Moon Express’ Richards talks commercialization of Space Coast
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — Moon Express’ Bob Richards is very interested in commercial space efforts. When he spoke with SpaceFlight Insider earlier this week, he noted that more firms with an interest in private space efforts are emerging – and eyeing Florida’s Space Coast as a place to set up shop. With Blue Origin set to make an announcement at Cape Canaveral on Sept. 15, the space entrepreneur talked about the changing dynamic out at the Cape.
Richards’ organization, Moon Express, is considered by many to be one of the leading contenders to win the Google Lunar X-PRIZE. The $20 million grand prize has inspired an array of organizations to develop spacecraft and rovers to touch down and traverse on the surface of the Moon. Moon Express joins Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic as the perceived front-runners in this private effort.
Moon Express, through an agreement aided by Space Florida, has taken control of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 36A (SLC-36A).
“The Space Coast is becoming a pretty exciting place to work, we have some of America’s greatest entrepreneurs migrating to the Space Coast and making substantial investments,” Richards said. “Moon Express… recognizes the value of being along Florida’s Space Coast at Cape Canaveral and our partnership [with NASA] at Kennedy Space Center.”
In terms of the conversion of Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station into a multi-user spaceport, Richards has high praise for one aerospace firm in particular.
“SpaceX blazed a trail that is benefiting all of us, and we see that Jeff Bezos is going to be making an announcement about Blue Origin and that just couldn’t be better for the neighborhood,” Richards noted. “Jeff is known mostly for Amazon.com, but those of us in the space community know that Jeff has been a true ‘space cadet’, well since the earliest days, as a matter of fact he was the president of one of the earliest chapters for Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), which Peter Diamandis, myself and Todd Hawley founded back in the eighties.”
Although the last time that Bezos and Richards met was some 30-or-so years ago, the two have gone on to be influential in terms of producing means and methods to develop commercial launch vehicles and spacecraft.
According to Richards, Bezos attended Princeton during the 1980s and his chapter was either the second or third chapter after the first chapter formed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
- For more information about SEDS: Students for the Exploration and Development of Space
In his view, the expansion of commercial entities’ presence at the Cape and Kennedy Space Center is serving to increases the regions space-related capacity and capabilities. Whatever Bezos announces, Richards feels it will help to transform access to orbit.
“NASA is getting out of ‘routine’ space transportation, as it should, NASA should be exploring, pushing the boundaries of human endeavor and pushing the frontiers of what is possible, of redefining what is possible – all of the amazing things that we grew up with the Apollo Program, and how we became ‘Orphans of Apollo’, we remember all of the heroes and great things that NASA gave us,” Richards told SpaceFlight Insider.
Richards stated that there are historical parallels in terms of what is going on with the NewSpace movement of today – and was has gone on in the past.
“Now, entrepreneurs are developing space transportation capabilities; those capabilities are where the government should get out of. If something can be done more than once? That’s likely a business opportunity. Throughout history, transportation is something that has been handed off from the government to the private sector. From the Pony Express, to the railways, to the delivery of mail. So, it’s a very natural extension.”
Richards formed Moon Express with Naveen Jain and Barney Pell in August of 2010. Richards stated that he feels the inspiration and innovation of the Apollo Program fueled the passion that gave rise to the NewSpace era and to his organization’s efforts to send a lander to the lunar surface.
“There’s also a very poetic connection here between the Apollo era that, in many ways, drove the innovation that created Silicon Valley, that gave the opportunities to these internet entrepreneurs who were inspired by Apollo,” Richards told SpaceFlight Insider. “Those entrepreneurs went on to transform the internet from the mainframe era to the PC era. Now, some of those same people are moving the space industry from its own ‘mainframe’ era like the shuttles or large, single-purpose government rockets. We’re now entering the ‘PC’ era of space, we have the democratization of space, of access to space and many vehicles coming on line, competition, and innovative ideas.”
As NASA works to cede control of low-Earth orbit operations to private companies, there have been some who think that enough progress has been made to include these companies in deep space exploration efforts. Richards believes that incorporating these firms into these efforts is a positive thing.
“I think the answer is both, it has never been one-or-the-other and, where if something can be done once, if you’re pushing a boundary or frontier, landing on other worlds that people have never set foot on before – likely should be a government effort. When it is something that has been done more than once – that’s a business opportunity,” Richards emphasized.
Richards highlighted that the role for the space agency, is one of pathfinder, pointing the way that others can’t.
“NASA should be pushing the frontiers, those that, typically, business can’t venture toward as there is no actual return on investment. What NASA is doing in that regard – is a social good, it is a social good to expand the human frontier. NASA, as an agency, is very good at that,” Richards noted. “The private sector is flowing into the amazing opportunities that NASA has created.”
With Blue Origin poised to make a large announcement tomorrow, Richards feels that, as launch service providers come on line – things can only improve for companies such as the one he represents.
“As companies like SpaceX, and Blue and Virgin and others move into the launch industry and take that over from NASA. Moon Express is looking into what happens after you move into low-Earth orbit by developing the spacecraft that can go to the lunar surface, that can go to other places and bring the cost of access to those places down.”
“New technologies, ever-increasing exponential technologies decrease and collapse of launcher costs as a result of the entrepreneurial innovations that are going on that will eventually expand our sphere of influence, to the Moon, the asteroids – and beyond.”
Richards and others who work on Florida’s Space Coast are starting to note that the Cape is changing, that new opportunities are beginning to emerge.
“There’s a new era for Cape Canaveral, the Moon is rising on Cape Canaveral again, people are looking to the stars, and as entrepreneurs continue to show up with the capacity and capability to build launch infrastructure, lots of economic growth and help to create new jobs,” “We at Moon Express saw this opportunity over two years ago and over the course of the past year I have been delighted and thrilled to have the honor of working in partnership with Kennedy Space Center and finding a home at Cape Canaveral, out at Launch Complex 36[A].”
Moon Express is currently developing its toroidal-shaped MX-1 lander for the GLXP; however, this is just one effort that the company is currently working on. In April 2014, Moon Express joined two other companies participating under NASA’s Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) initiative.
However, the company is not developing a launch system and needs others to provide those services.
“The more launcher companies that come out to the region, the better it is for us. We’re not in that business, but we require low-cost access to space and as launch capacity goes from a scarcity to an abundance, that’s transformative for companies like Moon Express who want to get to space cheaply and then do the things that we want to do in space, such as get to the Moon, asteroids, do business in cislunar space – all of that is enabled by new launcher companies.”
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.