thousands of people from all over the world will be inspired to give Astrobotic their money.
"In terms of targets, we're leaving the door open and we can scale up as much as necessary," Thornton said.
At a minimum of $460 a pop, even 1,000 customers using MoonMail at the lowest price point would translate into a windfall of nearly half a million dollars for Astrobotic.
As for the feasibility of the mission itself, Astrobotic has secured a contract with SpaceX to use one of their Falcon 9 rockets for the launch, which have so far made several successful resupply trips to the International Space Station under a $1.6 billion NASA contract. The rocket's ability to safely return to earth will be tested next week.
Astrobotic's mission is not without its risks, however. The company and its customers will be "sharing the risk" of a disaster on the launch pad, Thornton said, and refunds will not be given out.
Astrobotic's path to the moon has been a headlong rush, filled with side hustles and lucrative partnerships, and it appears as though letting people send their trinkets to the moon is just one more. Whether it will translate into the first successful commercial space landing or merely disappoint a bunch of wide-eyed space enthusiasts remains to be seen.