If you think the Space Race ended in the Cold War era, think again. The competition to make it to the moon is alive and well and this time, it’s profitable. Yesterday, Florida-based Moon Express announced that they had been given U.S. government permission to land a probe on the moon, making it the first private company to receive approval to do so.
The company, which is based in Cape Canaveral, is one of the 16 teams competing in Google Lunar XPRIZE in hopes of winning a $20 million grand prize. The XPRIZE competition was created in 2007 to motivate entrepreneurs to find affordable ways to reach space and to open up the moon to private industry.
At its onset, 29 teams were participating for a chance at the $30 million total prize purse, but now only about half that many teams remain. Even more, teams may disappear from the running at the end of this year, when participants must have verified launch contracts or be eliminated from consideration. The moon missions themselves must be completed by 2017.
Moon Express’ moon landing approval came after consultations with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the White House, the State Department, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and more. The application for the lunar landing was submitted to the FAA on April 8 of this year, and the only details for the date of the mission itself are that it is planned to take place in 2017.
Though the landing approval is a big step—and one that could herald the beginning of the commercial space travel industry—Moon Express has a lot of work ahead of them before they’ll be able to claim the XPRIZE cash. They must assemble the moon lander and test the rocket than they currently plan to launch, which will be a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. Currently, they are simulating moon landings in Cape Canaveral.
There is also a significant amount of money required for Moon Express to make it into space. They estimate that their first lunar expedition will cost about $50 million, of which they have already raised $30 million. Still, Moon Express expects to make money on the venture, through not just the XPRIZE grand prize if they get it, but also the items they will take to the moon for customers (including cremated human remains), and through advertising sponsors. Eventually, in future missions, Moon Express hopes to profit by harvesting resources on the moon to bring back to Earth.
Many companies have begun investigating the commercial possibilities of space travel and the moon. Richard Branson has laid the groundwork for space tourism travel with Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon (AMZN), also has a private spaceflight company called Blue Origin. Perhaps most impressively, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla (TSLA) and SpaceX, plans to launch an unmanned Mars mission in 2018.