Moon Express and Changing the Debate Over NASA’s Priorities

Setting Up Shop / Image Credit Moon Express

Florida Today reports that Moon Express has signed a deal with Space Florida for partial use of historic Launch Complex 36 in order to test engines and hardware for what will ultimately become its MX-1 Lunar Lander.

From the story:

“Moon Express is the first entrepreneurial “new space” company to commit to a significant presence at the Cape without a major government contract in hand. If it is successful, it would help diversify the area’s space industry beyond its traditional base of NASA and Air Force contractors working on big rocket programs.

An initial group of 25 to 50 employees will include some relocating from the company’s headquarters at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, and an office in Huntsville, Alabama. Among them is Tim Pickens, lead designer of the engine for SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed craft to put people in space in 2004.”  The complete article is here.

Moon Express is taking an iterative design approach in which it plans to rapidly progress through increasingly capable versions of its lander. While the company’s initial goal is to win the Google Lunar XPrize, the long term plan calls for establishing regular automated small transport to the Moon for the purpose of resource extraction of what ME calls “our eighth continent.”  If successful, the company anticipates employment could grow to several hundred people.

It is important to note that launches will not be taking place from LC-36.  That honor will most likely go to SpaceX’s SLC-40, the home of Falcon 9, where the advent of reusable rockets and plummeting costs are lending increasing credence to companies like Moon Express.

There is another angle to the story which is interesting given the Republican takeover of the Senate and the overt hostility towards NASA’s Asteroid Re-Direct Mission or ARM. Never particularly popular, the mission is now being openly ridiculed as make-work for SLS and Orion from a number of sources, including ME’s own Chief Scientists Dr. Paul Spudis. His recent blog post on the subject titled, “The Space Program: A Modest Proposal” is priceless. At the same time, despite the fact that NASA, the Administration and nearly everyone involved with SLS is maintaining the rhetoric about going to Mars, the demise of ARM would leave the Moon as the only credible destination for the next decade or more, and many in the GOP would be delighted to see NASA’s sights trained there.

So, how will the advent of comparatively low cost commercial access to the Moon in the very near future influence the debate about which way to point NASA’s “monster rocket” when its ultimate goal is too far away to come into focus?

Is there any chance that the donut shaped lander which will soon be making small test hops at Space Launch Complex 36 could change the thinking about what is really needed to return to the Moon?  Probably not, but ME’s lander, and the partially reusable rocket will likely be launching it may prove hard to ignore. The odd thing is that it could be used to support either of two widely disparate points of view.

Does it make the case, much as NASA is already doing for Low Earth Orbit, that the Moon is already becoming the province of private industry and thus the focus on Mars is justified? Or does it instead suggest, as many would argue, that NASA should chain the monster for now, and focus instead on returning to the Moon through a commercial model such as Golden Spike concept precisely because companies such as SpaceX and Moon Express are proving it can be done on a smaller, but still meaningful scale?

Update: Here is the Moon Express Press Release:

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Jan. 22, 2015 /PRNewswire/ — Moon Express, Inc. (MoonEx) announced with Space Florida today that it has signed an agreement to begin using the historic Space Launch Complex 36 (SLC-36) at Cape Canaveral for its lunar lander development and flight test operations.

SLC-36 is a launch complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Brevard County, Florida, that was used for Atlas launches from 1962 until 2005 with a total of 145 launches, including those that sent Surveyors to the Moon, Mariners to Mars and Pioneers to Jupiter, Saturn and beyond. The complex was decommissioned in 2007. In March 2010, the USAF 45th Space Wing issued Real Property Licenses to Space Florida for SLC-36 under a plan to make the facility available to commercial players.

Moon Express and Space Florida have signed an agreement that will lead to Moon Express spacecraft development and flight test operations at SLC-36 starting early this year. The agreement allows Moon Express and the state of Florida to make investments into the refurbishment of SLC-36, leading to a revitalized range and the immediate creation of 25-50 new jobs and potentially hundreds of direct and indirect new jobs over the next 5 years. Moon Express will be making an initial capital investment of up to $500K into SLC-36, which will allow initial operations to transfer over from the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility where the company’s MTV-1X vehicle has been undergoing flight testing in partnership with NASA under the Lunar CATALYST program. It is anticipated that capital investments will grow into the millions, some of which may become eligible for reimbursement through the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) matching funds program.

“This historic site, from which U.S. lunar exploration began, is beginning a new mission as a commercial facility that will help take us back to the Moon,” said Space Florida President Frank DiBello. “We are proud to partner with Moon Express on the development of SLC-36 and a new generation of exploration technologies in Florida.”

Moon Express plans to send a series of robotic spacecraft to the Moon for ongoing exploration and commercial development. The company has explained that its opportunity is driven by exponential advances in technology that have brought complex systems and missions within reach of private enterprise. Moon Express is pursuing a long-term vision of exploring and unlocking the value of lunar resources, while developing innovative spacecraft designed to introduce new cost effective access to space beyond Earth orbit, including the Moon, the asteroids and the moon of Mars.

“We are honored to have an opportunity to establish permanent operations at Cape Canaveral SLC-36, at the place where the U.S. first went to the Moon,” said Bob Richards, Moon Express co-founder and CEO. “The Moon is rising again in Florida thanks to the unequivocal support of Space Florida, NASA and the USAF 45th Space Wing in helping us create a home for manufacturing, integrating and testing our lunar lander test vehicles and spacecraft.”

Moon Express, Inc. (MoonEx) is a privately funded commercial space company driven by long-term goals of exploring and developing lunar resources and short-term business on-ramps of providing lunar transportation and data services for government and commercial customers. The company has developed the “MX”-family of scalable single stage spacecraft/landers capable of reaching the lunar surface from Earth orbit on direct or low-energy trajectories. The company is partnered with NASA and in 2010 was awarded a commercial lunar data purchase contract worth up to $10M. Moon Express is also a leading contender in the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE competition.

The Moon Express founders, Dr. Robert (Bob) Richards, Naveen Jain, and Dr. Barney Pell, believe in the long term economic potential of the Moon to produce resources essential to humanity’s future on Earth and in space.

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