Next year, up to 18 teams competing in the Google Lunar XPRIZE will embark on a journey to the moon. There’s Penn State’s student-led team and Moon Express, which boasts NASA alumni as its founders. But then there’s Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based company spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2008, and their journey is more than a race to be the first private company to land on the moon: it’s business.
When Astrobotic’s Griffin lander takes off aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket next year, it will be carrying precious cargo. There will be a rover, of course, which will be capable of driving the 500 meters across the moon’s surface required to win the competition. But there will also be commercial cargo that institutions have paid Astrobotic to deliver to the moon, its orbit or space.
“You can think of us as a FedEx or UPS service to the moon,” CEO John Thornton said in an interview.
He described the XPRIZE as a catalyst; it will drum up revenue and customers for Astrobotic, which seized the announcement of the prize as a chance to go into business in the first place.
“It’s going to cost more than just the XPRIZE to actually land on the surface of the moon, so you have to create a sustainable business behind it,” Thornton said.
Customers can send cargo on Astrobotic’s 2015 lunar mission for between $45,000 and $909,000 a pound, depending on if they want to launch it in space, ferry it across the moon’s surface or anything in between. Thornton said that means a customer might spend two-thirds of what it would cost to send cargo via a NASA craft (not that NASA even goes to the moon anymore).
He expects customers will be interested in research and technology development. That will likely include exploring what can be grown on the moon or how easy it is to harvest precious metals. But national pride will also play a big part; only three countries have ever made it to the moon and now, without developing expensive equipment, a country could establish a presence there by sending its equipment on Astrobotic’s lander.
One of Astrobotic’s early customers plans to execute the first lunar publicity stunt by a private company: On Monday, Astrobotic agreed to deliver a time capsule to the moon that will contain Pocari Sweat, a popular Asian sports drink, in partnership with sustainable space firm Astroscale.
Thornton said that within a few decades, he expects the world will enter a second phase of its commercial relationship with the moon. Tourism will grow. Humans might pursue full-scale mining operations to draw resources from its crust. That includes water, which is fuel-intensive to launch aboard a rocket from Earth. Considering that it can be both a fuel and precious commodity for astronauts, mining water on the moon could help both spacecraft and humans travel farther than they have ever traveled before.
“Our goal is to turn the moon into the next continent,” Thornton said.
The company won’t stop at the moon. Thornton said that if Astrobotic finds enough customers that want to send cargo to an asteroid or Mars, it will go there. But in these early stages of the space industry, the moon is the place to be.
“I think the moon will be around for quite a long time and the market is only just beginning to show itself now,” Thornton said.