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Teams go after moon money

Odyssey Moon, a commercial consortium based on the Isle of Man, is the first official entrant for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize – and the team’s leader says he hopes to mount more than one private-sector mission to the moon. There'll almost certainly be other teams joining the moon rush, for the prize as well as future profits.

The idea behind the Google Lunar X Prize is to reward the first privately backed team to send a rover to the moon, then transmit video and data back to Earth. That meshed perfectly with the aspirations of Robert Richards, Odyssey Moon's founder.

Richards, an executive at Optech and a co-founder of International Space University, said he and his colleagues want to turn lunar trips into a sustainable, money-making venture.

"We'll develop a repertoire of services, tools and technologies that we can apply to future missions," he told me. "This is not a one-time thing, and this is not a stunt."

That's pretty ambitious talk for a group that has only recently finished all the paperwork for the richest-ever X Prize. But Odyssey Moon can lean on some seasoned players in the space business - including its chairman, Ramin Kadem, former chief financial officer of the Inmarsat satellite communications company.

Odyssey Moon timed its announcement to mesh with the Space Investment Summit in San Jose, Calif., being held just as NASA is getting ready to launch the shuttle Atlantis to the international space station. One of the key players in the shuttle program, Canada-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, has been tapped as Odyssey Moon's prime contractor.

MDA can draw upon its experience as the builder of the robotic arms used aboard the shuttle and the space station, as well as the Radarsat imaging satellites and other space hardware.

"We understand the commercial space world, and we have the technical heritage and expertise to support Odyssey Moon's plan and make it happen," Christian Sallaberger, a vice president with MDA's Information Systems Group, said in an announcement about the lunar venture.

Richards said more collaborators could be added to the team as the project proceeds.

"We're under way," he told me. "We've got some financing behind us. We're not out there asking for money. ... We're certainly open to discussions about collaboration. Our doors are by no means closed, but we do have our own business plan in place."

Although Richards is willing to reveal some details of that business plan, other details are still being held back. For instance, he declined to say who his financial backers are. When I asked whether they were angel investors, high-rolling archangels or institutional investors, he would only say that "there's a mix of all of those in our plans."

He also said the launch-vehicle provider had not yet been selected. "We'll be looking for the most inexpensive but reliable system available," he said.

He was, however, willing to reveal why Odyssey Moon is headquartered on the Isle of Man - which he half-jokingly called the "next space superpower." Richards explained that the corporate, regulatory and tax policies on the island, tucked in the Irish Sea, are extraordinarily friendly to the space industry.

Although Odyssey Moon is the first team to complete its registration for the Google Lunar X Prize, it won't be the last. The X Prize Foundation's Will Pomerantz has said 350 teams from around the globe have inquired about the prize.

Among the favorites would have to be the CMU Moon Prize Team, which includes Carnegie Mellon University's robotics whiz, Red Whittaker; and David Gump, founder of the now-defunct LunaCorp venture and current president of t/Space. Whittaker is ready for another big project after his Tartan Racing Team won the $2 million DARPA Urban Challenge last month. 

Richards said he hopes lunar commerce will someday become as big as, say, the satellite communications industry - and he hopes Odyssey Moon will be at the front of the pack.

"One thing that Odyssey Moon believes is that there will be a moon rush," he said. "There will be a number of players that will be creating new, innovative plans, solutions, hopes and dreams for opportunities on the moon. We intend to help provide the means of getting there, the mobility and the tools and services that will help those people do what they want to do."

Is Richards' vision sheer lunacy, or is there something more to it? Feel free to weigh in with your moon musings below.

Update for 1:45 a.m. ET Dec. 6: Red Whittaker is announcing that he's teaming up with Raytheon to go after the Google Lunar X Prize, under the aegis of a recently formed venture called Astrobotic Technology.

Raytheon is the company behind the guidance systems used in NASA's Apollo moon effort, as well as the Patriot missile, the Pentagon's missile defense system and many other space-related technologies. "We have great confidence in Raytheon's ability to co-develop a spacecraft that can land on a dime," Whittaker said in the Astrobotic announcement.

The announcement said Astrobotic plans to have Raytheon work on the lunar-lander project on a contract basis, with 15 or more engineers on the case. Mike Booen, Raytheon vice president of advanced missile defense and directed energy, was quoted as saying the company was "delighted to work with Dr. Whittaker on this extraordinary lunar project."

"Development of a lunar lander is a natural extension for the company's space-proven technologies," Booen said.

Yet another competitor, Allen Newcomb of Team BonNova, told me via e-mail that he still intends to go after the Google Lunar X Prize "with a vehicle based on our Lunar Lander Challenge vehicle, the Lauryad."

Newcomb is referring to the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a $2 million competition for rocket vehicles that can do on Earth what a real lunar lander would do on the moon. Armadillo Aerospace just missed winning a prize in that contest this October.

"We are concentrating on development and testing of the Lauryad for next October's prize flight and have added two very experienced engineers to the team," Newcomb wrote.