Staking a claim on the moon

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — NASA, which ended America's space shuttle program in June, says it wants to privatize spaceflight.

But Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of the Mountain View, Calif.-based Moon Express, Inc., wants to go a step further — he wants to privatize the moon itself.

Jain's company plans to piggyback on private shuttle flights, using them to carry his lunar landers and mining platforms to the moon.

"People ask, why do we want to go back to the moon? Isn't it just barren soil?" Jain said. "But the moon has never been explored from an entrepreneurial perspective."

Our nearest neighbor in the sky holds a ransom in precious minerals, Jain explained, with 20 times more titanium and platinum than anywhere on Earth, not to mention helium 3, a rare isotope of helium that many feel could be the future of energy on Earth and in space.

Beyond mineral resources, Jain — a billionaire who made his fortunes first with Microsoft, then with dotcom-era yellow page site InfoSpace Inc. — imagines a variety of ways to capitalize on the public's lunar love.

"No one has ever captured people's fascination with the moon," he told said. "What if, say, we take a picture of your family on the moon and project it back to you? Or take DNA up there?"

His company, which calls itself MoonEx, was awarded a contract as part of NASA's $10 million Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data program, and is shooting for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize as well. Jain believes the NASA contract will allow his company to start mining operations on the moon, something he says MoonEx can do as soon as 2013.

"Perpetual ownership of private or government assets in space or on other bodies is a well defined, documented and practiced aspect of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty," explained company CEO Bob Richards in a recent blog post.

In other words, the moon's resources are essentially waiting to be claimed — all you need is a way to get there.

In June of this year, MoonEx's lunar lander successfully completed a flight test at the Hover Test Facility in NASA's Ames Research Center, according to the facility's quarterly magazine.

"The end of the shuttle program wasn't the end of the moon mission, it was simply passing the baton from the public to the private sector," Jain said.

He believes it will cost a pittance — under a hundred million dollars — to go back to the moon.

"There's a tremendous amount of waste in the government. Private companies can do things better," he said.

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