A Competition for Lunar Enterprise

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

A controversial serial entrepreneur is aiming for the final frontier.

NASA’s original Apollo program, which put a human presence on the Moon, cost the U.S. government $145 billion in today’s dollars and took nine years to accomplish. Entrepreneur Naveen Jain is hoping to get back to the Moon at a cost of no more than $70 million and to do so within a three-year time frame.

Jain is co-founder, with Bob Richards, of Moon Express, a Silicon Valley-based startup. It’s one of 26 teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, which will award $20 million to the privately funded team that places on the Moon, before 2015, a robot that is capable of exploration (moving at least 500 meters) and broadcasting video back to Earth. (The awardable amount changes if a government lands a robot on the Moon first.)

Other teams competing for the prize include Odyssey Moon, founded by Rick Sanford, Cisco’s former chief operating officer for Internet routing in space, and Next Giant Leap, led by Jeffrey Alan Hoffman, a former astronaut and current faculty member at MIT.

In an interview with THE FUTURIST, Jain said he was undaunted by the competition: “We’ve built a great team, one of the best in the world to make this happen. Bob Richards was also part of the Mars Mission when I was in Canada. [We have] Tom Gardner, the mission manager for the Mars Mission. We have the entire Mars Rover team. When their NASA funding was cut, we hired the whole team.”

Jain’s previous ventures in Internet search and e-commerce, InfoSpace and Intelius, made him a billionaire and put him on the Forbes 400 list during last decade. Infosys also landed Jain in court on charges of insider trading (he paid $65 million without admitting wrongdoing). Intelius has been the subject of hundreds of complaints to the Better Business Bureau for its practices. Jain expects his new company to attract less controversy and return a profit in the tens of billions of dollars through the harvesting of rare minerals like platinum on the Moon’s surface.

He admits that, before he can begin harvesting minerals from the Moon, he has to find them. Spectrographically and topographically, the Moon has been more closely studied than any other body in space, says Jain. “But no one has ever said [that] the spectrographic data, the topographical data, suggests the existence of platinum here, or this mineral there. So the Moon has never been explored from the perspective of an entrepreneur.”

The amount of heavy metals like platinum on the Moon’s face is a matter of some dispute among scientists. Jain contends that, since these minerals are present in asteroids and since asteroids strike the Moon regularly (and since the asteroids don’t burn up prior to impact as they commonly do when encountering Earth’s atmosphere), the Moon should hold an abundance of valuable rock, especially near craters, which signify asteroid impacts. Other commercial applications for the Earth’s nearest neighbor include broadcasting messages and images, even wedding proposals.

“Once you build the platform, the only limit to the possibilities is the human imagination,” says Jain.

The company’s public investors include the Founders Fund (started by PayPal’s Peter Thiel) and Netopia founder Reese Jones, who likens the Moon Express effort to the building of the first transcontinental railroad and the development of the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure-ventures that once seemed overly ambitious to many, but that went on to “change our world and humanity in myriad beneficial ways. Moon Express has assembled a world class team and the technologies most likely to turn this concept into viable commercial reality.” Jain claims: “We’re the only company with a real business model. When you tell people, ‘You can be part of a private enterprise aimed at Moon exploration,’ people get very excited. Some are skeptical that a private company can do it, so we’re trying to show them it can be done.” -Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2012

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