The Google Lunar XPRIZE is history -- and good riddance. Israel never needed Google's money anyway.
After months and years of false starts, the international contest to award millions of dollars in prize money to the first private entity to land a spaceship on the Moon finally ended with no winner earlier this year. In January, nonprofit organization XPRIZE confirmed that Google was pulling its support from the project, and will no longer pony up the expected $30 million grand prize -- even if one of the five finalists does eventually succeed in getting to the Moon.
SpaceIL's lunar lander spacecraft looks like a flying saucer -- with legs! Image source: Lunar XPRIZE.
No matter. One of the five original contestants, Israeli space start-up SpaceIL, has decided to forge ahead and try to land on the Moon with or without Google's support. With help from fellow Israeli company Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), which will both assemble and test the spacecraft, SpaceIL announced last week that it's on schedule to launch a small spaceship (roughly 5 feet tall, 6 feet in diameter, and saucer-shaped, as shown above) on a course for the Moon by December 2018.
One quirk: Unlike America's Apollo Moon landings, which were powered by massive Saturn V rockets, this one's going to take a bit longer to arrive at its destination. After launching from Cape Canaveral in December, SpaceIL is targeting a moon landing by Feb. 13, 2019. So from Earth orbit to Moon landing, we're looking at a two-month trip.
What's going to work? Teamwork!
To get itself to the Moon, SpaceIL has cobbled together a loose organization of helping hands. In addition to IAI, these include SpaceX, which will be providing the Falcon 9 rocket to get SpaceIL's spaceship into Earth orbit, and Spaceflight Industries, which helped it book a "secondary payload" berth on the Falcon. Israel's government has also lent assistance to the project, with SpaceIL naming the Israel Space Agency and its Ministry of Science, Technology, and Space among its partners.
Success on this mission will validate the eight years and $88 million that SpaceIL has already invested in developing its 1,322-pound lunar spacecraft, the smallest ever to visit the Moon. That investment means that even winning the Lunar XPRIZE wouldn't have made SpaceIL any money. Luckily, SpaceIL is a nonprofit organization, and gets most of its funds from private donors who are not seeking a return on their investment.
But if this is the case, then why is SpaceIL's project of any interest to investors?
What it means to investors
Aside from the coolness factor of the project -- and this mission to the Moon is undeniably cool -- a successful Moon landing by SpaceIL will break new ground in space, encouraging and even facilitating other companies' efforts to follow in the trailblazer's footsteps.
Consider: Any new venture carries risk, but how much risk, exactly? If there's one thing insurance companies hate more than risk, it's unquantifiable risk. This can make it difficult for start-up companies, which would like to try a Moon landing, to obtain insurance for their ventures. If obtaining insurance is a requirement to secure financing for a Moon launch, this could prevent the project from ever getting off the ground -- literally.
But once SpaceIL succeeds in landing the first non-governmental spaceship on the Moon, and proves it can be done, the riskiness of future attempts should plummet. Not only should that reduce the cost of insuring future missions to the Moon sponsored by other companies, it may render such missions insurable, period, by helping to quantify the risk (or lack thereof) of the attempt.
And then there's the technical challenge. Once SpaceIL succeeds in getting to the Moon by one route (albeit a circuitous route requiring more than two months' flight time), other companies can begin tweaking its process to improve the efficiency of future flights to (and from?) the Moon. With each successive successful trip, the cost of getting to the Moon should fall, making the missions more and more attractive to future imitators -- until one day, perhaps, a viable Moon-mining economy can be born.
Long story short, SpaceIL's lunar mission might offer no immediate way for investors to profit, but what it can do is open the door for other companies to create such potential in the future.
It all starts, though, with the first company landing on the Moon. And that should happen next year.
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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Rich Smith owns shares of Alphabet (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares). The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.