“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.
Moon Express CEO Bob Richards has his eyes on the prize.
“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.”