A photo of the MX-1 prototype from Autodesk's 3DRV Tour
“Some of us like to call it the iPhone of space, but it’d be more accurate to call it a pickup truck,” says Andy Aldrin, the son of Buzz. The prototype he's standing next to doesn't look anything like a truck or an iPhone. To me, it looks like a large high-tech inner tube.
Aldrin was recently named president of a startup called Moon Express. Its goals are simple: make the first entrepreneurial trip to the moon, win Google’s Lunar X Grand Prize of $20 million, and take humanity’s first steps towards turning the moon into a mineable, inhabitable, interstellar port. The first launch is scheduled for 2015.
We’re in a hangar on the campus of the NASA Ames Research Park in Mountain View, an incubator for all things space and supercomputing, where things like Google AI labs and the world’s largest wind tunnel are located.
The “iPhone of space” Aldrin speaks of is Moon Express’s MX-1 prototype, a coffee table-sized spacecraft about five feet in diameter and four feet tall, powered by hydrogen peroxide thrusters and covered with an array of solar panels, antennae, and an autograph from Aldrin's astronaut father himself. The Moon Express team sees the MX-1 as a platform very much like an iPhone, one that could hold space “apps” like Earth orbit cubesat deployment or a “space tug” used for cleaning up space debris.
And, like all forms of mobile technology, the platform is developing fast. "This prototype was a drawing on a piece of paper only four months ago," says Aldrin. Such is the benefit of working at a rocket science startup of 50 people: Speed. In fact, one of the reasons that the Google Lunar X Prize is so small (too small, some complain, when compared to the hundreds of millions it has cost to go to the moon in the past), is that Google wants to encourage these types of “out of the garage” space endeavors.
"The reality is that developing a fully-functioning moon lander from scratch will cost more than $20 million," says Tim DeBenedictis, who creates cheap satellites known as "cubesats" at the Bay Area-based SkyCube. "But if these guys can turn Moon Express into a whole platform with repeatability, there's value there."
Keeping a tight budget is important for privately-funded companies like Aldrin's, which combines large-scale engineering ideas with small-scale teams and resources. With the help of new technology like state-of-the-art modeling software and cheap 3D printing, today's engineers are exponentially more efficient than their 1960’s counterparts. “It allows us to fail early and often,” Moon Express mechanical designer E.J. Sabathia says of 3D printing, which has helped complex engineering projects be planned more smoothly.
Moon Express isn't the only startup on the Ames campus using new technology to push the boundaries of space exploration. About 100 yards away, in another building, is Made In Space, a startup that's developing a 3D printer that will operate in space, and which ultimately hopes to “break the supply chain to Earth.” As an example of 3D printing’s use in outer space, they posed the Apollo 13 mission’s infamous carbon dioxide malfunction to a high school intern working in their lab. Within an hour, the intern constructed a 3D-printed solution to the oversupply of CO2. (If you think back to the Tom Hanks re-creation, you’ll remember that the original Apollo crew used duct tape and cardboard.)
Autodesk’s Director of Strategic Initiatives Jonathan Knowles serves as a consultant to both Moon Express and Made In Space. Like Neil Degrasse Tyson, Knowles’ charisma works hand in hand with his child-like admiration for all things science. Holding a cocktail glass specially built with rivulets to hold a martini in place even in zero gravity, Knowles waxes poetic on the future of human space travel. “You can’t stop humanity,” he says. “Just like how we explored our world with wooden ships, we’ll soon be exploring our solar system with space shuttles. And in the moon I see our port to outer space.”
DeBenedictis, himself a zealous space entrepreneur, likes the New World analogy, but he cautions: "People didn’t colonize the New World because they thought it was cool, they did it because they thought they could find gold." It's not gold that Moon Express is after, but there are other resources. Although it’s not included in their first few missions, one of their primary goals is to mine the moon for ice that could be harvested for oxygen and hydrogen necessary for rocket fuel. "If Moon Express can accomplish that, then they've got a big win there." DeBenedictis agreed.
Still, obvious problems remain. For instance, how would the company transport the mined materials back down to Earth? Knowles responds: “Why bring them back to Earth in the first place?” Although one of the Moon Express initially plans to bring a kilogram of resources back, their (pun very much intended) moonshot plan is to build a permanent base with the resources.
Once 3D printing can convert raw materials into high-complexity products (satellites, circuit boards, etc.) the moon could be used as an independently-resourced port for further space travel. As both scientists and science fiction authors have noted for years, launches from the moon would be much more efficient than those from the Earth, as they would not have to fight with the Earth’s atmosphere or our planet’s overbearing gravitational pull.
Of course, this is all very far out from the hanger I'm touring. But in a tech industry that seems increasingly dominated by inward-looking schemes to snag restaurant reservations, get dates, or sell public parking spots, it's refreshing to see some Silicon Valley eggheads with the desire to explore the unknown. Aldrin puts it this way: "It's good to be on the right side of evolution."
Moon Express hopes to put up a rocket in the next few years—by 2015, hopefully, which is when Google's contest ends. DeBenedictis sees Silicon Valley as a hotbed of space-conscious startups, and he insists that these visions are not far off. "With Space X, it took Elon Musk twelve years to go from a gleam in his eye to a real business, with lots of failures along the way. Their first vehicle splashed into the Pacific Ocean, but now they’re regularly delivering cargo to the space station like three times year. Honestly, I don’t think it's unreasonable that by 2030 there could be semi-regular trips to the International Moon Station."