You run SpaceX, which is the very first private company, non-nation, to be able to put something into orbit around this planet that we call Earth... Where do you find time for your secret identity as Batman?
Five years ago, that's how comedian Stephen Colbert introduced his viewers to Elon Musk, co-founder of SpaceX - and as introductions go, it was a pretty good one. Historically, lots of companies - Boeing, Lockheed, GenCorp - have helped NASA's space program put objects into orbit. But only Elon Musk's SpaceX has put an object in orbit all on its own, and just for kicks.
Now, you might think this would give SpaceX an insurmountable lead in the movement toward commercialization of space. Instead, it turns out that "space" is starting to fill up with competitors. In fact, the line extends from here to the moon itself.
The International Space Station, juxtaposed against the moon in this NASA photo.
Introducing Moon Express
Just this past week, we learned that a little shop by the name of "Moon Express" has gotten the go-ahead from NASA to send a privately owned, privately financed robotic lander to the moon. Financed by billionaire investor and co-founder Naveen Jain, Moon Express aims to send its MX-1 lander to the moon sometime next year. If successful, this mission will pave the way for future missions to mine the moon for mineral riches - including gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum, and tungsten - then return these minerals to Earth.
NASA is helping out by lending Moon Express the benefit of its expertise, and assistance from its engineers. But Moon Express is footing the bill for the mission, hoping to recoup its investment with profits from eventual sales of valuable moon-mined minerals. (The company also expects to defray some of its initial investment by winning the million Google-sponsored "Lunar XPrize" for landing a spacecraft on the Moon, rolling around it a bit, and sending back hi-def video to prove its accomplishment. It's this prize that Moon Express aims to win with its 2016 mission.)
What it means for investors
Like SpaceX, Moon Express has not yet undergone an IPO. As such, you cannot invest in it. In fact, also like SpaceX, Moon Express is "backed by a billionaire, " one who may not need to hold an IPO to raise cash to fund his company - so you may not ever get a chance to invest in it.
But that doesn't mean space is an empty waste for investors.
To the contrary, in addition to Moon Express, NASA is currently offering assistance to at least two other companies interested in starting up moon-mining operations: privately held Astrobotic Technology and Masten Space Systems, both of which aim to develop commercial robotic spacecraft. Both are serious companies, in business continuously for eight and 11 years, respectively, according to S&P Capital IQ.
Space Adventures, also privately held, has been organizing (and selling) trips to the International Space Station since 2001. To date, it's already sent seven civilian "astronauts" into space at ticket prices of roughly $20 million a pop. The company recently broadened its product offerings by offering spacewalks outside of ISS for an additional $15 million - and has also begun selling tickets for trips to orbit the moon for as much as $150 million a head.
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