July 28, 2009 at 10:55 PM ET
Odyssey Moon via X Prize
This artist's conception shows Odyssey Moon's lunar lander touching down.
Forty years ago, moon landings were exclusively the province of superpowers - but today, commercial ventures are trying to turn lunar missions into profitable businesses. Do such dreams represent one small step for high-tech entrepreneurship, or do they require an overly giant leap of faith?
Ramin Khadem, a veteran of the telecom satellite industry, thinks there's definitely money to be made on the moon. That's not surprising: As chairman of Odyssey Moon Limited, he's in charge of one of the ventures planning to deliver commercial payloads to the moon - not 40 years from now, but sometime in the next five years.
"The moon is almost like an eighth continent," Khadem told me. "It's within the planet Earth's own economic sphere ... Our approach has been to explore this eighth continent. Just as explorers went to the new world and found all sorts of great things, we think there are opportunities there."
The only problem is, we've known for the past 40 years that the "eighth continent" is within reach - but nothing has come of it. In fact, "Right Stuff" novelist Tom Wolfe argued around the time of this month's Apollo 11 anniversary that the fate of lunar travel was sealed once the moon race was won.
Today's NASA would never take the risks that NASA did in 1968 and 1969 by sending astronauts on just-barely-tested spacecraft to the moon - primarily because there's no longer any Cold War-scale reason to do so. Nothing has been done on the moon's surface, by humans or by robots, since 1972 (except for crashing).
So why should the economic equation be any different five years from now?
'The next stage'?
Khadem, who once served as chief financial officer for the Inmarsat telecom consortium, is feeling as if it could be deja vu all over again.
"I've been in the satellite business for many years," he said. "If you look back 40 years or so, the satellite business was in its infancy. Now, we've got a huge business at 34,000 kilometers in space - a multibillion-dollar business which is actually a huge benefit to mankind."
The benefits of the commercial satellite revolution - ranging from better weather forecasts to globe-girdling communication links - came "as the result of some risk taking" in Earth orbit, Khadem said.
"We think the moon itself is the next stage," he said.
Like 18 other teams, Odyssey Moon is working to put a rover on the moon by 2014 to win a big piece of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. But the venture is also lining up customers for lunar delivery services as well.
"We've got a number of customers already," Khadem said. "When we last put out an RFI (request for information), we got 27 responses, and there are a number of responses that are still outstanding."
Khadem estimated that Odyssey Moon had enough payload potential to fill up its first launch. "We can fill up the second launch as well, and we've only scratched the surface," he said.
If all those plans come to fruition, the prospects for profits are good. That's a big "if," however. Khadem said he recognized that rocket science is an inherently risky business. "The model that we know in the satellite business and telecom can be applied here," he said.
Just this month, Odyssey Moon announced that it was bringing a "dream team" of corporate partners into its venture, including banking specialists (Near Earth LLC), marketers (The Brand Union / WPP), insurance experts (Aon) and lawyers (Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy).
Odyssey Moon is working as well with other partners that have experience in the spacecraft business, such as NASA's Ames Research Center (which is developing the lunar lander); prime contractor MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (the Canadian company behind the robotic arms on the space shuttles and the international space station); and Paragon Space Development (which is working on the lander and its thermal control system as well as a mini-greenhouse for the moon).
The moon market
Who are the customers? Khadem won't go much beyond generalities. "Our main business is simply carrying payload for customers, whoever they may be, and obviously for peaceful purposes of all kinds," he said.
A study conducted by Futron Corp. for the X Prize Foundation estimated that the 19 teams chasing the Google Lunar X Prize could serve a market of $1 billion or more in the next decade.
"We examined a wide range of markets that teams could address, both those that exist today and those that could be enabled by low-cost commercial lunar exploration," Futron senior analyst Jeff Foust was quoted as saying. "If one or more teams are able to win this prize competition, they will be able to serve markets potentially far larger than the prize purse."
For now, the primary payoff would come in the form of technology and scientific data: How will a gizmo designed for NASA's future moon missions actually work in the lunar environment? How much more can be learned about the moon's makeup, or about potential lunar resources? What kinds of observations can be made from the moon?
"Associated with this business there will be marketing and advertising," Khadem said. That could take the form of corporate logos plastered on the spacecraft. More ambitious schemes might call for setting up an exclusive video feed from the moon, for use in TV shows, movies or video games. You could let tourists take a spin around the lunar landscape via virtual reality. One company even says it will use a specially tracked rover to trace out advertising messages in moondirt (although the current launch prospects are uncertain).
If samples could be returned from the moon, that could open up yet another type of market. Apollo-vintage moondust and moon rocks are valuable commodities on Earth, strictly controlled by NASA, and even meteorites from the moon can sell for six figures, lunar scientist Paul Spudis noted last week on his "Once and Future Moon" blog.
In the longer run, lunar operations could conceivably supply an outpost with raw materials ranging from solar power, drinkable water and breathable oxygen to building materials, as outlined in an essay written by Spudis and two other moon-watchers. And in the even longer run, some people suggest the moon could yield beamed energy or fusion fuel.
All this eventually gets back to the original question: If there are profit possibilities on the moon, why have they been neglected for all this time?
The biggest missing piece in the commercial moon puzzle is having a reliable, affordable launch vehicle that can reach the lunar surface. That challenge is something that the Google Lunar X Prize could well address.
California-based SpaceX, for example, is offering a 10 percent discount on launch costs for X Prize launches to the moon - a factor that the X Prize Foundation took into account when the rules for the challenge were written. "We tried to write it so that it was just barely winnable on a Falcon 1," said Will Pomerantz, the foundation's senior director for space prizes.
At least one X Prize competitor, Romania's ARCA team, is developing its own rocket for a future moon mission. The Helen launch vehicle, which is designed for launch from a high-altitude balloon platform, is due to be tested in August or September.
In their essay, Spudis and his colleagues argue that small steps leading to lunar settlement - including new breeds of reusable launch vehicles, new processes to take advantage of resources on the moon and new opportunities for private enterprise - could succeed where another Apollo-style giant leap just might fail:
"It is clear to us is that we are neither doing the right things in space nor are we are doing things right. Frankly, we do not think that it is possible to do much worse. The United States spends more money on space through our government than all other governments put together and we get less results on a dollar for dollar basis. Day by day more bad news about slipped schedules, enormous cost overruns, and lost capabilities make it into the news. It is beyond time to change the way that we conduct spaceflight, and if we choose to make this spaceport/settlement a reality, we will completely transform our aerospace industrial system. This rearrangement will save taxpayers billions of dollars while increasing our operational capabilities."
What do you think? Will commercial robots be on hand to greet the first astronauts returning to the moon, or will moon missions remain the exclusive domain of government space programs for the foreseeable future? Feel free to add your comments below.
More about the Apollo 11 anniversary:
Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. If you really want to be friendly, ask me about my upcoming book, "TheCase for Pluto." You can pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Borders.