I have to admit, when I received an email from Dr. Barney Pell, founder of Powerset, a search startup that was acquired by Microsoft for $100 million in July 2008, I was incredulous. Pell and his two co-founders, Naveen Jain (Infospace) and Dr. Robert (Bob) Richards have started a new company called Moon Express (yup, you heard that right) to develop a space vehicle that will in turn allow the company to tap into mineral resources on the lunar surface.
The trio met as members of the board of Singularity University, which is based in the NASA Ames campus in Silicon Valley. A year ago, they started the company with some initial funding from Pell and Jain, but they have since raised a little bit of angel funding. With seven full-time employees and a handful of contractors, the company isn’t looking for big round of funding just yet. It is all in the future, Pell said.
Pell spent a large portion of his working life at NASA before leaving to work in Silicon Valley. He worked on projects for the Mars Exploration Rover mission along with several other projects related to autonomous systems. He was also involved in the development of one of the first artificial intelligence systems to fly onboard (and control) a deep space probe. “I’m still fully engaged with my day job at Bing, but this is definitely an exciting nights and weekends [almost literally moonlighting] job for me,” Pell wrote.
For now the company has a contract from NASA worth up to $10 million “for the initial delivery order of the ‘Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD)’ program.” The company is competing in the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, “a competition to place a robot on the Moon’s surface that travels 500 meters and transmits high definition video, images and data back to Earth.”
Moon Express describes itself as a “lunar transportation and data services company created to establish new avenues for commercial space activities beyond Earth orbit” and “will be sending a series of robotic spacecraft to the Moon for ongoing exploration and commercial development.” What does that mean? “Our big play is to develop a robotic lander to transport things to (and from) the moon,” Pell said. And why would we do that?
“There is eventually going to be a moon rush, because there are a lot of resources on the moon that we will need,” said Pell. Resources like platinum and other metals that are needed for fuel cells and the post-fossil fuel economy. “In the future we want to be able to land the payloads and machines and bring things back,” said Pell. ”We want to be the last mile to the moon.”
Crazy? Absolutely! Impossible? Probably not! There are a growing number of people who believe that with federal funding for our space program getting scarce, the future lies in private-public partnerships. Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s third job (after leading electric car company Tesla and acting as the Chairman of solar installer SolarCity) is heading up SpaceX, which was the first private company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a rocketship. Virgin’s Richard Branson has a similar private space venture.
Rare metals have suddenly become a hot commodity in products from hybrid vehicles batteries, to wind turbines, to compact fluorescent light bulbs to magnets for electric vehicle motors. Particularly now that China, which owns control of 95 percent of rare earth metals, decided to cut its exports of those metals.
Of course governments of China and other emerging economies like India and Brazil have had similar thoughts about tapping into moon’s resources and are spending billions of dollars.
When I asked Pell how he plans to compete with the seemingly unlimited resources of nations, he said that the company has a few tricks up its sleeve that he is going to be sharing at a later stage. And yes, they will be seeking funding, eventually.