Stone has volunteered to be among the first people to fly to the moon without enough in the tank for a return trip. He and a handful of others would carry just enough fuel and supplies to get there, establish a base, and set up mining and manufacturing operations. This scheme would be considerably cheaper than anything NASA would undertake, simply because the agency would never take the calculated risk that the crew would be stranded. Hydrogen propellant could then be cheaply shuttled to stations in Earth orbit on inflatable craft that save on fuel by relying on aerobraking —briefly dipping into Earth’s upper atmosphere—to slow down when entering orbit. Stone estimates that the whole process will cost as little as one-twentieth as much as bringing hydrogen up from home.
The project’s success would depend not only on how much water is present on the moon but also on how easily we can get at it. So far many of those details are unknown, but Stone is not waiting. This year he will go door-to-door to the world’s billionaires “to find the ones interested in seeing history made with their names on it.” Up-front costs are projected to run around $20 billion. “With money in hand,” he says, “we’ll be there in seven years.”
Not all would-be lunar entrepreneurs share Stone’s seriousness of purpose. David Kent Jones, an engineer with the company Moon Publicity, wants to turn the moon into a huge advertising billboard. Robots would drive around carving messages with their tire treads, which the moon’s unfiltered sunlight would bring into sharp relief. “It’s like painting the surface of the moon with shadows,” Jones says. Moon Publicity began offering licenses last year but had no buyers; Jones is now seeking investors.
One entrepreneur doesn’t even have to leave Earth to participate in the lunar land grab. Salesman Dennis Hope, who goes by the title Head Cheese of the Lunar Embassy, claimed ownership of the moon in 1980 and says he has since sold parcels of lunar land to 5 million people online. Prices start at $19.99 per acre. Sales last year came to $4 million, Hope claims.
This whimsical business raises a serious question: Can the moon be owned by companies or individuals? Laws are vague on the subject, but some legal experts suggest treating the moon as just another frontier: The first to go to develop a financial stake in a patch of lunar land would be able to claim property rights. If this view prevails, the moon could be the next Wild West.
When President Obama announced that NASA would get no money next year for its Ares I booster and Orion space capsule, he did more for private spaceflight than an army of venture capitalists. With the space shuttle facing retirement by early 2011, Obama opened the way for private firms to take over transportation services for NASA’s astronauts.
The big questions are whether NASA can loosen its reins on the private firms while maintaining adequate control, and whether the companies can meet the challenge of carrying humans safely into space. Private firms have been launching satellites and building components for NASA for decades, but human spaceflight is far more difficult. Then again, despite NASA’s lavish expenditures to minimize risk, the agency wound up with safety disasters anyway. The hope is that private firms will do better—or at least no worse—for a lot less money.
Like NASA in the early days of its rocket program, private firms have had their problems. SpaceX’s early prototypes failed three times before its Falcon 1 rocket succeeded in orbiting Earth in September 2008. In 2007 three employees of Scaled Composites were killed in an explosion while testing a nitrous oxide delivery system.
In January NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel declared in a report that no private launch firm is currently certified for carrying humans into space, nor is there even a mechanism by which certification can be earned. NASA is far behind where it needs to be to adapt its internal standards to commercial orbiters, the report said. Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, says his company is already building to NASA’s standards and insists its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon module will be safe. (SpaceX anticipates a launch by May of this year.) NASA’s report, he says, seems “politically motivated.”
NASA and the private contractors will inevitably remain linked. But will the link be too tight? Entrepreneurs like Musk fear that if NASA imposes its old safety bureaucracy on them, the new system may not be much better than the old one. NASA’s challenge is to provide rigorous oversight without choking off private innovation. That might mean tolerating more risk, but danger, Musk says, is part of the dream. “I don’t see any way around it. This is a super-difficult thing.”
Next to the Moon
Chang’e A series of three Chinese robotic orbiters.
WHY: To test soft-landing techniques and scout landing sites for future manned missions.
WHEN: The first launched in 2007; a second is planned for later this year.
Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory Twin NASA moon orbiters.
WHY: To map the moon’s gravity field, which could yield new insights into the structure of its interior.
WHEN: September 8, 2011
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer A NASA orbiter.
WHY: To measure the density and composition of lunar dust and see how it varies from month to month
WHEN: May 1, 2012
Luna-Glob 1 A Russian orbiter.
WHY: To study the moon’s interior and look for mineral resources, with the ultimate goal of establishing a fully robotic lunar base.
Chandrayaan-2 India’s second moon mission (conducted jointly with Russia), consisting of an orbiter and a rover.
WHY: To analyze the lunar surface and demonstrate new technologies, such as a laser-imaging system, for possible future manned missions.
Google Lunar X-Prize A largely privately funded, $30 million international competition to land a robot safely on the moon, travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and then send images and data back to Earth.
WHY: To encourage individuals and companies to develop the technology for exploring space.
WHEN: Final deadline to complete the mission is December 31, 2014.
MoonRise A NASA robotic sample return mission to the Aitken crater.
WHY: To find rocks that were originally buried in the mantle, which could shed light on the moon’s origins.
WHEN: Currently unscheduled, but NASA officials want to launch no later than 2018.