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Four Decades After Apollo 11, Moon Trips Are Making a Comeback

Image: MX-1 lander

An artist's conception shows Moon Express' MX-1 lander with the International Lunar Observatory deployed. Moon Express

It's been more than four decades since the first humans arrived on the moon, and since the last ones left, but traffic to the lunar surface could soon be on the upswing again — thanks to a new space race that involves commercial ventures as well as government-funded efforts.

And if Astrobotic CEO John Thornton has anything to say about it, the moon race will feature an honest-to-goodness rover race by the end of next year. The concept is a central part of Astrobotic's plan to snag a share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.

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"We're bringing rovers from around the world — they'll be bolted onto our vehicle," Thornton explained. "Once we land on the surface, they'll deploy and then the green flag goes up, and it's a race to the finish line. So it's a race to 500 meters to get the Google Lunar X Prize. It's literally NASCAR on the moon, happening live, transmitting back here to Earth."

Technically, the $20 million grand prize would go to the first rover to roll more than 500 meters (three-tenths of a mile) on the moon and send back HDTV video — but Thornton wants to work out deals with multiple rover teams to split the prize money "in a predetermined way, so that everyone wins at the end of the day."

Astrobotic's plan calls for a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to put its Griffin lander on a course to the moon, where the company's Polaris rover and its competitors would be unloaded for the race. Thornton told NBC News that one of the X Prize contest's 18 active teams has agreed to the plan so far. (The team's identity will be revealed sometime in the next few weeks, he said.)

Today’s space race: Google Lunar X Prize 13:27

One X Prize team that won't be taking Astrobotic up on the offer is Moon Express, which is backed by dot-com entrepreneur Naveen Jain. Moon Express is planning to send a series of spacecraft into Earth orbit as secondary payloads on other people's launch vehicles. Once the spacecraft are on their own, they'd power their way to the moon to deliver landers, rovers, astronomical telescopes and other packages.

CEO Bob Richards has called Moon Express a "FedEx to the moon." But it's not just a business: Richards also wants to rekindle the spirit of the Apollo moon shots. There's even a family connection to those glory days. The company's president, Andy Aldrin, is the son of Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.

"I'm hoping for a new era, where other countries as well as commercial entities can help create that sense of unity that existed during Apollo," Richards said.

The X Prize has to be won by the end of 2015, and to provide an extra boost, "Milestone Prizes" of up to $1 million will be awarded this year to the teams making the most progress. Astrobotic and Moon Express are among the finalists for those prizes. They're also in the running to receive assistance (but no cash) from NASA under a program called Lunar CATALYST.

Who else is going?

Since Apollo, NASA has mounted moon missions ranging from Lunar Prospector to Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, LCROSS, GRAIL and LADEE. However, none of those missions involved a soft landing on the lunar surface. The only probes to survive a landing on the moon since Apollo 17 touched down in 1972 have been Russian or Chinese in origin.

The Chinese have reportedly been thinking about sending astronauts to the moon sometime after 2020, and the Russians are talking about a lunar colony in the 2030s. India and Japan are also said to have lunar ambitions. But NASA has ruled out the idea of leading a return to the moon, after President Barack Obama dismissed it as a case of "been there, done that." Instead, NASA is focusing on an asteroid rendezvous in the mid-2020s, as a prelude to Mars missions.

Image: Golden Spike lander
An artist's conception shows a Golden Spike lander on the moon. Golden Spike Co.

The Obama administration's moon strategy is to leave lunar exploration to commercial ventures and international efforts. Billionaire Robert Bigelow, who worries that the Chinese will claim the moon for themselves, helped NASA lay out a roadmap for commercial missions. Several outfits — ranging from the Golden Spike Company to Space Adventures — are talking about sending paying passengers either to or around the moon within a decade.

Although NASA officially regards moon shots as old hat, the space agency is planning to have astronauts go into lunar orbit during a test flight of the heavy-lift Space Launch System scheduled for 2021. There are even rumblings that a round-the-moon voyage might happen earlier if this year's uncrewed test of NASA's Orion spaceship goes well.

Why go?

Forty-five years after Apollo 11, it's fair to ask why we should bother with the moon. Back then, the rationale for spending billions of dollars on Apollo didn't have that much to do with science, or settlement. Instead, it was meant as a Cold War exercise, to demonstrate the United States' technological superiority over the Soviet Union. There's nothing like the superpower conflict of the '60s currently in sight, which goes a long way toward explaining why humans haven't gone back to the moon in 42 years.

Richards acknowledged that "it was really fear" that drove space exploration during the Cold War era.

"In this era, I believe it's going to be curiosity, exploration, discovery — and economics," he said.

"Water is the oil of the solar system, and we're really after our first gusher."

Since the '60s, the rise of satellite technology has demonstrated how useful outer space can be as an arena for economic enterprise, Richards said. It's hard to imagine how 21st-century commerce could get done without the satellites that beam information around the world from a height of 25,000 miles or so.

"We need to move that sphere of economic influence from 25,000 miles to 250,000 miles," Richards said.

In order to do that, infrastructure will have to be built, and fuel will have to be produced. If robots on the moon can extract water from lunar soil and split that H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, that could provide the fuel and the air as well as the water for future space travelers.

"Water is the oil of the solar system, and we're really after our first gusher," Richards said. "Once we do that, that will help create the moon rush. The moon could turn out to be a gas station for the solar system."

Thornton agrees that water extraction could be the killer app for lunar industry, but he cites an even more existential reason to go back to the moon: If we're heading out to asteroids, to Mars and beyond, shouldn't we practice the skills we'll need, closer to home?

"It's like starting out to go to the Arctic before you even learn to camp out in your backyard," Thornton said.

45 Years After Moon Landing, America Shoots for Mars 2:16