Why a Ryerson grad is mining the moon

Featured Image by Juliana Kaminski.

Bob Richards

How much is the moon worth? To Ryerson University graduate and Canadian space entrepreneur Bob Richards, a lot.

“I believe that the first trillionaires will be generated by investments in space resources,” said Richards in a 2014 documentary by Motherboard.

Richards is the CEO and co-founder of Moon Express, a commercial space exploration company which aims to mine the moon for natural resources.

The former Ryerson engineering student agreed to sit down with Folio to talk about the possibilities of mining the moon. However, nature intervened—on the day of the interview, Richards said his attention was required elsewhere, likely due to the effects of Hurricane Matthew on the company’s Florida-based operations.

But still, if Richards’ plans succeed, it would represent a shift in the way humans see outer space.

“Our mission is to open up the resources of the moon for the benefit of life on Earth,” Richards said in an interview with Raw Science.

“Once we get to the sample return mission [in 2020], we’re going to bring back something between a baseball and basketball worth of stuff from the moon.”

Richards said he and his team believe that ball of “moon stuff” is going to be worth approximately $1 billion.

“It’s going to be the only privately available moon stuff on planet Earth,” he said.

And that “stuff,” as it turns out, could be incredibly useful.

The moon, like Earth, was subject to billions of years of meteoric bombardment, which left it with ample amounts of rare-earth elements like gold, platinum, and tungsten. Most of the Earth’s rare metals were pulled into its iron core during the planet’s formation and were replaced in much smaller amounts through meteor strikes.

Richards’ partner and co-founder, Naveen Jain, says the company also has its eye on the moon’s immense supply of helium-3, a non-radioactive isotope rare on Earth.

The element could be a powerful potential fuel for yet-to-be-built clean-energy nuclear fusion reactors. According to Jain, the reactors could power millions of homes for long periods of time using small amounts of the helium isotope.

“If I could rephrase John F. Kennedy, it would be ‘we chose to go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was good business’,” Jain said in an interview with CNBC.  

The company’s secondary objective is to win the Google Lunar X Prize competition, a space-race to our celestial companion organized by the XPRIZE Foundation and Google.

The competition, which pits Moon Express against 15 other teams, will award US $20 million to the first venture to land a robot on the lunar surface, travel 500 metres and send data and photos back to Earth.

Richards’ company is considered to be one of the competition’s frontrunners, as Moon Express recently became the first-ever private entity granted permission to land on the moon from the U.S. government.

Moon Express also secured a contract with New Zealand’s Rocket Lab, for the use of the company’s low-cost orbital launch vehicle. The rocket, named ‘Electron’, would be used to deliver Moon Express’ lunar lander to orbit.

Jain says the missions using Electron would cost around $10 million per launch—a far cry from NASA’s costs, which range as high as $500 million per launch.

The Moon Express mission, scheduled for late 2017, is now set to become the first human activity on the moon since China’s Chang’e 3 robotic lander in 2013. It would also be the first American activity since 1972.

“This is not only a milestone but really a threshold for the entire commercial space industry,” Richards told Space.com.

The legal process to green-light the private space mission was a lengthy and complicated one, spanning several U.S. agencies, including the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), NASA, the U.S. State Department, the Department of Defense and the Federal Communications Commission.  

“[It] took some time, not because anybody was against or averse to this,” Richards said. “It’s just that we asked questions that had never been asked before, and that had to be addressed and worked out.”

However, the announcement from the FAA did not outline any framework for the ‘mining’ of the moon, nor did it permit the company to return to Earth with any material taken from the lunar surface.

In a 2016 article, Sa’id Mosteshar, the director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law told Motherboard that “the license does not give Moon Express any exclusive or property right. It merely permits Moon Express to launch a spacecraft, travel to the moon, and land there.”

This appears to be in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits nations from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies. However, the agreement, which was signed by 124 countries in the 1960s, doesn’t explicitly mention corporations, who are indeed required to ask permission for space travel from their native government.

For now, Richards and Moon Express will have to settle for a lunar landing and, should they win the competition, a $20 million reward.