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Can a Silicon Valley Startup Land on the Moon?

Moon Express got the OK to proceed with plans to send a small robotic lander to explore the moon's surface in the fall of 2017.

by Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News / August 5, 2016

(TNS) — In what could be a giant leap for commercial space travel, a Silicon Valley startup on Wednesday became the first private company to win government approval for a mission to the moon.

Moon Express, which operates out of Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, got the OK to proceed with plans to send a small robotic lander to explore the moon's surface in the fall of 2017. It's an important step, experts say, as lunar exploration has previously fallen to NASA and other government programs. While the commercial space industry is booming, with entrepreneurs like SpaceX's Elon Musk leading the charge, private companies have been stuck within the confines of Earth's orbit.

"Nobody has ever left Earth," said Moon Express co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain. "Everything that people have done so far as a private company is to go to the Space Station at most, which is still in the lower orbit."

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved the payload Moon Express intends to send to the moon, the first step toward making the company's proposed mission a reality. But clearing that preliminary regulatory hurdle doesn't mean Moon Express can start the countdown to liftoff. The FAA still needs to perform more checks, including of the rocket Moon Express will use to launch the lander, before it issues its final authorization — dubbed a "launch license."

Even if the Moon Express mission never gets off the ground, other space startups are paying attention to how the company navigates the regulatory challenges of launching a private mission to the moon.

"It's definitely something that people in the space industry, especially in the commercial space industry, are watching," Brad Kohlenberg, a business development engineer at Mountain View-based Made in Space, said of the Moon Express program. Made in Space is pioneering in-space manufacturing and sent a 3-D printer to the Space Station earlier this year to print tools and spare parts for the astronauts working there.

Moon Express intends to use a rocket made by Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab to launch its robotic lander into Earth's orbit. From there, the lander, called MX-1E, will propel itself to the moon, where it will capture pictures and video. Instead of rolling like NASA's Mars rover, MX-1E will move around the moon's surface by hopping.

The mission is expected to cost Moon Express less than $10 million, said Jain, who helped found the company in 2010.

Once Moon Express proves that it can get cargo to the moon, it will unlock a vast commercial potential, Jain said. He envisions creating a space station that allows rockets to refuel mid-flight, mining the moon for rare substances such as Helium-3, or giving space tourists the opportunity to plant their footprints on the moon or take home a moon rock.

"We don't know what will capture the imagination," Jain said. "We don't know what is the Pokemon Go or the Angry Birds of the moon."

Winning FAA approval also makes Moon Express a leading contender to win the $20 million Google Lunar Xprize, which will be awarded to the first team to land a privately funded robot on the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit pictures and video back to Earth. Moon Express is one of more than a dozen contenders, including Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic.

In Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs are taking advantage of advancing technology and falling costs to launch space-focused startups. Last year more than 50 venture capital firms poured $1.8 billion into U.S. space startups — a record year, according to a study by The Tauri Group. These companies mostly have focused on sending cargo to the International Space Station or launching fleets of imaging satellites into Earth's orbit. But there is plenty of interest in eventually reaching the moon and beyond. SpaceX, for example, has said it plans to send a mission to Mars as early as 2018.

But it's easier to regulate private missions that stay within Earth's orbit, said Mike Gruntman, a professor of astronautics at the University of Southern California. Doing business on the moon or other planets, which are viewed as resources shared by all the governments of the world, could create international friction.

"If you land on a celestial body and start, for example, digging some material from there and you sell it for a profit," Gruntman said, "then some countries may not be happy with that and this may get very political."

©2016 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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