$30 million purse spurs entrepreneurs to shoot for the moon
WASHINGTON - Now that the last space shuttle has landed back on Earth, a new generation of space entrepreneurs would like to whip up excitement about the prospect of returning to the moon.
Spurred by a $30 million purse put up by
At the very least, a flotilla of unmanned spacecraft could be headed moonward within the next few years, with goals that range from lofty to goofy.
One Silicon Valley venture, Moon Express, is positioning itself as a future
“In the near future, the Moon Express lunar lander will be mining the moon for precious resources that we need here on Earth,’’ the invitation promised. “Years from now, we will all remember we were there.’’
Naveen Jain, an Internet billionaire and cofounder of Moon Express, said the company will spend $70 million to $100 million in an effort to win the Google Lunar X Prize but could recoup its investment on its first flight. He envisions selling exclusive broadcast rights for video from the moon, as well as sponsorships, a la NASCAR, for companies to put their logos on the lander.
Another competitor, Astrobotic Technology, intends to sell berths on its lunar lander to space agencies and scientific institutions, which would pay $820,000 a pound to send up their experiments. The company, a spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University, is building a large craft - much bigger than Moon Express’ - capable of carrying 240 pounds of payload ($200 million of cargo) and hopes to be ready to launch in December 2013.
“We can make a lot of money even if we do not win the prize,’’ said David Gump, president of Astrobotic, which is based in Pittsburgh. “We will be making substantial profit on the first flight. Basically, we’ll break even by selling a third of the payload.’’
The effort comes as the last shuttle mission ended when Atlantis and its four astronauts glided to a ghostly landing in near-darkness just before dawn yesterday. It was the 135th and final shuttle flight.
Shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson and his crew seized every opportunity to thank the thousands of workers who got them safely to and from orbit and guided them through the 13-day flight, which included ferrying supplies to the international space station.
“After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle’s earned its place in history. And it’s come to a final stop,’’ he radioed after Atlantis touched down just before dawn.
As far at the next moon mission, the X Prize competitors might all be beaten by landers and rovers that China, Russia and India plan to send up during the next couple of years. But those fall more in the mold of traditional, government-built science probes.
While NASA had wanted to send astronauts back to the moon, its program was canceled last year, a victim of budget cuts and shifting priorities. But it has awarded $500,000 each to Moon Express, Astrobotic, and a third competitor, Rocket City Space Pioneers, the first installments of up to $30 million that it will contribute to the X Prize efforts.
George Xenofos, manager of NASA’s Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data program, said he expected one or more teams to make it to the moon.
“It’s definitely not the technical issues that’s stopping them,’’ he said.
The contestants’ goals do not appear to face legal hurdles. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, ratified by 100 nations including the United States, bars countries from claiming sovereignty over any part of the moon but does not prevent private companies from setting up shop. As for mining the moon, it could fall under similar legal parameters as fishing in international waters.
Although some orbiting spacecraft have crashed into the moon in recent years, 35 years have passed since anything from Earth made a soft landing. To some, this looks like an overdue invitation.
“It’s probably the biggest wealth creation opportunity in modern history,’’ said Barney Pell, a former NASA computer scientist turned entrepreneur and now a cofounder of Moon Express.
While Moon Express might initially make money by sending small payloads, the big fortune would come from bringing back platinum and other rare metals, Pell said.
“Long term, the market is massive, no doubt,’’ he said. “This is not a question of if. It’s a question of who and when. We hope it’s us and soon.’’