As we commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo moon landing this week, it’s worth asking what happened to those old dreams of lunar colonies and missions to Mars. NASA is reportedly struggling thanks to a general lack of interest and, it claims, funding. But, even with USD$187 billion, their Project Constellation is unlikely to reach the moon before 2020. The best hope right now seems to be driven by the private sector: Google’s USD$30 million Lunar X PRIZE and one of its most promising contenders, Odyssey Moon, which has announced plans to become the first private company to supply payload delivery services to the Moon in 2012.
The Google Lunar X PRIZE is a deceptively simple competition. All contestants have to do to share in USD$30 million in prizes is safely land a robot on the surface of the moon, have it travel 500 meters over the surface and send images and data back to earth. Easy. Since we last reported on this race to the moon, 19 teams have signed up to compete. But, after that initial flurry of interest and activity, there hasn’t been much to report.
Until now, that is. Last week Odyssey Moon, who was the first team to register for the Google moon shot, announced a whole new group of high-profile corporate sponsors. The nature of the new businesses involved – an investment bank, one of the world’s biggest advertising groups, a “space” insurance company and a global law firm – point to what’s really at stake here: profits. Odyssey Moon, by its own admission, wants to “capitalize on commercial opportunities created by renewed interests in exploring the Moon”.
Odyssey Moon clearly believes that, if it gets to the moon first, it will by default be able to monopolize lunar payload delivery services. Their website speaks of “building an ongoing commercial enterprise with early returns to our investors through a series of attractive commercial and scientific opportunities.” It seems almost too fantastic to talk of turning a profit on the moon, but the company already has its first paying client, with the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research booking payload space.