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 Google, 29 teams have signed up for a competition to become the first private venture to land on the Moon. Most of them are unlikely to overcome the financial and technical challenges to meet the contest deadline of December 2015, but several teams think they have a good shot to win — and to take an early lead in a race to take commercial advantage of our celestial neighbour.
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 FedEx for Moon deliveries: if you have something to send there, the company would like to take it. Moon Express was having a party on Thursday night to show off the flight capabilities of its lunar lander, based on technology it licensed from NASA, and “to begin the next era of the private commercial race to the Moon,” as the invitation put it.
“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 a founder of Moon Express, says the company will spend $70 million to $100 million to try to win the Google Lunar X Prize, but could recoup its investment on its first flight.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a ‘Moon Idol,’ just like ‘American Idol?’ “ suggested Jain, who previously founded Infospace and Intelius. “You take the top 10 contestants and play their voices on the Moon, record it and see who sounds the best.”
(There is no air on the Moon to transmit sound waves, but “you could play it through the dust and see what it sounds like when you play it right on the surface,” Jain said. His point was that with cheap lunar transportation, there was no predicting what might catch people’s fancies.)
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 X Prize competitors might all be beaten by landers and rovers that China, Russia and India plan to send up over the next couple of years. But those fall more in the mold of traditional, government-built science probes.