Space Commerce: Fly Me to the Moon
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.
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.”
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.
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.