Space Commerce: Fly Me to the Moon

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Bob Richards, presenting at ideaCity 2014

After the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo on Friday, which killed one of its co-pilots, Virgin founder Richard Branson says the potential of commercial space travel is worth the risks involved. Here, Robert Herez finds a Canadian entrepreneur who also has his sights set on space.

Like every hard-driven entrepreneur, Bob Richards is sure he’s found The Next Big Thing, and he is dedicating his every waking minute to its pursuit. Unlike other hard-driven entrepreneurs, Richards’ big thing is the moon. And when you’re boldly going where no businessman has gone before, you need supersized portions of the qualities that make for entrepreneurial success: irrational optimism, an appetite for risk and the ability to see around corners. In Richards’ case: check, check and check.

Toronto-born and -raised Richards is CEO of Moon Express, a Silicon Valley start-up he launched, so to speak, in 2010.

His immediate goal is to put an unmanned lander on the moon before the end of 2015 and to turn a profit doing it. Although nothing remotely as ambitious has ever been attempted in space by the private sector, the feat seems positively modest compared to what follows.

By 2020, he wants to bring back a kilogram of lunar rock and dust. Getting onto the moon is hard enough, but getting even a kilo of stuff off the moon and safely back to Earth enormously complicates the challenges. By the end of that decade, Richards wants to start sending relays of mining robots to collect valuable metals and rare earths. During the 2030s, he hopes to establish a human colony.

You may say he’s a dreamer, but he’s not the only one. In the last few years, there’s been a small explosion of investment in space businesses. Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will start taking passengers – very rich ones, at $250,000 a ride – on short suborbital flights next year. Billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX is under contract to NASA to ferry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. Google billionaires Larry Page and Eric Schmidt are backing Planetary Resources’ efforts to mine asteroids. Not to be left out, Bob Richards has his own Internet billionaire, Naveen Jain, backing Moon Express.

Their investments are large, but the rewards are larger. Space commerce, Richards believes, will spawn Earth’s first trillionaires. It seems there’s a lot of pie in the sky.

In June 2013, Richards spoke at the ideaCity conference [a ZoomerMedia property] in Toronto and wowed a full house with his plans. We had an interview scheduled the next morning, but he bailed 20 minutes beforehand, texting that he’d been pulled into an investor meeting. The next week was out: “I am in a different city every day this week,” he explained by email. It wasn’t necessary to add “raising money.”

The week after that, he cancelled another interview and vanished off the radar. I picked him up a couple of days later via his Twitter feed: “Hello Vegas!” He was wooing another investor.

When we finally did talk (if the entire U.S.A. didn’t close for business on the Fourth of July, I’d still be waiting), I asked if fundraising was his main pastime. “I do little else other than rain dance,” he admitted.

That takes the glamour out of space flight, but Richards is relishing every minute. He’s living his dream, which is almost as old as he is (he doesn’t like to talk – or even think – about his age but he concedes he’s past 50). “There isn’t a moment in my life that I wasn’t passionate about space,” he says.

Appropriately, because he loved Star Trek as a kid, Richards bears a passing resemblance to William Shatner’s Capt. Kirk. He still recalls – still feels – the impact of 2001: A Space Odyssey and “watching ghostly figures on our black and white television hopping around on the moon” more than four decades ago. But soon after Neil Armstrong’s giant leap in 1969, NASA broke Richards’ heart when, in 1972, it abandoned its manned moon program.

Instead of giving up on our future in space, the self-described “orphan of Apollo” sprang into action. At university in the 1980s, he became a public space advocate, co-founding the Space Generation Foundation and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space; in 1987, he co-founded the International Space University, now based in Strasbourg, France. He didn’t know it at the time but he was planting seeds. All three organizations became rich incubators for today’s commercial space ventures.

“Our challenge back in the ’80s was how to find others like us,” Richards says. “We wanted to attract like-minded people from around the world, to meet them, to develop a common vision.”

He forged important friendships during those years. Chief among them was with Carl Sagan, the Cornell astronomer who wrote and hosted Cosmos, which remains one of the most-watched series in PBS history.

Cosmos was a pivot point for me,” Richards says. “I decided that either Carl’s going to call the police on me as a stalker or have me as a student. I was able to convince Cornell to let me into the Master’s program, and they actually offered me a fellowship. I became Carl’s special assistant. He didn’t call the police.” Their friendship deepened until Sagan’s untimely death in 1996.

Another key personality was futurist and writer Arthur C. Clarke, whom Richards had met at a conference in 1982. Clarke inspired Richards and his friends Peter Diamandis and Todd Hawley to create the International Space University, with a mandate to further the development of space through education and research. “We said, how do we change the world, how do we do these amazing things that you’ve been writing about for so long?” Richards recalls. “Arthur opened many doors. He’d call the administrator of NASA and say there are these kids I want you to talk to. He passed the baton to us in many ways.”

His head may be above the clouds, but Richards’ feet are planted firmly on the ground. “To offset the negative cash flow generated by my interest in space, I always had to have for-profit companies,” he says. With more than a dozen profitable start-ups to his credit – including the then-largest privately owned cellular retail network in Canada, a pioneering digital animation and video company and a Toronto nightclub – his business bona fides are beyond dispute.

In 2002, space finally became a full-time job when Richards joined Optech Inc., a Toronto-based developer of advanced surveying instruments. He established the company’s space division, which successfully adapted Optech’s laser radar equipment into a weather station for NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander. You may recall the daily weather forecasts it delivered from Mars (“sunny with moderate dust”) in 2008. The weather station also discovered it snows on Mars – probably the only time in history “Canadians find snow” was headline news.

In 2009, Richards left Optech and Canada. He’d found venture capitalists in this country unreceptive to space-faring and decided to base Moon Express in that fabled northern Californian valley where nerds flourish and grow rich. (Though among the early investors was ZoomerMedia founder Moses Znaimer, who had created the Tour of the Universe flight simulator ride at the CN Tower and later launched the Space channel for CHUM.) “There’s no other place I want to be right now,” Richards says. “In Silicon Valley, you wake up every morning riding a wave of awesome, a tsunami of optimism.”

The “orphan of Apollo,” as Richards referred to himself during his follow up appearance at this year’s ideaCity, had since been blessed by lunar landing royalty. Joining him was Andy Aldrin (the youngest of Buzz’s three kids) who’d left Boeing in March to become president of Moon Express. And Aldrin senior, “hero of my childhood” as Richards called him – second after Neil Armstrong to moon walk during Apollo 11’s mission 45 years ago – lauded the duo’s efforts during a video message taped for their appearance.

For now, the engineers at Moon Express are focused on building a lander. The plan is to book a ride on a commercially available rocket before the end of 2015, touch down and deploy a rover that will travel at least 500 metres and send high-resolution images back to Earth. If Richards and his crew are the first to achieve those objectives by that deadline, Moon Express will win the Google Lunar X-Prize, worth US$20 million.

Even if they do – and there are a few strong competitors among the 23 registered teams – the money won’t come close to covering the estimated $70 million trip costs. But paying clients Richards has already lined up will. They include the ILO-X, a small telescope that will be accessible to researchers, educators and the general public, and Celestis, a space burial company that sends capsules containing a few grams of cremated remains into space and would like to extend its offerings to the moon. “We call them our ‘ashtronauts,’ ” Richards quips. There are four other payloads he’s not ready to name, making the first mission “pretty much full.” When you add sponsorships – corporate logos on the lander – he expects to make a profit.

The real money, however, will not be in hauling stuff there but in bringing stuff back. Even the first baby step toward resource extraction, scooping up a sample of surface dust, will be highly profitable. A gram of moon dust is currently worth $3 million to collectors. Allowing for a two-thirds drop in price due to dilution of the market, the one-kilogram canister Richards plans to collect by 2020 will be worth a billion dollars.

But there’s a lot more to the moon than dust. In the years since Apollo, orbiting probes have discovered that underneath the “magnificent desolation” that moved Buzz Aldrin when he walked on the moon in 1969 there is a wealth of valuable resources. They include platinum, gold and the so-called rare earth elements essential to today’s electronics. Tantalizingly, there’s also helium-3, which can fuel fusion reactors, a potent source of alternative energy. There is almost no helium-3 on Earth, but there are predicted to be millions of tonnes trapped in the lunar soil. When (or if) we finally develop viable fusion reactors, 25 tonnes – a single Space Shuttle cargo bay – of helium-3 will power the United States for a year, which puts its value at around $3 billion a tonne.

At the moment, it’s unclear what it will be viable to mine (or how), but that doesn’t bother Richards.

“We don’t know what the real business case will be but we’re certain there will be one,” he says. If that’s not speculative enough, consider that the technology for getting there is mutating at a dizzying pace.

“Technologies that didn’t even exist when we started the company three years ago are completely revolutionizing how we’re engineering our spacecraft,” Richards says.

It means he’s not only shooting at a moving target, he’s shooting from a moving platform. To most, that kind of risk would be nothing less than nauseating. To Richards, it’s a rocket-powered joyride. For him, space is more than a business. It’s a mission. He is a romantic at heart, and the passions Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apollo aroused in him so long ago are the ones that fuel him still.

“Some people just embrace uncertainty and dive into the void,” Richards says. “It’s something I was afflicted with – a genetic predisposition toward climbing a mountain, toward getting in a boat and paddling to the horizon. Those that are content to remain in one place don’t normally survive.”

We’re using our planet’s resources at several times the sustainable rate. An asteroid strike or a climate catastrophe could destroy life on Earth. Eventually our sun will die. There is no doubt our future is Out There. It’s just a question of when, and Bob Richards is not the patient type.

Zoomer magazine, November 2014