Private company becomes first to win right to fly to moon

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A view taken from the Moroccan capital Rabat on July 13, 2014 shows a full moon, with volcanic domes and impact craters. AFP PHOTO / FADEL SENNA (Photo credit should read FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)

Moon Express just became the first private company to be awarded the right to travel to the moon. (FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK  — Moon Express is the first private outfit to get the OK from the U.S. government to go where few have gone before: the moon.

The upstart space exploration company is competing for Google’s Lunar XPrize, worth as much as $25 million. The first privately-financed group to get to the moon before the end of 2017 wins. The only moon shots until now have been by national space programs of the United States, the former Soviet Union and China.

The approval for the flight, announced Wednesday, came from a collection of agencies, including the FAA, the State Department, NASA and the White House.

To claim the prize, Moon Express will have to land a probe on the moon, have it travel 500 meters over the moon’s surface, and transmit HD video back to earth.

But flights to the moon can be profitable even if the company doesn’t win the prize money, chairman and co-founder Naveen Jain told CNNMoney.

“The marginal cost of a trip is now under $10 million,” he said. “Things that did not make sense when the cost of a trip was $1 billion are wildly profitable when it costs $10 million.”

Moon Express already has paying customers for its first moon launch, which will deliver a telescope as well as the ashes of some people who want to be buried on the moon.

Jain said its first probe won’t return to Earth, but that the second trip will be its first round-trip flight. He added that once return trips are standard, lunar flights will have lots of business applications. And, he predicts, private flights will soon transport people to the moon and back.

“If I was a betting man, I’d say it’ll be sometime between 10 and 15 years,” he said.

Moon Express isn’t building the rocket that will take its probe to the moon itself. Instead, it has a contract with another private company, Rocket Lab, which has yet to launch a rocket into orbit. But Jain is confident it will be able to make the flight by the contest deadline at the end of next year.

But he’s got some competition, namely the Israeli non-profit, SpaceIL, which is also going after the XPrize. And SpaceIL has a contract with SpaceX, the company run by Elon Musk, which has a far more established track record than Rocket Lab.

SpaceX has already flown supply missions to the International Space Station, and has also won a NASA contract to carry U.S. astronauts there as well.

Musk’s outfit is one of a few private companies have launched satellites into Earth’s orbit. But so far no company has taken on the more daunting technical and engineering challenge that comes with leaving Earth’s orbit to travel to the moon or other planets.

Several companies are working on plans for space tourism flights, including Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, which is led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Those flights would be relatively brief suborbital flights that take people just above the Earth’s atmosphere and into the weightlessness of outer space.

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