Call it the "Great Moon Rush." The race is on to launch the first privately funded lander to the moon by the end of the year. That's the deadline for an international contest where the winner takes home the Google Lunar XPRIZE's $20 million grand prize.
The competition requires the winning team's spacecraft to land on the moon and maneuver (hop) at least 500 meters to another landing site, and beam high-definition video, photos and data back to Earth. It marks a return to the moon for the first time in 40 years.
For the space startup Moon Express, based in Cape Canaveral, it's full speed ahead. Their lunar lander is the MX-1E. The size of the fictional robot character R2-D2, the spacecraft is designed to ride to a high Earth orbit on the top of a commercial rocket where it'll fire its engines and head to the moon.
However, Moon Express will not utilize the Cape Canaveral complex as a launch site. They've found a better deal. It plans to launch the MX-1E on an Electron rocket from U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Labs. The vehicle is scheduled to make the first of three test launches from a pad in Auckland, New Zealand in March. Four other space teams have their launch contracts in place to compete for the Google Lunar XPRIZE as well.
In an historic ruling Moon Express became the first private company to win U.S. government approval to fly a commercial deep space mission. Moon Express submitted an application to launch missions beyond the Earth orbit to the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration that took months to work its way through a number of other government organizations.
"No one had ever done it before so there were a lot of questions that had never been asked, and the FAA had to figure out if we could do this," said Dale Ketcham, director of strategic alliances for Space Florida. "We knew it would be a long, hard slog, but Moon Express had as good a shot as anyone. Now they just have to execute."
Initially based in Silicon Valley, Moon Express was co-founded in 2010 by space visionary Dr. Bob Richards, billionaire entrepreneur Naveen Jain, and serial entrepreneur and artificial intelligence and space technology guru Dr. Barney Pell. Their common vision is to be at the forefront of commercial space exploration, innovation and ultimately to mine the moon for precious metals and natural resources of economic value.
Last July the U. S. Air Force licensed Launch Complex 17 and 18 to Moon Express at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for its business and technical operations. Both the State of Florida and Moon Express plan to invest $1.85 million, the bulk of funding infrastructure improvements at the complexes.
Space Florida, Florida’s aerospace economic development agency, spearheaded the move to bring Moon Express here.
"We expect to immediately create 40 to 50 high skilled jobs in the space sector and a couple hundred more as we evolve." noted CEO Richards, a native of Toronto. "It was a substantial relocation moving from one coast to the other. The state provided economic incentives, the cost of living is much less expensive than Silicon Valley and there are many nice amenities.
"We're bringing in young, new talent and hope to keep FIT graduates here as well. We're an employee owned company that offers a nice work/quality of life balance. We hope to bring more sizzle to the Space Coast with what's best from our Silicon Valley culture and style."
One of Richards' earliest childhood memories is walking hand-in-hand with his parents through the Kennedy Space Center's Rocket Garden during vacations from their Toronto home. It fostered a keen interest in space exploration to which he's dedicated his entrepreneurial career.
"Now here I am at Cape Canaveral building and testing lunar landers that will reach out to the moon and other worlds," Richards said. "It's an honor walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the early space pioneers that so inspired me."
It's part of a rising tide of new commercial facilities that will broaden the region's space industry capabilities from manufacturing capsules, building giant rockets, satellites and rocket hardware on the Space Coast.
In mid-January Moon Express announced it secured a $20 million financing round bringing the total investment to $45 million from individuals and venture capital sources including Founders Fund, Collaborative Fund, as well as the software company Autodesk.
"They've done it with private investments," Ketcham said. "Other people are betting their money on Moon Express's success. That's always what you want to see."
Moon Express puts their initial mission at less than $10 million. It will carry scientific and commercial payloads for several customers along with reportedly the cremated ashes of an unidentified individual.
"They are leading the way in developing hardware, technology and expertise on other (celestial) bodies away from earth," said Ketcham. "Pushing forward to the New World or to the American west it was initially about exploration. But America really succeeded when it started capturing rare minerals. That's when things really take off. Out in space there's unlimited quantities."
Moon Express' larger goal is to create a commercial cargo service to the moon researching, mining, and extracting resources for economic and scientific gain.
"Water on the moon can be harvested turning it into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel," Richards noted. "It's a gas station in the sky that would change the costs of going to Mars and beyond, transforming the economics of space travel."
Moon Express has forged an significant partnership with NASA through its Lunar CATALYST program.
And then there is the Google $20 million in prize money that Moon Express hopes to bag.
Time is ticking.
"Space is hard, but my confidence is really high that we’ll be the first private sector company to get to the moon," Richards asserted. "We want to create commercial trade routes, bridging the gap between the Earth and what I call the eighth continent."