Upstart Company Wants to Deliver Your Stuff to the Moon
“I believe the first trillionaires will come from space,” said entrepreneur Bob Richards, clutching a small plastic model of the moon he was given as a gift.
Richards, the founder and CEO of a small startup company called Moon Express, isn’t predicting a race of super-wealthy aliens descending to Earth. Rather, he’s looking to space as a place of vast and potentially lucrative opportunity. His company wants to make money offering governments, institutions, or anyone else who can pay, the opportunity to send their stuff to the moon.
But Moon Express’ ultimate goal isn’t just to become an interplanetary FedEx. The company is playing a long game: They hope to one day mine resources from the moon, kickstarting the industrialization of space and perhaps beginning the process of moving people off this world.
Over the last 4 billion years, the lunar surface has received a shellacking from millions of asteroids, most of which contained rare earth elements and precious metals such as platinum. Many mines on Earth are the remains of former asteroid impact craters. But unlike our planet, the moon lacks plate tectonics that deform and swallow up surface material, so many of these resources should theoretically be easily reachable. Perhaps more importantly, the moon has water, which can be extracted for astronauts in a lunar base or broken down to its constituent hydrogen and oxygen and turned into rocket fuel.
“I’ve always thought that the moon is the next stepping stone, and that lunar resources are a game changer for the economics not just of the Earth but of the entire solar system,” Richards said.
But before all this can happen, he needs to win a contest.
Moon Express is one of 23 teams competing for the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize. Set up in 2007, the GLXP has competitors working to be the first to launch and land a rover on the surface of the moon, travel 500 meters, and return pictures to Earth. The teams are meeting this week in Santiago, Chile for a summit to discuss their latest plans.
Moon Express is considered to be among the top teams in the contest. The company is betting it can win the GLXP using a small lander based on a former NASA project called the common spacecraft bus. The agency’s engineers developed the octagon-shaped vehicle on the cheap and it will be used on NASA’s upcoming Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission to the moon. Moon Express contracted with NASA to develop and modify the lander for their purposes. Rather than rove the 500 meters, Moon Express’ lander will touch down and then hop the distance to satisfy the competition’s requirements.
The going is tough and the risks are high. Participants in the GLXP are working to do something only ever accomplished using the resources of a nation. The logistical, engineering, and software challenges are countless and most teams are trying to get their rovers ready and launched on a miserly budget. Even Moon Express, which has raised more funds than most teams – around $10 million, is far from assured of making to the GLXP’s 2015 deadline. But Richards is determined and says that win or lose the competition, he wants to make Moon Express a business that can ferry material to and from the lunar surface.
“Space is a big gamble,” said Richards. “But what’s at stake here is the future of humanity.”
Moon Express’ offices are located on the campus of one of NASA’s West Coast facilities, the Ames Research Center, in Moffett Field, California. The company sits in the shadow of Hangar One, built in the 1930s to house zeppelins that could be used as flying aircraft carriers and which is now undergoing renovations that have stripped it to its metallic bones. The company has a growing workforce, and looking to hire about 10 or 20 new employees in the next six months.
With its plain, narrow hallways and tall ceilings, the Moon Express office building calls to mind a graduate student engineering department. Many of the workers are eager young men in their 20s who tape printed xkcd comics to their lab benches.
“Apollo was designed by 26-year-olds,” said Richards, invoking spaceflight’s past in his bid for the future. Richards himself is short, moon-faced, and very excited about his prospects.
“I’ve been a space cadet since my earliest days,” he said. “I’ve dedicated a lot of my professional life to building institutions and companies to make humanity a multiword species.”
As a student, Richards studied engineering, physics, and space science and at one point worked for astronomer and writer Carl Sagan. In 1987, he was a co-founder of the International Space University in France, which offers degrees in space studies and business and whose first chancellor was science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. He said that he took many lessons from rise and fall of the BlastOff! Corporation, an attempt in the late ’90s to create a sort of private sector version of NASA. BlastOff!, which as largely backed by Hollywood big wigs like James Cameron and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Peter Diamandis, folded after the first dot-com bust.
The very first company to register for the GLXP was Odyssey Moon Limited, a team Richards founded. He and Odyssey have since parted ways, and the company was later swallowed up by an Israeli team, SpaceIL. Richards subsequently created Moon Express in August 2010, and the company was awarded a NASA contract a month later worth up to $10 million to return data from the moon that the agency finds valuable.
Moon Express is akin to a startup technology business, and Richards and many of the key players in the company have close ties to or are veterans of Silicon Valley companies. That tech culture’s influence can be heard in the way they talk and think.
“With the internet, there are the people that built the fibers and then those that made the last mile solutions,” said entrepreneur Naveen Jain, who helped found information companies such as InfoSpace and Intelius, as well as Moon Express.
Jain means that some companies were responsible for the infrastructure – the wires and cables crisscrossing the world – while others handled the final leg, the connection that actually reached customers. In the space industry, he considers rocket companies launching satellites and other spacecraft as analogous to the infrastructure providers.
“But the people who made the most money in the internet were the people who provided the services,” he said. “So we want to build the last-mile solution.”
Moon Express aims to set up a business offering anyone who can pay for it a way to get to the lunar surface. As to what people want to send to the moon, the company is agnostic.
Watch; Moon Express in the Flight Zone
For their first planned landing to win the GLXP, Moon Express has contracted with International Lunar Observatory Association to put a shoebox-size telescope on the moon that could take images of stars or the Earth. The company also has deals with NASA and Google and is in talks with other private companies. Because there’s 40 years’ worth of pent-up need for more lunar science since Apollo, Richards is sure customers will line up if the company proves able to land on the moon. Scientists and universities will want to put probes and experiments on the lunar surface, and the company hopes to appeal to a wide range of commercial, academic, and government interests.
“There could be hardware or scientific or medical applications,” said Jain. “Someone could say, I want to put my child’s footprint in a stamp on the moon. Whatever! We just want to offer a platform.”
Moon Express estimates they could deliver items to the moon for around $3 million a kilogram, so putting a 1.33-kg cube-sat-size object on the surface would be within reach of a wealthy university or eccentric millionaire. Rather than building a specific lander for each different mission – which is what NASA does for the most part – the company hopes to cut costs by having everything ride on its common spacecraft and using off-the-shelf parts.
“Sometimes it’s better to take a vendor who can do a good job with slightly less performance,” and then make sure it’s robust enough to survive space, said engineer Tim Pickens, who leads propulsion planning for Moon Express. Pickens was formerly part of the Rocket City Space Pioneers, another GLXP team that was acquired by Moon Express in December. He was also the lead propulsion engineer on SpaceShipOne, the rocket plane that won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 by flying to the edge of space twice in two weeks.
During the X Prize competition, Pickens said his team often came up with uncommon solutions to cut costs. At one point, they used paintball gun tanks to hold air for SpaceShipOne’s reentry control thrusters.
“I remember we called one of them Armageddon, and the other Apocalypse, and they were really lightweight and made to be abused,” he said. Though they weren’t designed for spaceflight, “they packed a better performance than anything we could do ourselves,” he added.
In this way, Pickens said a private company could identify cheap hardware, test it to make sure its space-worthy, and then even sell it to others in need of a similar solution.
“The government isn’t in the business of taking risks,” he said. “They’re trying to protect the taxpayers and so they do things in a conservative manner. It works but you don’t get disruptive solutions from that structure. In Silicon Valley, they expect to see unique solutions that create new markets, and that’s what we’re hoping to do in space.”
But private companies’ strength – their ability to take on risk – is also exactly what should be scaring Moon Express. To do things cheaply, they can’t afford NASA’s “failure is not an option” attitude. They might perform a flawless touchdown on the moon, or they could spectacularly crash and burn. Space is extremely expensive, and not a lot of companies can leave scorch marks on the lunar surface and then go back to investors and say, “Let’s try that again.”
In order to win the GLXP, Moon Express needs to do two things: show that their hardware is capable and, because launches are planned at least two years in advance, secure a space on a rocket by the end of this year. Yet there are growing doubts about whether any team can win the prize at this point.
Moon Express hasn’t publicly demonstrated its physical lunar lander system since 2011, though it has tested the landing software and avionics flight hardware in simulations at their labs and says it will have more tests in the fall of 2013. Most importantly, it has not yet announced a deal on a launch vehicle, putting it in some ways behind the two teams that have, Astrobotic Technology and the Barcelona Moon Team. Richards says his company is in talks with different launch providers and hopes to announce something later this year. Ideally they are seeking a contract from one of the darlings of the Silicon-Valley-space-industry crossover culture, SpaceX, which provides some of the cheapest rates to space.
Even if Moon Express wins the competition, that’s no guarantee of success. Burt Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, won the Ansari X Prize nearly a decade ago. Since then, they joined with Virgin to offer private tourists a trip to the edge of space. Overly ambitious plans and repeated delays have plagued the project and constantly pushed back its opening day. Space tourism has been the goal of Virgin Galactic but no one yet knows how large the market is for those looking to fly experiments and other hardware to the moon.
The most unknowns come from Moon Express’ ultimate goal, mining lunar resources. International treaties stipulate that the moon is the common heritage of mankind, and space lawyers are still debating the exact legal regime that would make moon mining possible. At this point, drilling, refining, and shipping rocks on a large scale in space remains more science fiction than proven concept. And until space launches come down in price by an order of magnitude or more, materials mined from the lunar surface will be far more expensive than similar elements on Earth.
Those involved with Moon Express are aware of these risks and all the potential pitfalls. But given the right types of investments and engineering, Naveen Jain does not consider them too much of a hindrance.
“People talk about failures and say, ‘Oh, entrepreneurs are risk takers.’ But they are really not,” he said. “Entrepreneurs are the best de-riskers. They say, ‘Here are the five different things that can go wrong. Let’s hire the right people to take the risk down.’”
A real risk taker is more like someone who jumps off a building without a parachute, Jain added. “So is a person jumping out of a good plane with a working parachute a risk taker? I don’t think so. I think we are actually calculating the risks and figuring out how to mitigate them.”
Richards was a bit more modest in his assessment. Looking at the large number of private companies getting into the space industry right now, many of whom have audacious plans, he offered a realistic outlook.
“A lot of space investments will fail,” he said. “But we have to try — the potential payoff is huge.”
Images: Alex Washburn / Wired