Thursday, January 22, 2015

Moon Express Prizes the Cape

Promotional film of a December 2014 test flight at Kennedy Space Center. Video source: Moon Express YouTube channel.

Florida Today broke the story late last night that Moon Express is about to lease the Cape's Pad 36 through a deal with state agency Space Florida.

Moon Express is the first entrepreneurial “new space” company to commit to a significant presence at the Cape without a major government contract in hand. If it is successful, it would help diversify the area's space industry beyond its traditional base of NASA and Air Force contractors working on big rocket programs.

An initial group of 25 to 50 employees will include some relocating from the company's headquarters at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, and an office in Huntsville, Alabama. Among them is Tim Pickens, lead designer of the engine for SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed craft to put people in space in 2004.

They will also include local hires, potentially building up to a team of 100 or 200 employees here, ranging from machine shop workers to spacecraft engineers.

Moon Express is a participant in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. According to the Google web site:

To win the grand prize ($20 million), private teams (with no more than 10% in government funding) must:

  • Land a robot safely on the Moon
  • Move 500 meters on, above, or below the Moon’s surface; and
  • Send back HDTV Mooncasts for everyone to enjoy

. . . and this must all be completed before the December 31st, 2015 deadline! There are other prizes, too, for missions like surviving the lunar night and visiting an Apollo site.

Last month, Google announced the deadline had been extended to the end of 2016. “As part of this revised timeline, at least one team must provide documentation of a scheduled launch by December 31, 2015 for all teams to move forward in the competition,” according to a Google press release.

Moon Express has yet to announce a launch date or vehicle, although their web site states that, “The spacecraft is designed to ride to Earth orbit on low cost secondary payload opportunities aboard commercial launchers like the SpaceX Falcon 9 that are radically reducing the cost of access to space.”

SpaceX currently launches the Falcon 9 from the Cape's Pad 40, but the company hopes to have Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A operational by the end of this year for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

Presumably the symbolism of launching the robotic lunar lander from the same pad that sent all six Apollo crews to the surface of the Moon isn't lost upon Moon Express or SpaceX.

Launch Complex 36 was the site of all seven launches in the NASA Surveyor program that attempted to place robotic probes on the lunar surface to demonstrate the feasibility of crewed soft landings. Five of the seven probes launched between 1966 to 1968 successfully landed. The Apollo 12 crew visited the landing site of Surveyor 3 and brought back several components.

Apollo 12 commander with Surveyor 3 on the Moon, November 20, 1969. Click the image for a larger version. Image source: NASA.

Earlier this month, Florida Today reported that SpaceX is about to formally lease the Cape's Pad 13 for future landings by its reusable Falcon 9 boosters.

UPDATE January 22, 2015 7:00 PM ESTMoon Express issued this release today officially announcing its agreement with Space Florida.

Moon Express and Space Florida have signed an agreement that will lead to Moon Express spacecraft development and flight test operations at SLC-36 starting early this year. The agreement allows Moon Express and the state of Florida to make investments into the refurbishment of SLC-36, leading to a revitalized range and the immediate creation of 25-50 new jobs and potentially hundreds of direct and indirect new jobs over the next 5 years. Moon Express will be making an initial capital investment of up to $500K into SLC-36, which will allow initial operations to transfer over from the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility where the company's MTV-1X vehicle has been undergoing flight testing in partnership with NASA under the Lunar CATALYST program. It is anticipated that capital investments will grow into the millions, some of which may become eligible for reimbursement through the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) matching funds program.

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