US startup company The Moon Express said last week it had received approval from the government to send an unmanned lander to the moon in 2017, in a first for private industry. The trip is estimated to cost $25 million and promises to be the most expensive private travel venture of all time – well at least until SpaceX confirms its Mars mission.
Until now, only the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union and China have sent spacecraft to the surface of the moon. Commercial spacecraft have flown within the bounds of Earth’s orbit. According to Quartz, Moon Express is the first company to seek and receive approval to do business beyond near-Earth orbit. Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are the pioneers here and at least two of those have plans for the solar system at large, including the aforementioned Mars mission, scheduled for 2018. For now though, Moon Express has eclipsed everyone.
“We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth’s eighth continent, the moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity,” said Bob Richards, co-founder and chief executive of Moon Express.
Why does the company even want to go to the moon? Even the superpowers of Earth view (or viewed) it as a strategic goal, for national pride and such. Well, the Google Lunar X-Prize is still in play and Moon Express has a shot at it. To win the $30 million prize, a private company would have to land a probe on the moon, have it travel at least 500 meters on the lunar surface and transmit HD video from said surface back to Earth. Here’s a look at the teams still in the running, from Space.com.
If you do the math there, it seems there could be a $5 million payday for Moon Express if it succeeds, a roughly 20 percent return on the initial investment. The company also told the New York Post that it might be willing to transport human ashes for $3 million per kilogram. Not a bad business case there, all in all, but we prefer to think Moon Express might have bolder plans. Apparently, so did US authorities.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced its approval last Wednesday, following consultations with the White House, State Department and the US space agency NASA. This announcement also clears the air, so to speak, on any other ventures to the ultimate in foreign bodies as Moon Express seems to be alone. Perhaps more importantly, this clears the way for other private organizations. Moon Express, based in Cape Canaveral, Florida, was founded in 2010. It has yet to finish its moon lander (called MX-1), which will be carried in late 2017 by a rocket made by Rocket Lab, another startup, which has not yet launched any commercial missions.
“The sky is not the limit for Moon Express – it is the launchpad,” said Moon Express co-founder Naveen Jain, describing the government approval as “another giant leap for humanity.” The company’s goal is to develop low-cost spacecraft and to explore the resources on the moon, he said. “In the immediate future we envision bringing precious resources, metals and moon rocks back to Earth.”
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