March 10, 2003 

An Interview* with Paul Blase
Co-founder of TransOrbital -
The company TrailBlazing commercial exploration of the Moon

* via email

This autumn the small startup company TransOrbital intends to send its TrailBlazer spacecraft into orbit around the Moon. The mission would become the first commercial space exploration project and only the second# privately financed spacecraft to go beyond geostationary orbit.

The company seeks to pay for the project in several ways. The spacecraft will transmit high definition video of the lunar surface, including views of the American (Apollo) and Russian (Lunakhod) landing sites, the poles and the far side. The company will create a high-resolution lunar surface atlas and sell the imagery for scientific and commercial applications. A time capsule carrying personal messages, photos, and mementos from paying customers (see their on line catalog) will come to rest on the Moon when the mission ends and the vehicle crashes into the surface.

Last December TransOrbital launched a structural mockup of the spacecraft on a Dnepr rocket built by the Russian/Ukranian Kosmotras company. In August the company announced that it had received all necessary licenses from the US government for its lunar mission.

TransOrbital Test Launch The TrailBlazer structural mockup launches aboard a Russan Dnepr rocket on Dec.20, 2002

Paul Blase, Chief Technical Officer and co-founder of TransOrbital, here discusses with me the status of the project, the challenges of getting such a mission underway, how activists can contribute to space hardware development, and what TrailBlazer will mean for commercial exploration and development of space.

[Note: TransOrbital has been a very appreciated advertiser at HobbySpace for over a year; not that this affected my usual hard-edged grilling in any way. ; -> ]

Dnepr Capsule
Paul Blase, 2nd from right, stands in from of the payload capsule for the December launch.
(Large image)

HS: Can you give a general status report on the Trailblazer project? What is the target date for launch?

Blase: Target date for launch is at the end of the year, nominally October. The exact date depends on our ability to secure the sponsors and (large scale) customers that we need to reserve the launch vehicle. This is going well, but the current state of the economy and the looming conflict with Iraq means that it's going slower than we had hoped

HS: How soon before the launch do you have to take it to Russian for installation on the rocket?

Blase: 30 days. About a week before launch they close the payload capsule for transport to the launch silo. At about the same time, one month prior to launch, launch customers have to have a mass simulator test article at the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, Ukraine, for the fit test/vibration test/sep test - see We don't have to do this, since the structural test article that we launched in December fulfilled this requirement.

HS: What did you learn from the successful December launch of the structural test satellite?

Blase: Primarily how to work with Kosmotras. We learned a great deal about the facilities, the testing requirements, how the whole integration procedure works, what to do and what to avoid, and how things will operate for the full-up launch. I also got a good survey of what we will and won't be able to provide regarding launch footage for the actual launch (primarily what the Baikonur Cosmodrome - which is a closed military reservation - will and won't let us do).

HS: Could you give some us a description of how TransOrbital went about designing and building the Trailblazer? For example, we hear a lot about how small firms can take better advantage of cheap-of-the-shelf hardware. Were you able to rely on a COTS approach for most of your hardware? What are some of the items that you found it necessary to make yourselves?

Blase: TransOrbital has a core group of systems engineers and people knowledgeable in the construction and flight of small spacecraft. For instance, Randy Owen of Space Imaging and Rich Van Allen of Microcosm are among our advisors. From that, we work with a group of consultants and small spacecraft companies that provide the specialized expertise and components.

For instance, we have one company that is designing the spacecraft structure, another that is building the radio transmitters and receivers, and consultants that do the thermal, stress, and vibration analyses. Some of the parts are made specifically for spacecraft, namely the propulsion system and the radio units. Others are "hardened" commercial units that have been ruggedized for the space environment, namely the cameras and imaging computers.

TrailBlazer over the Moon
TrailBlazer over the
lunar surface

The main items that we're making ourselves are the spacecraft frame and various mechanical components.

HS: Can you say roughly how far along you are in the spacecraft assembly?

Blase: Still working on the separate component assemblies.

HS: Will you build and run a ground station yourselves or subcontract this out?

Blase: The transmitter/receiver stations are being subcontracted out. There are several companies out there that have excellent ground station facilities for rent, and there's no reason for not using them. We will put together Mission Control ourselves - but it will be based on commercially available workstations and software.

Web Resources:
Lunar & private space projects, related topics

* Lunar Links
* Lunar Commercial Projects
     - TransOrbital
* Space Licenses
* Space Law
Ownership of space
* Space Advertising
* Space Entertainment
   & Promotion
* Space Tourism
   - Vicarious Space Travel
       - TransOrbital
* Space Industries
* Satellite Building
* Space Radio

HS:Judging from the tremendous publicity that TransOrbital received when it announced the licensing arrangements and then later with the prototype launch, there will be a lot of attention as the launch approaches and during the mission. Has this level of attention surprised you? Has it inspired any new ideas on how to make the most of the mission? Has it helped to attract any major sponsors seeking to post logos on the spacecraft?

Blase: To some degree yes, it did catch us by surprise - but then we were hoping for it. It has definitely given us a good feel for the amount of public support for this kind of space mission. It is helping to attract logos, but there are other factors at work there too. It certainly helps our case considerably.

HS: Each day the vehicle will image the surface for an hour during its closest approach to the surface and then spend most of the rest of the day downloading the data to earth. I was wondering if there will be a membership arrangement where one can log in every so often and watch the latest video as it arrives?

Blase: We'll work out some kind of "webcam" arrangement. Most of the video, of course, will be reserved for sale, both as commercial video and to the retail market (e.g. we're going to put out a DVD collection of the lunar imagery). However, we're going to find some way to put some of the video online for people who are following the mission. We're trying to find a good way to have people actually be able to talk to a web server on the spacecraft (using the Interplanetary Internet protocols being developed by NASA and various private groups) and get the latest snap shot.

HS: Sounds great. I would encourage you to develop interactive services that provide some degree of a "you are there" sensation. If one could watch the video in "near" real-time and get a feeling of actually being there on the spacecraft watching the Moon go by, it would be terrific.

Blase: We'll see what we can do. However, we're constrained by the fact that we have to reorient the spacecraft to download the video stream. We can only return real-time video from the main cameras when we're pointed at Earth. With the telemetry stream, we can return snapshots at a reduced data rate. (In order to maximize reliability, we're avoiding mechanical mechanisms as much as possible, like camera or antenna gimble platforms).

HS: It sounds as if a major part of the challenge of the project was dealing with all of the red tape involved with launching on a Russian rocket. This must have been especially burdensome for a small startup company without a team of lawyers. Many micro-satellite groups, especially at universities, have had tremendous problems finding low cost rides to orbit. Do you think that your "trailblazing" with the Dnepr will make it easier for other groups to use that vehicle after you've set this precedent?

Blase: Absolutely. Although I will note that the first 3 launches of the Dnepr have carried university micro-sats, primarily European spacecraft. We will certainly make the launch vehicle more accessible for American users. I might note that there is excess capability available on the spacecraft that we have reserved, including the TrailBlazer launch, and anyone interested can contact us. We can also offer assistance in applying for the proper export permits, logistics, and launch preparation.

HS: I'll try to get the word out about the spare seat.

Blase: Thanks.

HS: To profit from all that work, have you guys considered a side business in which you would arrange such launches for other groups?

Blase: Yep, although that's taking second priority. Anyone interested in working with the Dnepr launch vehicle can contact us.

HS: As I understand it, TransOrbital and Trailblazer are spin-offs of the Artemis Project, which began several years ago as a study group looking at ways to commercialize development of the Moon. Can you say something about this connection to Artemis and how TransOrbital was initially inspired?

Blase: To synopsize things greatly, and hopefully not offend anyone, The Artemis Project is an on-line chat group for people interested in commercial, private lunar colonization. TransOrbital started out as a working group that was exploring the lowest-cost, commercially feasible lunar spacecraft. Landers and rovers were just a bit too much, but a limited duration imaging mission turned out to be just possible.

Earthrise from the Moon
TrailBlazer will
look back at the

HS: Another innovative Moon mission, the Lunar Prospector also started out as an activist project [in the late 1980s] led by the Space Studies Institute and the Houston Space Society. They made considerable progress in developing the design and some of the instrument hardware but they couldn't raise the money needed to make it happen. Instead the project eventually evolved into a NASA Discovery mission with Lockheed-Martin building and operating the spacecraft.

Blase: Yep, and we're building on what they started. They were trying more for an "amsat" type mission, where people put in their expertise, but it wasn't expected to be able to pay for itself commercially. Trailblazer, on the other hand, is specifically aimed at supporting itself through cargo carriage and image return.

HS: Do you think it is fair to say that space activist groups are great at coming up with new ideas but to take a promising concept into the real world they need to spin it off into a company that can focus on it and raise the resources needed to make it happen?

Blase: Definitely. For some reason that I do not fully understand, the amateur radio community can make it work - probably because amateur radio is a hobby of technically capable people, but it's not what they do every day. On the other hand, you get very few aerospace people capable of constructing spacecraft whose hobby is space advocacy and who are willing to put in hours after work to build one. Also, while amateur radio operators are historically willing to support the construction of a satellite so that they themselves can "work" it, space advocates don't seem to want to support efforts that they themselves aren't involved in. We have actually received very little support to date from any space advocacy organization.

HS: I'm glad you mention hams and their very successful space projects. One of the reasons I started HobbySpace was that I saw this huge gap between the space activist community that talks about space and the AMSAT/Space Radio community that has actually been DOING real space stuff of great significance for decades. (It's only a slight exaggeration to say that AMSAT invented microsats.) I wanted to get the word out to space enthusiasts that they can use the AMSAT community as a role model for how to develop low cost space projects.

Blase: Ulterior motive: I'm KA9CMI.

HS: I think there should be a NSS [National Space Society] supported AMSAT or student satellite. Every chapter should have its own little PC based ground station, if only for scanning satellite transmissions. (I should note that the Australian Mars Society, at least, is planning an AMSAT [JAESAT] to provide messaging among the society's habitat projects. And there is some involvement of the German [chapter of the] Mars Society with AMSAT-DL's Mars probe based on the Phase-3D/AO-40 spacecraft.)

In TransOrbital's case I would guess that a lot of space enthusiasts still are only vaguely aware of your project and most don't know that they can put messages & mementos on your time capsule disk that will end up on the lunar surface. The activist organizations should certainly get behind it and other such [commercial] projects and encourage their members to support them.

HS: What advice in general would you give the many groups out there trying to develop space related ideas?

Blase: The business plan is all important. How are you going to pay for it - or better yet make it pay for itself. Also, venture capitalists don't invest in neat ideas, they only invest in going revenue streams. You have to find "angel" investors that like to dream big, and have deep pockets to support those dreams.

Spacecraft stack
TrailBlazer diagram
(Large image & spacecraft description.)

HS: Trailblazer will be the first non-governmental space mission outside of earth orbit. The fact that TransOrbital will be achieving many such "firsts" must be tremendously exciting but also rather sobering.

Blase: Definitely. Learning "the system" has been very .... educational.

HS: As TransOrbital went about attacking the many technical and regulatory challenges, have you felt that you had to take special added consideration and responsibility for the fact that the precedents you set will have big ramifications for future private, commercial space ventures?

Blase: Definitely. For the most part the licenses that we've had to obtain, the Remote Sensing Permit from NOAA and the export permit from State, are routine. However, we did receive a considerable amount of close attention because of our being the first of our kind. We foresee even more of this, particularly if we are successful in creating our planned follow-on lander missions.

The whole issue of property rights in space in general and on the Moon in particular is up in the air. (The issue of claiming land aside, since we're not planning on it at present - how do we legally keep other explorers from mucking with our multi-million dollar landers?).

HS: Other groups have talked about commercializing space exploration such as Spacedev's plans for asteroid prospecting. However, their approach to raising money for such missions has been to try to sell data rights to NASA beforehand, or to sell space on their spacecraft for NASA instruments. When you were first designing the mission, did you contact NASA to see if you could make such an arrangement?

Blase: We're been talking to NASA, but in general we're not counting on them for a revenue stream. Primarily because of SpaceDev's limited success. There's much more potential in the commercial market place. Again, Trailblazer is specifically designed for the commercial market place, not the government (although we can carry experiments if asked).

HS: Besides Spacedev I should have also mentioned that Team Encounter has gotten some NOAA money for its solar sail development and I also believe it will carry a NASA star compass prototype from the New Millennium program. So maybe these agencies are starting to take private ventures more seriously.

Blase: I hope so. NASA's primary purpose _should_ be to develop technology for and support private industry, like the NACA did before it and the "aeronautics" half does now.

HS: Can you say something about TransOrbital's follow-on projects to Trailblazer?

Blase: We're planning a number of landers and additional orbiters. In general, we want to provide the infrastructure to enable others to explore and utilize the Moon, including high-resolution images of landing sites, communications relays, and data handling services.

Electa I
TransOrbital's Electra I lunar lander concept.
HS: Thanks Paul! Best of luck to TransOrbital and bon voyage to TrailBlazer

You can also find two audio interviews (Dec.25.02 & Jan.29.02) of Mr. Blase by David Livingston
in the archives at The SpaceShow.

Paul Blase can be contacted via

# Hughes' AsiaSat 3 communications satellite, placed into the wrong orbit by a malfunctioning booster, used the Moon to swing itself into geostationary orbit. First Commercial Lunar Mission Reaches the Moon - Space Frontier Foundation - May 13, 1998.