'The stars have aligned': Commercial space companies brace for lunar economy

More than 50 years after the Apollo mission landed the last American aircraft on the surface of the moon, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic is attempting to repeat the same feat with one big distinction — becoming the first commercial space company to achieve a lunar landing.

"It took a while for technology to advance to the point where we could affordably, routinely, regularly get to the surface of the moon," Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said. "The stars have aligned for the moon, if you will."

Thornton and his team are placing their first bet on the Peregrine lunar lander, a small-class spacecraft developed inside Astrobotic's 47,000-square-foot facility. Equipped with its electronics, propulsion, and communications systems, the Peregrine will be loaded aboard United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, scheduled for launch later this year.

The Peregrine lunar lander on the surface of the moon in space. (Astrobotics)
The Peregrine lunar lander on the surface of the moon in space. (Astrobotics)

A $470 billion industry

A successful landing would mark a major milestone in the private space race that has spawned a $470 billion industry globally and elevate a more audacious goal — human life on the moon.

"To crack the nut of the moon, we need the infrastructure and resources to begin to start to work," Thornton said. "The more we can remove our tether of reliance on earth’s resources and we travel into space, the more we become true space explorers and ultimately space settlers."

While early Apollo missions were driven by government agencies like NASA, the rapid growth in private space companies has led to a surge in new missions stemming from private-public partnerships, focused on scientific research and space exploration. Elon Musk’s Space X alone has operated eight manned space flights to the International Space Station, in partnership with NASA.

Yet, commercial success on the moon has remained elusive. An attempt by Japanese company ispace (9348.T) to land the first commercial lander on the lunar surface fell short earlier this year when its Hakuto-R lunar lander miscalculated the altitude and crashed.

Astrobotic has already secured multiple contracts with NASA, valued at roughly $450 million. Following the launch of the Peregrine lander, the company’s larger lander, Griffin, will set out to deliver NASA’s Viper Rover to the south pole of the moon next year, in search of water in the darkest corner of the planet.

"You have to build a spacecraft that can fly for up to a month or more at a time through space, get out to the moon, drop into lunar orbit, and then descend for a soft landing down on the surface," Thornton said. "It’s extremely difficult to string all those series of successes together in a single spacecraft that can then deliver a business model."

'Hotels on the moon'

The goal of establishing a long-term human presence on the moon has gained momentum in recent weeks.

Last month, India became the first country to land a spacecraft on the south pole of the moon, an area scientists believe holds reserves of frozen water.

Thornton likened any water on the moon to oil on Earth — a resource so valuable that it’s likely to expand lunar exploration. And the potential of future space exploration, including Mars missions, largely hinges on success on the moon, Thornton said.

"As the costs come down, as we're able to use more in-space resources, there could become a point where the costs become affordable enough that you can potentially [see the development of] the very first hotels on the moon," Thornton said. "[The lunar surface] could be how we refuel our spacecraft to go to Mars and other deep space destinations. It all starts right here with our nearest neighbor, the moon.

At Astrobotic's Pittsburgh headquarters, that business model is front and center, and the words "making space accessible to the world" are emblazoned on the wall.

While the company’s immediate focus is on delivering cargo to the moon, it’s also building out the lunar infrastructure in anticipation of astronauts and space tourists eventually spending longer periods there.

For instance, its wireless charger is designed to withstand moon "dust storms" to give rovers and landers a direct source of power. To keep those chargers powered, Astrobotic is also building a portable energy grid that provides solar power.

Loaded onto a rover, the Lunagrid will act like a mini gas station, generating and distributing power. That is especially critical during the lunar night, which spans 14 days on Earth.

"If you run out of power on the moon, that's game over," said Jay Eckard, senior project manager. "You don't get to go up there and plug it in or bring extra batteries."

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Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita.

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