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Bob Richards with MX-1
Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards shows off a model of the MX-1 lunar lander in 2013. (Credit: Moon Express via YouTube)

Moon Express says it has reserved three lunar lander launches from a startup called Rocket Lab starting in 2017, with an eye toward putting robots on the moon’s surface and winning the lion’s share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.

If the mission is successful, Moon Express could become the first privately backed venture to achieve a soft lunar landing.

“This will be the space equivalent of the four-minute mile,” Moon Express’ co-founder and CEO, Bob Richards, told GeekWire on Thursday. “This is a new era we just could have dreamed about as kids.”

L.A.-based Rocket Lab is working on a launch pad in New Zealand as well as its next-generation Electron rocket, which is due for its first test launch within a year. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley-based Moon Express is building and testing versions of its MX-1 lander – which Richards said is being scaled down to a mass of 200 kilograms (440 pounds), including fuel.

Peter Beck and Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck aims to have the company’s Electron rocket blasting off from a New Zealand launch site within a year. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

The 2017 launch could take place from New Zealand or from the United States, depending on how Rocket Lab’s plans unfold, Richards said. The list price for an Electron launch is $4.9 million; however, Richards declined to say how much Moon Express was paying, due to proprietary concerns.

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle would put the MX-1 in low Earth orbit, and then the spacecraft would follow a weeks-long, looping trajectory to the moon. The orbital mechanics would be similar to those used by NASA’s LADEE and the European Space Agency’s SMART-1 lunar orbiters, Richards said.

Unlike those probes, MX-1 is designed to descend to the surface, take a short hop and then send video back to Earth, satisfying the requirements for the Lunar X Prize’s top award of $20 million. Richards emphasized that Moon Express’ landers would carry other payloads as well.

“We are pursuing the Google Lunar X Prize among the many businesses we have,” he said. “We have many other things we want to do with these missions.”

Richards said Moon Express has two launches on Rocket Lab’s manifest in 2017 and has contracted for a third launch at a time to be determined, with options for a fourth and fifth launch. The launches would accommodate Moon Express’ commercial payloads – and also give the venture more than one crack at winning the X Prize.

“Hopefully we nail it on the first time,” Richards said. “But as you know, space is hard.”

Moon Express was co-founded by Seattle Internet entrepreneur Naveen Jain and has raised an impressive $31.5 million in venture capital so far – but it’s not the only venture in the X Prize race to the moon. In all, 16 teams have registered to vie for prizes. Among the other favorites are Astrobotic and Hakuto.

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