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Moon Express MX-1
An illustration of the Moon Express MX-1 spacecraft headed to the Moon. Moon Express is one of three companies that recently won unfunded Space Act Agreements from NASA to support their technical development. (credit: Moon Express)

The commercial race back to the Moon

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In 2000, writer Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point, which became a bestseller. In the book he explained of how societal, scientific, behavioral, or other influences can reach a threshold, or tipping point, after which it becomes a widespread trend with unanticipated ramifications and/or benefits. It is the opinion of this writer we are approaching the tipping point with respect to commercial lunar exploration and the potential of resource utilization providing an improved quality of life on Earth and an array of new industries not even imagined yet.

Both the GLXP and Lunar CATALYST are powerful incentives for companies to successfully complete their design engineering of their craft and secure a launch vehicle to get their spacecraft safely to the lunar surface.

The impetus for this development came first from the private sector and is now being supported and encouraged by the government. In 2007, the X PRIZE Foundation announced the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP), which has a total award and incentive purse today of $30 million. The original deadline was the end of 2012 (see “The Google Lunar X PRIZE at five: can it still be won?”, The Space Review, October 1, 2012). This has since been extended to December 2015—now just eighteen months away.

The second impetus has come from NASA’s new Lunar CATALYST initiative. Regular readers of The Space Review are now familiar with this NASA commercial collaboration with small businesses to soft land a spacecraft with or without a rover on the Moon (see “The future of NASA’s commercial partnerships”, The Space Review, May 19, 2014). On April 30, NASA announced it had entered into unfunded Space Act Agreements with Astrobotic, Moon Express, and Masten Space Systems. Both the GLXP and Lunar CATALYST are powerful incentives for companies to successfully complete their design engineering of their craft and secure a launch vehicle to get their spacecraft safely to the lunar surface.

Google Lunar X PRIZE to date

In November of last year, the X PRIZE Foundation announced a series of milestone prizes for GLXP competitors based on their progress in several key areas that were critical to achieve the goal of landing their spacecraft on the Moon. These included the Lander System Milestone Prize of $1 million each, the Mobility Subsystem Milestone Prize of $500,000 each, and the Imaging Subsystem Milestone Prize of $250,000 each.

GLXP judges evaluated the efforts of the competing teams, selecting five teams as finalists earlier this year: Moon Express, Part Time Scientists, Astobotic, Team Indus, and Hakuto. Each team must now deliver on their stated hardware and software testing and mission simulations with quantifiable success in order to win any or all of the prizes before the end of 2014. This does not eliminate the efforts of other teams still competing, but many assume this will result in some teams dropping from the competition.

“Every strategy presented to us was imaginative, forward-thinking and ambitious, which made it difficult to choose only a handful to proceed to the Accomplishment Round,” said David Swanson, chair of the judging committee. “As there are increasing fiscal constraints threatening the ability of governments to fund exploration, the need to recognize the bold technical achievements of these privately-funded teams is greater than ever.

The X PRIZE Foundation also wanted to quantify the realistic commercial return on investment of mounting private missions to the Moon. In 2013, the foundation contracted with British economic consultancy London Economics to perform an in-depth analysis of the potential economic benefits that might be achieved with a sustainable multi-modal approach in commercial ventures on the Moon. These include harvesting or processing lunar material and spinoff technologies that can be applied to many industries on Earth, among other potential beneficial applications. London Economics set timelines of 10 and 25 years from the award of the GLXP.

All the parameters London Economics employed to evaluate the mostly likely outcomes and potential financial benefits from these commercial efforts over those period of years is too extensive to list here. Its final report concluded that there is a potential $1.9 billion return after ten years and, by 2040, roughly $6.4 billion in market value return on investment.

This provides all the more incentive to reward the teams competing for the GLXP, but two of those teams are also now partners with NASA in the Lunar CATALYST initiative. How will NASA’s program advance their aims, and how does the third Lunar CATALYST company, who is not a GLXP competitor, fit into the broader efforts at lunar commercialization?

Moon Express

The principal founders of Moon Express all have high technology backgrounds and records of success. Naveen Jain is a serial entrepreneur who rose to prominence at Microsoft and later established InfoSpace,which was the basis of most of his wealth. In August of 2010 he co-founded Moon Express with Bob Richards and Barney Pell. Richards has been involved in a number of space-based companies and organizations, including as a co-founder of the International Space University. Pell received his Ph.D in computer science from Cambridge University and is co-founder of several technology companies. All three men have a passion for the potential of commercial lunar exploration.

Moon Express also has an impressive management and engineering team that includes Dr. Paul Spudis, who is Chief Scientist; Dr. Michael Sims, who is head of software and director of robotics; Tom Gardner, who directs the mission design and quality assurance; Adrian Adamson, who is responsible for spacecraft avionics; and Tim Pickens, who is chief propulsion engineer. The remaining members of the Moon Express team are also experts in their respective fields.

The company is located on the campus of NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. Thus, they have the benefit of the research and development facilities at the center. It also drew extensive information from NASA’s Mighty Eagle lunar lander program to apply to its MX-1 lander, which has gone through several design iterations. Moon Express won a $10 million contract award from NASA in 2010 as part of the Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data program.

The London Economics report concluded that there is a potential $1.9 billion return after ten years and, by 2040, roughly $6.4 billion in market value return on investment.

In the 2006 book Return to the Moon, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt devotes several chapters to the allure of helium-3 (see “Review: Return to the Moon”, The Space Review, January 3, 2006). Jain embraces the potential of this element to generate vast amounts of energy. “We have helium-3 that you essentially can use for fusion energy. Even a small amount of helium-3 could provide energy for the whole planet for hundreds of years,” he stated with unbounded enthusiasm.

And, in the same spirit that mining operators and prospectors raced west across North America in the latter 1800’s in their quest for gold, Pell is interested in mining another precious metal from the lunar surface: “I think there is more platinum on the Moon than all the mining resources on planet Earth.”

The MX-1 lander will have a gross weight of 600 kilograms, with the bulk of this propellant. The spacecraft will use its main engine to burn RP-1 to achieve escape velocity from Earth orbit, then employ outboard thrusters burning a special grade of hydrogen peroxide to soft land the MX-1 on the lunar surface. Among the payloads will be a telescope designed by the International Lunar Observatory Association.

The lander will not have a roving vehicle as part of its payload. To fulfill the prize requirement to travel 500 meters from the landing site, the lander will fire its thrusters and traverse this distance at low altitude and land again. As of this writing, Moon Express has yet to announce a launch contract with any potential provider.


Of the three NASA Lunar CATALYST awardees, Astrobotic is perhaps the closest to achieving the significant milestones to not only win the GLXP incentive prizes, but actually land its spacecraft on the Moon. It has made significant strides in the testing of its Mobility Testbed rover and the construction of its Griffin lander, and also secured a SpaceX Falcon 9 as its launch vehicle more than three years ago.

Astrobotic became an aerospace research and development startup in 2008 from Carnegie Mellon University’s Field Robotic Center in Pittsburgh. The company also received a $10 million contract in 2010 as part of NASA’s Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data program. Like Moon Express, the Astrobotic engineering and mission team has the depth and breadth of experience to realize the goals of Lunar CATALYST and they are all confident they will take home the GLXP.

Overseeing Astrobotic’s efforts is William “Red” Whittaker, Chairman and Chief Science Officer. He launched CMU’s Robotics Engineering Center, and has been a consultant to various industries in the application of robotic vehicles in mining and excavating of which he holds eleven patents.

“Moon landing once symbolized the pinnacle of human achievement,” Whittaker states. “CATALYST now evolves that to enterprise and to the remarkable capability that is possible through this public-private partnership. CATALYST will build a bright future combining a mix of new resourcefulness with legacy and innovation.”

John Thornton received his Masters degree in mechanical engineering from CMU and is Astrobotic’s CEO. He leads the engineering team for the Griffin lander. Apart from the GLXP, Thornton believes the public-private partnership Astrobotic has with NASA is instrumental in the company’s progress to make lunar resource utilization a commercial reality.

“This NASA partnership, modeled after the highly successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program,” Thornton remarks, “will extend the reach of commercial capabilities to the Moon. Astrobotic is making it possible to buy lunar delivery and utility services at a fraction of the cost.”

Astrobotic will send its spacecraft to Lacus Mortis, and is evidently not deterred by the name, which is Latin for “Lake of Death.”

The Griffin lander engineering team has developed autonomous landing guidance incorporating terrain mapping with laser sensors and video cameras, producing 3-D lunar surface models as it approaches the lunar surface. This is also part of the hazard avoidance system that will direct Griffin to move to a smooth landing site. In February, Astrobotic tested this preliminary landing system on a Masten Space Systems Xombie suborbital vehicle at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities award to Astrobotic. This was a test of the software itself and was not tied to Xombie’s flight path. This first test was a success, as a video from Masten demonstrates. Future tests later this year will be conducted that will actively control Xombie throughout its flight.

Astrobotic also tested the Mobility Testbed Rover (MTR) in April. Interestingly, the MTR’s four wheels have a wheel configuration similar the Grumman Mobility Test Article NASA tested during its early lunar roving vehicle studies during the mid-1960s. This test involved evaluation of the drive motors and controllers, the avionics system, operational software and other components, all of which will continue to be refined and eventually incorporated into the flight rover.

Astrobotic’s goal is to incorporate an excavation subsystem on the flight rover. The rover is the primary, but not only, payload that will sit atop the Griffin lander. The company already has a commercial customer: Otsuka Pharmaceutical’s “Lunar Dream” time capsule, roughly the size of a 16-ounce soda can.

Astrobotic will send its spacecraft to Lacus Mortis in the northeast portion of the Moon visible from Earth. The Astrobotic team is evidently not deterred by the name, which is Latin for “Lake of Death.”

Masten Space Systems

David Masten is the force behind Masten Space Systems, which he founded in 2004 to research, develop and build reusable Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing (VTVL) suborbital launch vehicles. Masten has done work for a number of commercial and government customers, and won the majority of the prize purse of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge competition in 2009 (see “A wild finish for the Lunar Lander Challenge”, The Space Review, November 9, 2009.) While Masten is not competing in the GLXP competition, it is, along with Astrobotic and Moon Express, one of the companies with Lunar CATALYST awards from NASA.

The Masten team is made up of roughly half a dozen accomplished experts who are involved in the core disciplines as part of VTVL spacecraft. What makes their vehicles so impressive to watch in flight is the knowledge these reusable vehicles are operating in Earth’s one-G environment. They take off, achieve their designated altitude, pursue a specified flight path, and land with precision.

One way or the other, a new generation of spacecraft will be going to the Moon to write a new chapter in lunar exploration.

The goals for Masten’s lunar landing vehicles are much larger than what they build now and will eventually carry payloads. The company got its inspiration from a United Launch Alliance (ULA) paper published several years ago outlining the use of a Centaur stage, retrofitted with descent engines, to get the stage and its payload to the lunar surface. Masten has taken that concept and is in the process of making it a reality.

The company will use a Centaur stage fitted with Masten external propellant tanks and four engines for descent to the lunar surface. Masten is constructing a technology demonstrator from a discarded ULA Centaur stage and the company is getting the assistance of engineers at several NASA centers to realize this spacecraft as a part of its Lunar CATALYST Space Act Agreement.

The clock is ticking and getting louder

With the December 2015 deadline fast approaching, GLXP competitors who have yet to make launch arrangements may soon find themselves shut out. Launch manifests are filling up, and there’s always the prospect of delays because of payload, launch vehicle, or even launch range issues. Problems with other launches planned in the next 18 months can have a domino effect on later launches, potentially delaying GLXP missions beyond the end of next year through no fault of their own.

Moreover, a great many things must go right throughout each team’s entire program schedule to be able to launch by the end of 2015. The completed spacecraft must be at the launch site months ahead of launch, undergo further checkout, be mated to the launch vehicle, and then hope the countdown goes smoothly.

There is one thing these competitors cannot buy and that is more time, at least with respect to GLXP. However, Lunar CATALYST is under no such deadline, so it appears that even if teams miss the GLXP’s prize deadline, there’s still a pathway—albeit an unfunded one—to support continued development. One way or the other, a new generation of spacecraft will be going to the Moon to write a new chapter in lunar exploration.