The World's First Private Moon Landing Is Gearing Up for An End-of-2017 Launch

By Jay Bennett

Moon Express and Rocket Lab are poised to make history.

Down by the hard-packed beaches at the edge of the country, the rumble of rocket launches has defined Florida's Space Coast for more than half a century. But the end of 2017 could mark the beginning of a new era in solar system exploration. For the first time in history, a private company is going to launch a mission to land on another celestial body.

Moon Express (or MoonEx), a space exploration company powered by industry engineers and Silicon Valley money, is making the final adjustments to its lunar lander in its facilities at Cape Canaveral. Its goal is to achieve something that has only been accomplished by the three largest superpowers in the world: a soft landing on the moon.

"It will be the space equivalent of the four-minute mile. I think we're going to redefine the possible," MoonEx co-founder and CEO Bob Richards tells Popular Mechanics. "We've seen this throughout history—everybody thinks something is impossible until they see it done."

One recent development that bodes well for Richards' dream is the first flight of Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle. The Electron rocket has been contracted to loft the first three MoonEx landers to space. MoonEx wants to launch before the close of 2017—the deadline to win Google's Lunar X Prize competition and take home $20 million for first prize—but last week's flight was the rocket's debut.

Now the Electron has proven its worth, the MX-1E lander is nearing completion, and the FAA has approved MoonEx for a lunar mission. The first private moon landing attempt is nearly upon us.

Timeline to Launch

To win the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize, a private company must land on the moon, have its spacecraft travel 500 meters across the lunar surface, and transmit high-definition video back to Earth. While four other teams are hoping to launch before the end of the year, it's starting to look like only MoonEx will meet the deadline.

This is spaceflight, though, and nothing is guaranteed. Rocket Lab's first flight of the two-stage Electron rocket was called a success, with clean stage separation and ignition of the second stage engine. The test payload did not quite make it to orbit, however, as that second stage engine shut down prematurely. But as Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck tells Popular Mechanics, "getting to orbit on your first flight is incredibly rare, even for a country."

It's true. Rockets fail. The fact that the Electron made it 90 percent of the way to sending a payload to orbit is a good sign. The company collected an enormous amount of data from the flight, and Rocket Lab is looking to put that information to good use in two more test flights tentatively scheduled for the coming months.

Even so, a lot needs to happen to pull off the moon landing before the close of 2017. After two more test flights, Rocket Lab plans to start launching commercial payloads for paying customers, including Spire and Planet, satellite network companies that provide Earth monitoring services. NASA has purchased a few rides on the Electron as well. The customer for Rocket Lab's first commercial launch has yet to be announced, but two commercial flights are planned before the MoonEx launch in December.

That's an insane timeline. From first flight to launching a lunar landing mission in seven months. It almost doesn't seem possible. But Rocket Lab has approached the problem of spaceflight in a unique way.

The company was founded in 2006. Three years later, it launched Ātea-1, a small 20-foot demonstrator rocket and the first private launch to space from the Southern Hemisphere. Rocket Lab spent the next four years testing various small rockets and 3D-printed propulsion systems, officially announcing the Electron program in 2013. The company, with assets in the United States and New Zealand, designed its own oxygen-kerosene Rutherford engines for the rocket. The Rutherford was created through 3D-printing and is complete with an electric turbopump—the first ever used in a commercial rocket engine.

Then Rocket Lab made a bold decision.

"My advice to anybody who thinks they might want to build a launch pad is: just don't," says Beck. "It was a way bigger program than first anticipated."

Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand's North Island was completed in September 2016 after about a year of construction. The project required Rocket Lab to build miles of new roads and upgrade the internet infrastructure for an entire township nearby. And of course, it had to construct the pad itself with all the necessary launch systems. "I know more about gravel compaction and aggregate size than I ever wanted to know in my life," says Beck.

Now, though, Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1—the first private pad to host an orbital rocket launch—puts the spaceflight company in an advantageous position. Beck echoed what many in the space industry have been saying of late, that increasing launch frequency is the key to driving down costs and expanding access to space. Now Rocket Lab has something that no one else has: a personal launch complex approved for a rocket launch every 72 hours for the next 30 years.

Rocket Lab is poised to start firing off Electrons at a rate of about once a month. Its eventual plan is a launch per week, providing about 50 launches every year. The MoonEx launch, then, will be business as usual—if everything goes according to plan.

Fly Me to the Moon

The MX-1E lander needs the Electron to take it to low-Earth orbit. Then the spacecraft is designed to fire its own thrusters to fly to the moon from there. MoonEx's original lander design, MX-1, would need to fly along with a satellite on its way to a higher orbit and use the additional velocity to make it to the moon. "The MX-1E has more horsepower," says Richards.

Once in low-Earth orbit, the MX-1E will need to complete a translunar injection (TLI) burn, cruise through space, conduct a breaking burn to enter lunar orbit, and finally complete descent and landing burns—all by itself. It would be an unprecedented accomplishment, a single-stage spacecraft that can make it all the way to the surface of the moon from low-Earth orbit.

Once it touches down on the moon, the MX-1E will take observations with a suite of five science instruments. This voyage is something of a proof of concept, but you can think of MoonEx's lunar lander as a modular platform rig that you can bolt just about anything to, weight permitting.

One of the instruments on the first launch is a small experimental telescope from the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA). The public will have the opportunity to pick targets for the shoebox-sized scope. Ultimately, the ILOA hopes to construct a large optical and radio telescope on the south pole of the moon for an unobstructed view of the deep universe. MoonEx might just help them haul some gear up there.

After taking a minute to look around, the MX-1E will fire up its rocket engines again and fly to a new location. In addition to completing the Lunar X Prize requirement—which Richards has always said is a secondary consideration for MoonEx—hopping from one place to the next allows the lander to collect the most science data possible.

"We're a company that was formed to explore the moon and unlock its resources," says Richards. "If you can get in as many landings as possible per launch, that would be a very effective use of your mission dollars. So we've designed a spacecraft that can land on the moon many times. It can land and relocate itself."

A mobile spacecraft also lines up with MoonEx's ultimate goal: space mining.

"We want to prospect," says Richards. "You don't prospect by sitting on one rock and chipping at it, you go to a bunch of rocks in different places and you get a whole data set of the region."

Lunar Industry

Moon Express has set lofty goals, and Richards admits reaching the moon "might take more than one try." Which is why MoonEx has purchased three flights with Rocket Lab, the second and third tentatively slated for 2019 and 2020.

The likelihood that MoonEx and Rocket Lab accomplish a lunar landing eventually is encouragingly high. They have both designed 3D-printed, composite hardware that can be readily reproduced for numerous launches. Rocket Lab aims to start firing off Electrons on a weekly basis, and MooxEx hopes to launch many missions to the moon with different equipment each time. These companies were built from the ground up for repetition.

Once you can reliably and affordably reach the lunar surface, all bets are off. NASA, Lockheed Martin, and a number of other major spaceflight institutions are beginning to think about ways to harvest water ice on the moon and turn it into rocket fuel. That fuel could then be stored in space to support missions out to Mars and beyond. Blue Origin is working to adapt its New Shepard reusable rocket to build a lunar version, one that could eventually shuttle astronauts between the surface of the moon and an orbiting space station. And SpaceX wants to launch paying customers to fly around the moon next year.

Many of these plans are likely to be delayed, and some may never come to fruition at all. But the private space industry has its sights set on the moon, international space agencies have their sights set on the moon, and NASA is keen to play a technical support role for the fleet of upcoming lunar missions. When the history of lunar colonization is written, it might be that Moon Express and Rocket Lab get credit for laying the groundwork in the year 2017.

"It will be a historic moment I think," says Richards. "For the world."

From: Popular Mechanics

\u25A0
Esquire is available in Newsstand. Useful, entertaining advice for any man, redesigned and enhanced for the iPad. Subscribe now!