Private company plans US's first controlled moon landing in 40 years

A U.S. spacecraft hasn’t made a controlled landing on the moon since Apollo 17 left the lunar surface on Dec. 14, 1972. That’s about to change.

Moon Express will unveil the MX-1 spacecraft at the Autodesk University show in Las Vegas on Thursday evening -- a micro-spacecraft that will in 2015 mark the first U.S. "soft" landing since the days of the Apollo program, has learned.

The craft looks for all the world like a pair of donuts wearing an ice cream cone, and the tiny vehicle clearly isn’t big enough for a human being. But it is big enough to scoop up some rocks and dirt, store them in an internal compartment, and return it to Earth. After all, the moondirt Gene Cernan, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin once trod holds a king’s ransom of titanium, platinum, and other rare elements.

Moon Express plans to mine it.

'The moon and beyond is an extension of our earthly society, with vast resources in metals.'

— Dennis Wingo, a space entrepreneur and author of the book MoonRush

“We call it the iPhone of space,” Bob Richards, co-founder and CEO of Moon Express, told, citing the MX-1’s flexibility. The "microlander" can deliver up to 130 pounds of cargo to the surface of the moon, or act as a sample return vehicle or a "space-tug," he said. It uses hydrogen peroxide as rocket fuel -- a high-test version of what you'd get in a drug store. And it is surprisingly small.

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“It’s very small. You and I could put our arms around it,” Richards said. The small size lets the company plan missions for a fraction of what it would cost a superpower such as the U.S. or China.

The MX-1 is a single stage vehicle that doesn’t require booster rockets, unlike most other spacecraft. To keep down costs, it’s meant as a secondary payload -- ridding piggyback on a satellite launch.

The company plans a survey mission in 2015 and will announce the launch details next year; in 2020 it aims to return samples from the moon.

The MX-1 is made possible by tremendous advances in computing power and engineering, notably 3D design and engineering. It’s no coincidence that the craft will be unveiled at a show thrown by 3D design company Autodesk.

Moon Express is just one of many private companies planning space missions. Tourism, orbiting hotels and more have exploded -- but no area has burgeoned more than the moon. Astrobiotic Technology also plans to mine the moon, for example. Bigelow Aerospace wants to sell property there, a Japanese firm suggested a solar panel power ring, and China on Monday launched the Chang’e 3 lander, which should touch down on the moon in mid-December -- the first controlled landing since the Soviet Union’s Luna-24 mission in 1976.

What’s behind the surge in interest? Overpopulation, one expert says.

“Nine billion. That’s how many people will be alive on the Earth as soon as 36 years from now,” warns Dennis Wingo, a space entrepreneur and author of the book MoonRush. “The moon and beyond is an extension of our earthly society, with vast resources in metals and a place to expand human activity.”

Moon Express has yet to pick a spot to land in 2015. Richards said he is considering a location in the Southern Hemisphere, near Surveyor 7 -- the last robotic mission, which the U.S. soft-landed on the moon in 1968.

“It’s iconic to have the first private robotic lander resting next to the last government robotic lander,” he said.