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Countdown to Moon Madness

America's last mission to the moon was completed in May 1994. But according to a news announcement yesterday from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the drought will end in October 2008. That's when a new lunar orbiter will carry two craft designed to crash into the moon's south pole. The resulting craters will offer opportunities to discover if the moon may have salvageable water or other minerals capable of assisting astronauts in establishing a permanent villa in space.

The mission is the brainchild of scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay Area, several of whom spoke with The San Francisco Chronicle yesterday. They said that impact craters should thrust debris as far as 40 miles into the moon's atmosphere, creating a cloud that will be visible to Earth-bound observatories. A satellite will also fly through the cloud to take detailed readings.

Rule Breaking investors ought to be encouraged. Check out this paragraph, which was lifted directly from the press release:

On January 10, 2006, NASA issued a request for information to industry to allow businesses to provide secondary payload concepts to NASA. NASA encouraged its field centers to team with industry to develop proposals.

No doubt that sounds like a boon to big contractors such as Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) and Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) . And surely it is. But I'm inclined to think that smaller manufacturers such as Ball Aerospace (NYSE: BLL  ) may stand to gain an outsized share of the pie as well, because the new mission is expected to cost no more than $80 million. That's a pittance to Boeing and Lockheed, which combined for more than $90 billion in revenue over the trailing 12 months, according to Yahoo! Finance.

Also consider the original Surveyor lunar probes, seven of which explored the moon in 1966 and 1967. The total cost of the program was $469 million, according to NASA records. That puts the average cost of one probe at $67 million. Translated into today's dollars -- assuming an average 5% rate of inflation -- that's $449 million per probe. No doubt advanced technology was more expensive on a relative basis in the '60s, but more than five times cheaper? I'm not so sure.

Finally, remember that NASA hasn't exactly seen much in the way of budget increases since the President charted a new course for the agency in 2004. That, plus the agency's renewed interest in working with private industry through its "centennial challenges" -- which resemble the Ansari X Prize that was awarded to Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne in 2004 -- makes it clear that NASA is at the very least under pressure to streamline. In such an environment, Rule Breaking opportunities abound.

Blast off with related Foolishness:

Fool contributorTim Beyersis a confessed Trekkie and sci-fi geek. He didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what is in his portfolio by checking Tim's Foolprofile. The Motley Fool has an ironcladdisclosure policy.

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