“We choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s a good business.” This adaptation of John F. Kennedy’s famous quote about the challenges of traveling to Earth’s nearest neighbor came from Naveen Jain, chairman of the startup Moon Express, talking to a New York Times reporter today about his company being the first private firm ever to be granted permission to launch a lunar mission.
Jain, who also managed to get the Washington Post to quote him as saying “water is the oil of the solar system,” clearly has a strong soundbite game. He also has his eyes on winning the Google Lunar X Prize, and the $20 million that goes with it, by making Moon Express the first firm to land a small rover on the moon, have it travel at least half a kilometer, and send images back to Earth. To achieve this, the firm has raised $30 million and is looking for $25 million more. Such are the economics of boldly going where only the U.S., Russian, and Chinese governments have gone before.
But the X Prize is just the first step in Jain’s vision for Moon Express. The bigger plan is to make space the final frontier of resource extraction. Water locked away in lunar ice can be used to create rocket fuel, the thinking goes, which not only allows off-world mining operations to cheaply fill up their tanks for a return journey but also to leapfrog to the asteroid belt, Mars, and points beyond. As anyone who has seen or read The Martian knows, water and the highly combustible hydrazine are indeed chemical cousins—but exchanging one for the other can be a hazardous undertaking. Such a conversion has, notably, never been attempted in the risk-averse world of nonfiction spaceflight.
Moon Express faces a few other hurdles to accomplishing its victory lap around the Earth-Moon system as well. The rocket the company has contracted to fly on, Rocket Lab’s sleek-looking Electron, hasn’t yet had its first test flight. And the MX-1 lander that Moon Express plans to launch still needs to be assembled.
To be sure, getting regulatory approval from the U.S. government—which at first wasn’t sure which agency should be in charge of the licensing, or whether it might run afoul of international treaty in allowing the mission to go ahead—is a significant step forward. If Moon Express can clear its technical hurdles, all that’s left is to set a launch date. That puts it ahead of other teams competing for the X Prize with the end-2017 deadline not far off.
As for resource extraction, the Obama administration has cleared the way for all private space firms, including asteroid mining interests like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, to keep whatever they can haul back to Earth. This is likely to include metals like platinum and iridium, which are rare here. The government of Luxembourg, too, has embraced the idea of asteroid exploitation.
It’s easy to see why such ventures have ginned up excitement—there is little more awe-inspiring than space travel. In an era where private companies have successfully resupplied the International Space Station, launched reusable rockets, and flown an inflatable space habitat, it’s tempting to believe that anything is possible. And indeed it might be.
At some point, though, even the most well-funded startups have to reckon with economics, and for the foreseeable future, the prospect of profitably mining a world other than our own is outlandish. For Jain, a man fond of modifying aphorisms, the poet Robert Browning’s invocation, “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?” will no doubt serve as inspiration. It is unlikely, however, to need altering anytime soon.