CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., July 19 (UPI) -- Thirty-five years after the first humans set foot on the moon, the United States is planning for return flights to the lunar surface. NASA's next group of moonwalkers, however, might not find the place quite as desolate as their Apollo brethren did.
Their every movement could be tracked by HDTV cameras, courtesy of Virginia-based LunaCorp, and beamed to television and broadband Internet watchers on Earth.
NASA's new lunar astronauts also could find rovers, financed by Radio Shack, scurrying around a nearby crater being operated by a bunch of school kids at a terrestrial science museum. A short jaunt in a lunar rover could bring them up alongside a remotely operated mining experiment extracting helium-3. The isotope is rare on Earth, but common on the moon and can power fusion reactors without generating high levels of radioactive waste.
"There's been a change in the assumptions about space," David Gump, LunaCorp president and co-founder, told United Press International. "Fifteen years ago it was perceived that only the government can do space -- (that) it was just too expensive for any companies to do it on their own. That assumption has fallen by the wayside and now the question is how should NASA and the private sector interact."
LunaCorp is developing a spacecraft called SuperSat to relay high-resolution, digital video of its voyage from Earth to the moon and create maps of the lunar surface. The company also plans to land a mobile, tele-operated robot on the moon that can be operated by paying visitors at science centers, theme parks and museums.
Gump is positioning LunaCorp to ride NASA's next wave of lunar exploration. He formed a coalition of small firms -- he will not say yet which companies are his partners -- that last week submitted its pitch for a $3 million study contract to design a moon mission for NASA. The agency plans to award five or six contracts, each of which would cover six months of work, with an optional extension for another six months and $3 million.
The proposal includes specific scientific, economic and security goals for lunar exploration, concepts of systems needed to support the mission and how NASA's proposed new crew exploration vehicle would fit in with the plan. NASA is expected to award the contracts next month.
One concept, for example, would be to position a network of microsatellites around the moon to serve as a lunar navigation and tracking system, similar to the Global Positioning System on Earth, which is used to track everything from railcars to prisoners.
The lunar system could be used to precision-land robotic cargo ships, said Jim Bensen, president of SpaceDev, of Poway, Calif., which has several lunar projects on its drawing board. The company already built and operates a science research satellite in Earth orbit, called the Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer or CHIPSat.
"Our vision is that we need competitive commercial suppliers selling services to NASA as well as other customers," Gump said. "NASA should issue their top-level program goals then offer pay-on-delivery contracts and prizes to jumpstart the commercial sector."
For example, to develop technology to mine helium-3 from the moon robotically, NASA could offer a cash prize to the first team that brings back 10 grams of helium-3 by a certain date. If no one delivers, no one is paid.
"It puts the cost of the mission and the schedule burdens on the private sector," Gump said.
Shifting perceptions about the role of private enterprise in space is one of the goals laid out by a presidential commission, headed by former Air Force Secretary Edward "Pete" Aldridge, which issued its report on the future of the U.S. space program last month.
"We're at a new American space age," Rick Tumlinson, founder of the non-profit advocacy group Space Frontier Foundation, told participants at his group's Return to the Moon conference in Las Vegas this past weekend.
Leading the charge into the new frontier, which Tumlinson calls an "alternative space program," are privately developed efforts, such as SpaceShipOne, which last month became the first non-government, manned vehicle to reach space. The vessel was designed by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif., and financed by Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen.
"NASA was so spectacularly successful with the Apollo program, no one ever questioned if the government should be doing space or not," Gump said. "It took until this year -- that many decades -- to actually raise the question: Should our path to space be done with Stalinist central planning or with the traditional American blueprint with innovative, enterprising companies?"
He added, "We have a few wealthy individuals and if the government program is created to bring in competition, we may even get some of the major aerospace companies to get the commercial spirit."
Gump called NASA's plan to build, in-house, the first lunar orbiter in the new exploration plan an "inauspicious" start. The agency instead could have issued a request to buy its data commercially and leave the ownership and operation of the hardware to the private sector, but he said he sees favorable signs the government is starting to change the way it does business.
"Having the government go back to the moon by itself means the government will pay more than it has to," said Gump, who has successfully raised money from Radio Shack and other corporate sponsors for lunar missions.
"The government could get its data back at much lower cost by sharing the mission," he said.
In addition to supporting the government program, the private sector is eager to reach the moon to see what it really can offer commercially.
"When I look at the moon, I see real estate," said Randa Milliron, co-founder of Interorbital Systems of Mojave, Calif., which is developing passenger launch vehicles as well as a lunar hotel.
"The thing is we really are in ignorance," Gump said. "We landed on the moon in six locations several decades back. We need to spend some time on the moon to see what it is good for. Right now, we just don't know."
Irene Klotz covers space and aviation for UPI.