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Commercial Lunar Service

By | October 1, 2009

      The 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing, and the approaching end of the space shuttle program after a nearly 30-year run have prompted reflection and soul-searching in the United States as to the direction of future space efforts.
      While the shuttle has provided enormous scientific benefits and given the U.S. astronauts and those from other countries a great deal of space experience, it never lived up to its promises of reusability, quick turnaround and economic benefits. The program also suffered two tragic in-flight accidents and never grabbed the national attention and enthusiasm the way the space race to the moon did in the 1960s. That has had negative consequences: underfunding of NASA by Congress in response to waning public enthusiasm and diversion of scarce funding and attention from NASA’s extraordinary record of robot space exploration during the same period.
      In the same period, satellite manufacturers, operators and launch service providers have grown, matured, and privatized, and the space tourism sector was launched when Scaled Composites captured the $10 million X-Prize in 2004 when its SpaceShipOne rocket became the first non-governmental reusable manned spacecraft to reach 100 kilometers in altitude — the edge of space — twice in two weeks.
      NASA is embracing the commercial concept for its future missions with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) effort. Under the Space Act-authorized program, NASA is working in partnerships with U.S. space players such as Orbital Sciences and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), investing an aggregate total of $500 million for demonstrations of using commercial technology to deliver cargo to orbit. NASA also is investing $50 million in a commercial crew development initiative, applying Recovery Act funds to encourage and support entrepreneurial activity and job creation in research, design, engineering and analysis of commercial robotic and manned space transportation systems.
      COTS initiatives, as the name implies, are confined to Earth orbit transfers, a need made critical because of the gap between next year’s planned retirement of the space shuttle fleet and the planned arrival of the replacement Orion/Ares launch vehicle. In that time period, without the COTS partners, the United States will have no independent access to the International Space Station.
      A future logical development would be a COTS-like initiative around NASA’s plans to return to the moon, which might rekindle public interest in space. The moon also remains a stepping stone to manned exploration of the solar system. Most importantly, commercial lunar projects are the best method to determine whether and to what purposes sustained lunar access can be achieved economically.
      The X-Prize Foundation is encouraging commercial lunar efforts with the Google Lunar X Prize, an international competition to land a robot rover on the lunar surface, travel at least 500 meters and send still and video images, including a self-portrait and panoramic moonscapes, and data back to Earth. Entrants must be at least 90 percent privately owned. The first team that achieves these goals by the end of 2012 will win $20 million. If the tasks cannot be completed by the end of 2012, the prize drops to $15 million. A second place prize of $5 million also is available. Nineteen teams are pursuing the prize, including Odyssey Moon, an Isle of Man-based international group; Astrobotic Technology, a U.S.-based Carnegie Mellon University spinoff; and Next Giant Leap, a U.S. consortium that includes Sierra Nevada Space Systems (the combination of MicroSat Systems, SpaceDev and Starsys), MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory and Draper Laboratory.
      SpaceX, a company that has generated a lot of press with its NASA COTS partnership, the launch of the Falcon 1 rocket and development of the Falcon 9, looks to be one of the companies in pole position for the extension of a COTS-like commercial lunar service program. (SpaceX is not a Google Lunar X-Prize entrant but has offered its launch vehicles at cost to Lunar X-Prize teams).
      Given its budget realities, NASA must partner with commercial entities to return to the moon, and the march of technology and development of international consortia, such as some of the Lunar X-Prize entrants, may make commercial partnerships more realistic. The prospect of a multinational, cost-effective and public-private return to the moon might reawaken the enthusiasm, and willingness to fund, so missed since the days of Apollo. The moon may be closer than we think.

      Owen D. Kurtin is a founder and principal of private investment firm The Vinland Group LLC and a practising attorney in New York City. He may be reached by e-mail at

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