WASHINGTON, D.C.—A private spaceflight company that has been operating in secret for two years announced yesterday an ambitious plan to launch manned missions to the moon.

The company, named Golden Spike after the ceremonial railway spike that marked the completion of the first transcontinental railway, would send two-person crews to the lunar surface and back at a cost of $750 million per passenger. If the plan comes to fruition, the first astronauts to step out of a Golden Spike lander could be the first human beings to set foot on the moon since the final Apollo mission in 1972.

Golden Spike's plans rank among the most audacious privately funded space exploration missions ever proposed. The company said its first launch would cost $7 billion to $8 billion but that subsequent trips would be much cheaper, at roughly $1.5 billion. That is less than many robotic missions launched by national space agencies, Alan Stern, president and CEO of the new company, said during a press conference here. "We estimate that there are 15 to 20, or more, expeditions of this type out there," involving nations interested in lunar science but lacking the capability to send astronauts, he said. Stern, who is also the former head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate and the principal investigator of the New Horizons robotic mission now en route to Pluto, said he believed tourists and commercial businesses (such as mining companies) would also be potential customers.

Golden Spike intends to have the first customers on the moon by 2020, a plan that hinges on the use of currently existing (or "soon to be existing") launch vehicles, spacecraft and technologies.

So far, though, the plan remains in the realm of the hypothetical. Golden Spike needs to raise $8 billion before its first rocket lifts off. To fill the company coffers, the firm expects to draw on ticket presales as well as on marketing and advertising. Given the international flavor expected of the missions, "we expect these expeditions to be the equivalent of the Olympics," Stern said. "Think of the advertising time; the naming rights—it's a very important part of our business." Stern would not release details on the company's financials, but acknowledged that "we need to sell a bunch" of seats. "If we sell three or four, we're completely upside down."

Gerry Griffin, chair of the Golden Spike board and former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, concurred. "I don't think there are any technological issues," Griffin said. "It's going to be financial."

Nevertheless, returning to the moon has so far proved both expensive and difficult. Under former Pres. George W. Bush, NASA had planned to put astronauts back on the moon by 2020 as part of the Constellation Program. But budget and technology-development issues have left Constellation dead in the water. And NASA's next-generation Space Launch System is nowhere near operational.

Consequently, no launch vehicle today stands ready to take people to the moon and back, although the Falcon Heavy rocket built by private spaceflight firm SpaceX, which is currently in testing, may fill the void. Golden Spike wrote a concept paper that has been accepted for publication in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics's Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets that discussed using the Falcon Heavy in the context of a moon mission, but Stern cautioned that no official announcement has been made as to which launch vehicle the new company will use.

The Golden Spike announcement came just a day after a National Research Council report concluded that NASA lacked direction and in fact had a mission statement so "generic" it could apply to any government research agency. The timing of the lunar reveal was notable in at least one other respect, arriving as it did one day before the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17, the last mission to deliver astronauts to the moon.

In a statement responding to Golden Spike's announcement, a NASA spokesperson said: "This type of private sector effort is further evidence of the timeliness and wisdom of the Obama administration's overall space policy—to create an environment where commercial space companies can build upon NASA's past successes, allowing the agency to focus on the new challenges of sending humans to an asteroid and eventually Mars."

As NASA targets other destinations, the potential benefits for lunar science—if Golden Spike can realize its lofty ambitions—are huge. Stern argued that the robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity spent four years on Mars before delivering as much science as Apollo 17 accomplished in a few days with two humans (including a trained geologist) on the moon.

In addition to Stern and Griffin, Golden Spike counts among its advisers politician Newt Gingrich, former House Science Committee Chair Bob Walker, former Space Shuttle Program Chief Wayne Hale, a Star Trek set designer, and Nancy Conrad, founder of the Conrad Foundation and widow of Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad.

Conrad, speaking from the audience at the press conference, said that her late husband had become very interested in commercial spaceflight near the end of his life. "If I could imagine what he'd be doing right now if he were here," she said, "he'd probably be clicking his heels."