More than 50 years after John F. Kennedy first pledged to send a man to the moon in 1961, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Naveen Jain has been making the rounds of media with an even more romantic and wildly ambitious notion.
“Imagine one day we will all be sitting on our knees asking our honey, ‘Will you go to the moon with me?’” Jain said in a recent interview with CNBC. In another interview, Jain suggested that space tourism to the moon could begin as soon as 2026, and could cost as little as $10,000.
All of these are distant goals for Jain’s newest venture, Moon Express, which, for the moment, is focused on making its first unmanned lunar mission—and perhaps capturing the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize–sometime in 2017. Even Moon Express itself admits that Jain, Moon Express’s chairman of the board, is probably getting a little bit ahead of himself.
The point is not when, but that it is possible.
“This comment was made by Naveen Jain in the context of speculating on the possible,” a company spokesperson tells Now.Space. “Not unlike the speculation of what it might cost for people to travel to Mars one day. The point is not when, but that it is possible.”
Moon Express is the first-ever private enterprise to receive government permission to travel beyond Earth’s orbit in 2016. The company announced in late January that it had raised another $20 million in private equity to fund that maiden mission to the moon. That puts them at a total of $45 million in private equity, and CEO and co-founder Bob Richards tells Now.Space that they “remain on solid financial ground for our business plans this year.”
The company has also begun renovating Launch Complexes 17 and 18 at Cape Canaveral to prepare for its maiden voyage. And while Richards also says “there are still untrodden regulatory challenges” that remain to be worked, they’re focused on building their MX-1E spacecraft and implementing the ground infrastructure to launch in 2017.
Are we all the next Buzz Aldrin? Credit: NASA
Still, all of those regulatory hurdles seem surmountable, given that Moon Express was given its government permission after consulting with the FAA, the White House, the State Department, and NASA, and given that Donald Trump’s picks to be NASA administrators are seemingly all supportive of commercial space travel. If it happens, Moon Express would join government-funded missions from the United States, China, and Russia to land on the moon.
If Moon Express succeeds in 2017, What happens next?
And the obvious question, if Moon Express succeeds in 2017, is, What happens next? How do we evolve from a single moon landing into Jain’s expansive vision? And how does a private company balance its own business interests with the massive public interest in potentially establishing a lunar colony someday?
All of this begins with the far less romantic notion of exploring the moon’s natural resources and potentially mining them for use on earth. The moon contains a number of valuable resources, including gold, platinum group metals, rare earth metals and Helium 3, an isotope which could potentially serve as a newer and safer source of nuclear energy. A small amount of Helium 3 could potentially provide tremendous amounts of power. (For that reason, the Chinese have also announced plans to mine Helium-3 on the moon.)
In addition, Richards has said Moon Express—which already has contracts to carry payloads from both private-sector companies and scientists, including the delivery of an international lunar observatory and retroflector arrays to test Einstein’s theory of relativity–is hoping to win a contract to carry payloads from NASA.
“Our early business is robotic space transportation of science and commercial payloads to the moon for government and private customers, with a long-term view of developing lunar resources,” Richards says. “There is plenty of speculation and studies out there of what is possible with lunar development and what it could be like. We enjoy thinking about all these possibilities.”
The next American rocket to the moon could launch as later this year. Pictured here: The Apollo 11 Saturn V space vehicle. Credit: NASA
Still, that is the long-term vision of Moon Express—to help develop space colonies that could one day be inhabited by humans. “If we were to get hit by an asteroid, the whole of humanity would get destroyed,” Jain said recently. “We want to use the resources of the moon to create a habitat on the moon. It’s really to save humanity from some potential disaster.”
While China and Russia are also planning moon exploration, entrepreneurs like those who founded Moon Express, Jain said, “are going to be the powers” in the future, rather than nation-states. But Moon Express will obviously be seeking to make a profit from its missions, and this raises the question of how a private company juggles its own business needs with those of public.
“What we are undertaking is happening because we are excited about the possibilities of exploring the moon and utilizing its resources for the betterment of life on earth and our future expansion as a multi-world species,” Richards says.
Jain’s vision aside, the idea of humans becoming multi-world species is a long way away. For the moment, Richards says, Moon Express is still concentrating on that first crucial step for mankind in the 21st century—and in doing so, winning that $20 million Google X Prize before any number of international competitors beat them to it. And this requires a soft landing on the Moon before all else.
“We are currently focused,” Richards says, “on the momentous task of learning how to land on the moon.”