Dallas Startup Launching Mission to Send Apollo Astronauts, HS Students Near Space

If a new Dallas startup succeeds in its mission, it will put the oldest and youngest person ever into space by 2020.


The words were definitive, full of conviction, and as President John F. Kennedy spoke them cheers erupted inside Rice Stadium on Sept. 12,1962.

“We choose to go to the moon,” the president proclaimed at the Houston university. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Nearly 56 years later, the pioneering rhetoric in Kennedy’s so-called Moon Speech still resonates as private companies around the globe work to develop rockets for commercial use.

If a new Dallas startup succeeds in its mission, it will launch the oldest and youngest person ever into space by 2020.

The plan is to send two unnamed Apollo astronauts, who would be in their 80s or early 90s, and a select group of high school students on a flight to the edge of space.

It would be an historic moment in itself, but Back to Space has its eye on something much bigger — encouraging the younger generation to seek trailblazing feats for decades to come.

“It’s great to be part of something that either creates an industry or fundamentally changes everything. Back to Space has those elements.”

Michael Gorton

“Kennedy stood up and said ‘we will go to moon.’ What we want is these kids to stand up and say, ‘we will become the engineers, the scientists, the artists, the musicians that inspire America and the world to move up and onward,’” said Dallas serial entrepreneur Michael Gorton.

Gorton, who is founder of Teladoc and Internet Global, got onboard with Back to Space last summer at the request of his friend, Jim Keyes, former CEO of 7-Eleven and Blockbuster.

“It’s great to be part of something that either creates an industry or fundamentally changes everything. Back to Space has those elements,” Gorton said.

The startup has roots in an idea by its co-founder Danielle Roosa, granddaughter of the late astronaut Stuart Roosa, who served as command module pilot for Apollo 14.

In October 1968, NASA sent the first Apollo flight into space. The next year, it reached a huge milestone on July 20 when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon in Apollo 11 — fulfilling Kennedy’s challenge in his 1962 speech.


With the forthcoming 50th anniversaries of NASA’s Apollo flights, Danielle Roosa wanted to create a documentary to celebrate the achievements of America’s space pioneers. She reached out to Dallas’ Keyes, who she met coincidentally during a flight delay, for help.

Keyes then brought on Gorton, a known space buff who’s had years of experience in building early ventures, to lay the proper business foundation for the project.

“We started out saying, let’s do a documentary, but Jim Keyes said let’s do something more than that. Let’s figure out a way to really have an impact,” Gorton said.

The idea evolved into a full-fledged business with an aim to remind America of its past space exploration culminating in a real trip among the stars. The journey to get there will unfold in what Keyes’ calls a docu-ality series — a cross between a documentary and reality program. Back to Space plans to sell the episodes to a television outlet or streaming service. 

Thousands of middle and high school students will have an opportunity to get involved — from working alongside Apollo astronauts designing and performing experiments for the mission to filming and scripting the series following the preparation.

Other tasks include developing a STEM app kids nationwide can engage with and working at mission control perhaps in the CAPCOM role, which is the person who communicates with the space crew from the ground. Then there’s that even more selective group — possibly up to four high school students — who will score seats on the actual flight to the edge of space. Currently, NASA isn’t directly involved, but the Dallas startup will coordinate its activities with the federal agency, Gorton said.


Back to Space is partnering with Tucson, Arizona-based World View Enterprises, whose technology helped a former Google executive set a world record for the highest skydive in 2014. Alan Eustace jumped from an altitude of more than 135,000 feet in the air, according to NPR.

The Arizona company is building a vehicle that will be used for the Back to Space flight. The capsule will have room for eight people — a pilot, Danielle Roosa, two Apollo astronauts, and four high school kids. There will be a bathroom comparable to one on a commercial airplane and a mini refrigerator toting champagne and ginger ale for toasting as the crew reaches the trip’s apex.  

Gorton expects the flight to last about six hours. At its height, the crew will soar to an altitude of more than 100,000 feet — about three times higher than the standard commercial airplane.

“You’re in the blackness of space. You’re above the atmosphere. You can look down and see the entire planet below you,” Gorton said.


Back to Space wants to keep the identity of the Apollo astronauts who will fly on the mission under wraps for now. Gorton said it will be part of the intrigue for viewers of the docu-ality series along with getting a behind-the-scenes look at the prep as well as learning about the kids and the legacy of the astronauts involved.

“The docu-alities plan to blend the historic aspects of the Apollo program with modern day efforts and it is my hope that these shows can motivate the younger generations,” said Charlie Duke, one of the Apollo astronauts working on the endeavor. “If I can motivate just one kid to do their best in school then it’ll be worth it.”

“If I can motivate just one kid to do their best in school then it’ll be worth it.”

Charlie Duke

Apollo astronauts Aldrin, Walt Cunningham, and Al Worden also are collaborating with the BTS team, along with several others. The startup wants to engage as many Apollo colleagues as possible in the project. 

Both Duke and Aldrin will be in Dallas March 16 for an event at the Irving Microsoft office introducing the project.

Gorton said they’re planning other events in the future. In October, Back to Space hopes to bring as many Apollo astronauts as it can to the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas to mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 7. Following the event, the startup will bus visiting astronauts and selected students to the Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts in Sciences’ Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus about 240 miles northwest of Dallas for fun STEM activities.

Gorton is hoping to get corporations involved with the project. Back to Space has raised nearly $1.5 million in equity funding so far — all from Texas investors. Some local investors include Milli Brown, CEO of Dallas-based Brown Books Publishing Group and Chris MacFarland, CEO of Plano-based Masergy. Much of the rest needed — likely $8 million — will come from sponsorships, Gorton said.

“Texans are the pioneers; we’re the wildcatters.”

Michael Gorton

“The real mission for the TV program is for these legends, these Apollo astronauts to hand the baton to this middle school and high school generation and try to inspire the entire country,” Gorton said.

He said it’s fitting this project will play out in the Lone Star State.

“Texans are the pioneers; we’re the wildcatters,” Gorton said. “When Apollo 13 had a problem, they said ‘Houston, we got a problem,’ and guess who solved it? Houston.”


We asked Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke about what career advice he’d give the younger generation. Here’s what he had to say:

” … who knows where the kids of today will be walking if they set their minds to it and dream big!”

Charlie Duke 

“Set your goals high and work hard to achieve them. Although I started with humble beginnings — I found myself at NASA through hard work, dedication, and the will to succeed.

And if a kid growing up in South Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s can walk on the moon in the ’70s — who knows where the kids of today will be walking if they set their minds to it and dream big!”


Back to Space event

When: 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. March 16

Where: Microsoft Corp., 7000 State Highway 161, in Irving

What: Microsoft and Softtek will host an event featuring Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Charlie Duke, who will talk about Back to Space and its mission to inspire the next generation of space pioneers.

More Info: Visit the event page here.

*Editor’s note: The March 16 event is currently sold out, but you can join the waitlist here.

Updated 2:24 p.m. March 13.

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