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risk takers

An artist's rendering of Moon Express's MX-1 Micro-Lander with ILO Telescope at the moon's South Pole.

The Risk Takers series looks at how a few of Canada's creative minds fearlessly went their own way.

[As part of this series, watch a video chat with InteraXon's Ariel Garten, who took a bet on mind-controlled computing, and a video chat with travel site Hopper founder Frederic Lalonde.]

Robert Richards helped found Moon Express Inc. because he believes in the business case for outer space

Toronto-bred Robert Richards, co-founder and CEO of Moon Express Inc., in his office at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Mr. Richards is working to make his childhood dreams, informed by science fiction, into science fact. (Kim White for The Globe and Mail)

Most look to the moon as a beacon for bedtime stories and lovers' strolls.

Robert Richards sees it differently, more as a destination for an outer-space trucking service and ultimately as a giant, orbiting hunk of minerals and resources to exploit.

The Toronto-bred entrepreneur has dedicated his career to organizing various ventures geared to the heavens and is now focused on the ambition of mining the moon and asteroids for what he says are trillions of dollars worth of resources. But to do that, his company is developing a spacecraft to deliver equipment to those orbiting bodies.

I was interested in, How do we make a viable business out of this? What would we do in space beyond Earth orbit that could be a viable business case? … And I set my sights on the moon.
Moon Express co-founder Robert Richards

Moon Express Inc., which he helped found, is located in NASA’s Ames Research Center, a fairly nondescript office park in Silicon Valley in California. Outside, the Stars and Stripes flutters under the mild California sky. Inside, various companies are working commercially with the space agency, less in the traditional role of suppliers contracted by NASA, but as companies working alongside NASA projects.

“It’s definitely an ecosystem of startup companies that partner with NASA and look to commercialize NASA technologies,” he said.

An artist's rendering of a Moon Express lander. The company is currently working on a multi-purpose robotic lander about the size of a coffee table that could transport cargo to and from the moon, asteroids, or other planets. It could also be involved in satellite servicing or cleaning up space junk. (Moon Express)

Moon Express’s product in development at the moment is the MX-1 lunar lander, which is about the size of a coffee table and would be launched from Earth inside rockets also being used for other purposes, such as launching a satellite.

“We want to go as a hitchhiker on other people’s rocket rides,” Mr. Richards said. The MX-1 would then leave the rocket and proceed to its destination from the moon or asteroids, to Mars or other planets in the solar system. It would run on 90-per-cent pure hydrogen peroxide, so the exhaust out the back would be steam, Mr. Richards said.

Mr. Richards's drive to explore the potential of outer space includes helping found Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, the International Space University and the Singularity University. Other ventures have included participating in an attempt to create a space port in Churchill, Man., and facilitating the contracting of Canadian laser technology (or lidar) for meteorological studies on the surface of Mars. (Kim White for The Globe and Mail)

The private company is already in its C round of financing, he added, noting that backing has come from private investors. “The business of Moon Express is to solve the transportation beyond Earth orbit. We’ve just this week signed a contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the moon,” he said.

“We’re kind of in the freight business. … We’re building a transportation device. In this case, it’s a spacecraft. It’s a truck,” he added simply. “We’re in the trucking business. We charge customers to take stuff, which in this case is the moon. And we charge mostly by mass, just like FedEx does.”

So the business model isn’t revolutionary, only the fact that it’s in space, he added.

In 2010, NASA announced that Moon Express is among six companies the agency has contracted for its Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data program to develop robotic lunar landing systems. Moon Express is also among a number of firms in contention for the Google Lunar X Prize, which will award $20-million (U.S.) to the first company to land a robotic, mobile craft on the moon and get it to transmit pictures back to Earth. That particular contest, sponsored by Google, is part of the X Prize initiative, a series of prizes aimed at sparking innovation.

Mr. Richards walks past a wind tunnel testing area at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Moon Express is among six companies the American space agency has contracted for its Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data program. (Kim White for The Globe and Mail)

But the larger prize for Mr. Richards is the moon itself. “The big vision is to unlock the resources of the moon for the benefit of all humanity, which will have economic consequences not just to the planet Earth, but to our activities in space.”

He brushes off the inevitable question about the legitimacy of mining the moon: “Everyone owns the moon and no one owns the moon.”

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed during the height of the U.S.-Soviet space race, prohibited the use of the moon for anything other than peaceful purposes. It didn’t mention commercial activities, Mr. Richard said.

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin signs a Moon Express MX lunar lander prototype. (Moon Express)

As for appropriating pieces of the moon, he added that “Neil [Armstrong], Buzz [Aldrin] and others grabbed some rocks from the moon, brought them back, and they became national treasures of the United States.” Once in U.S. possession, they were “proven to be titled and owned by the federal government.”

“So we in the private sector will be just extending the precedence that has been created in history through government action – our ability to land on the lunar surface for peaceful purposes, declare our right of non-interference, eventually bring something back from the moon and be able to own it and sell it; do what we want with it, because it will be ours.”

Of course, mining the moon would conceivably involve much more than taking a few moon rocks. Yet Mr. Richards argues this would be no different than fishing in international waters, where whatever trawlers catch becomes their possession.

The dream started for Mr. Richards when he was a boy. He describes himself as one of the “orphans” of a generation of kids gripped by TV images of Apollo astronauts skipping on the moon.

Mr. Richards was gripped by the early space era, watching not only the  real images of Apollo astronauts leaping around on the moon but also the imagined future reality portrayed in shows such as Star Trek and movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. But that future didn't materialize: 'Where’s my moon colony? Where’s my Mars outpost? None of that was happening,' he says. (Kim White for The Globe and Mail)

He then became “completely frustrated that the world we had grown up to believe in as little boys – watching Neil and Buzz hop around on the lunar surface, and watching Captain Kirk on the Enterprise, and 2001: A Space Odyssey – that fantastic future we thought we were going to grow up into wasn’t happening by the time we got to college.

“Forget about, Where are my flying cars?” he said. “Where’s my [space station] wheel in space? Where’s my moon colony? Where’s my Mars outpost? None of that was happening.”

He noted that in the early 1980s, he was a founder of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, a student group organized to drum up interest for “this grand future that we all thought we were promised.”

While studying at the time at Ryerson University in Toronto, he met a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Peter Diamandis, through a letter in the science and science-fiction magazine Omni. “For any geek, that was the go-to magazine to find out what was happening that was cool in the world.”

The letter and the formation of the student group eventually helped spark a group of academics and notable space enthusiasts to join in the creation of space-studies programs in what became the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. More recently, he was involved in the creation of courses, known as the Singularity University, offered at the NASA research park.

Moon Express scientists at work. 'The big vision is to unlock the resources of the moon for the benefit of all humanity, which will have economic consequences not just to the planet Earth, but to our activities in space,' Mr. Richards says. (Kim White for The Globe and Mail)

All the while, Mr. Richards had been involved in the business side of space contracts, from the attempt to create a space port in Churchill, Man., in the 1990s, to facilitating the contracting of laser technology (or lidar) made in Canada and overseen by the Canadian Space Agency for meteorological studies on the surface of Mars with the Phoenix Mars lander, which launched in 2007.

“I was interested in, How do we make a viable business out of this? What would we do in space beyond Earth orbit that could be a viable business case? … And I set my sights on the moon,” he said.

“I have been pursuing and building up institutions and enterprises to try to help humanity become a multiworld species. That’s what I’m about, everything I’ve done.”