SpaceTech: Innovation’s next frontier

A Canadian-born CEO wanted to be the first citizen to land a craft on the Moon. But first, he had to conquer Washington.

His neighbour just blew up a $200-million (U.S.) rocket and payload. His regulators aren’t sure entirely what he’s up to. And he has yet to master the most improbable part of his mission, which is to stop a speeding bullet, 400,000 kilometres from Earth.

No matter. Almost nothing seems to faze Canadian Bob Richards as he pushes to become the first private citizen to land a craft on the Moon.

“We’re creating that future that we so believed in as kids,” says Richards, whose company, Moon Express, is aiming to land a craft on the Moon next year, making history as the first private enterprise to journey beyond the Earth’s orbit.

Moon Express has NASA approval, and a leased launcher at Cape Canaveral, to send a coffee-table sized MX-1 lander to orbit, placing it among the frontrunners for Google’s $20 million Lunar X prize.

The company’s goal is to mine the untapped economic potential that lies beyond our atmosphere, starting with the Moon’s potential mineral wealth that could contain rare elements such as Helium 3, important for fusion power. If its initial test mission succeeds, the company also plans to land a telescope near the Moon’s South Pole, which it will allow users on Earth to access and control.

Speaking to #RBCDisruptors, a monthly forum devoted to the cutting edge of innovation, Richards described the improbable odds of private citizens getting a small craft to the Moon — and the greater challenge of getting cargo back to Earth.

His investors, including Rob McEwan, founder of Goldcorp Inc., one of the world’s biggest gold miners, want to break beyond what Richards calls “the finite resources of Earth.”

Richards studied industrial engineering and astrophysics at Ryerson University, the University of Toronto and Cornell University, where he worked as a special assistant to Carl Sagan. He helped create the International Space University in 1987, co-founded Singularity University in 2008, and was the director of the space division of Canadian laser manufacturer Optech Incorporated until 2009.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

They’re picking up where Neil and Buzz left off

On family trips to Florida as a kid, Richards was mesmerized by the decommissioned and discarded rockets at Kennedy Space Center, spread out like a garden of aluminium stalks.

Young enough to see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon, he said he and the other space geeks who came of age during the 1970s — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson — became “Apollo orphans” after America’s manned spaceflight program was shut down.

The Apollo astronauts had brought back rocks containing significant amounts of platinum, and their sensors showed that the moon contains deposits of Helium-3 — a rarely occurring isotope that some say can be used to help solve energy shortages here on Earth.

“We live on a finite world. We have a need for materials that are available in relatively infinite quantities in space. It’s important for humanity in the long term to evolve as a multi-world species.”

This time, it’s business

Despite the futuristic language, Richards said the best way for humanity to pursue these new technologies is to make them profitable.

“Moon Express is a line of business. It’s about expanding the economic sphere outward, and we need to make the business case.”

The company has signed a deal with RocketLab for three launches, for which RocketLab charges $5 million each. Considering Musk’s SpaceX launches cost anywhere from $55 to $70 million, that’s a bargain.

With cheaper launch vehicles and miniaturized components, he said, Moon Express could be launching at a small fraction of the cost of a traditional rocket.

He said Moon Express needs about US$60 million to go from idea to spacecraft on the moon, and it has already raised $30 million.

That’s the biggest challenge, Richards explained — not landing a rocket on the moon, or getting permission to fly there, but raising the money to pay for it. “It’s not a billion-dollar mission,” he said. “People make movies for less than that.”

To help future explorers, he’d like to see Canada develop a financial hub for galactic mining.

They’re making up the rules as they go

In order to get to the moon, Richards and his company required approval from the United States government — but there’s no application form for moonshots.

“No private company has ever left Earth’s orbit before, it has only been government missions,” he said. “So there’s a complete absence of any frameworks and regulations on how that happens.”

Space travel has long been the exclusive domain of countries like the U.S., Russia and China, all of which operate under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which says nothing about the private sector.

MoonEx proposed its own framework in 2015, based on existing licensing for private rockets with additional due diligence and voluntary disclosures that would fit with the existing Outer Space Treaty. In July, it became the first private company to receive government authorization to visit another body in our solar system.

They’ll change directions (again and again)

With a license and financing largely in place, Moon Express’s next big challenge is the landing.

Sending something to the moon is simply a matter of horsepower and angular momentum. Accelerating a spacecraft to faster than a speeding bullet and then slowing it down enough to stick the landing is another matter entirely.

“You can’t throw up a parachute or an anchor. You have to, in a matter of minutes, slow down to zero and just touch the surface of the moon.”

Unlike human pilots of the Apollo lander, Moon Express relies on artificial intelligence to decelerate the MX-1 with perfectly timed bursts of its rockets.

That’s the riskiest part of the entire mission, but every stage presents unknowns. On Sept. 1, a massive explosion destroyed SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and its payload, a $200-million satellite, while the spacecraft was fuelling on the launch pad.

“It reminds us how hard space is,” Richards said. “It’s never routine.”

Space travel remains low-risk, he said, with launch success rates over 90% for most programs.

Challenges aside, Richards has already cast one eye already beyond the Moon. If his mission works, he hopes eventually to build a lunar way station for exploring and mining asteroids and other objects in our celestial neighbourhood.