Prepare for Another Moon Shot

Either I've lost my mind, or I'm clinically addicted to stocks. Whichever is the truth, only a desperate case would seek investing ideas from the politically charged MSNBC news show Countdown With Keith Olbermann.

Yet there I was Wednesday, eagerly watching Olbermann's report on NASA's plan for a permanent base on the moon by 2024. Since this kind of stuff appeals to the geek in me, I listened closely. That's when he said the words that would push my brain into overdrive:

"Has NASA worked out some of these details like food and water, low-gravity exposure, wireless Internet . ?"

Olbermann was half-kidding, of course. But that doesn't change the reality that the answer is "no." And that could spell a massive opportunity for investors.

"Could" is the operative word here. The current Congress has failed to continue funding for NASA's "Centennial Challenges," contests designed to spur space innovation from the private sector, modeled after the groundbreaking $10 million Ansari X-Prize.

Fools might remember that the X-Prize led to the creation of Burt Rutan's rubber-burning suborbital spaceship that catapulted SpaceDev (OTC BB: SPDV.OB) into the national spotlight, and which prompted Sir Richard Branson to create Virgin Galactic.

NASA has the money to continue funding the current list of Centennial Challenges, which includes a quest to create a space elevator, but the money won't last past 2010. What a shame.

Olbermann's right; if America's aim is to build up vacation property on our lunar love shack for a later mission to Mars, NASA is going to need all the help it can get from rebellious start-ups seeking a moon shot at fame. Otherwise, there's simply no chance of getting the job done economically. (One estimate pegs the cost of a moon base at $200 billion, or 16 times the $12 billion set aside for the next moon mission.)

For now, all we investors know is that Lockheed (NYSE: LMT  ) beat out Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) and Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  ) to win the contract to build the new lunar spacecraft, which has been dubbed "Orion." NASA says that deal alone is worth at least $3.9 billion. That leaves $8 billion or so for the construction of a permanent lunar villa and the "pickup truck" NASA says astronaut residents will use to get around the moon's south pole. Good luck with that, fellas.

Meanwhile, the existing Centennial Challenges provide a window into what innovations are still required to get astronauts there and back again. Among the list: new gloves that provide the dexterity to build new material in space, a lunar excavator, and a process for creating oxygen from moon dust.

Ambitious, you say? Certainly. But if history proves anything, it's that the most meaningful innovations appear when spirited entrepreneurs risk their livelihood to shatter existing conventions. (Anyone else remember Netscape?) That's still possible when it comes to space exploration. If, that is, Congress is willing to let loose with the money required to get the job done. Investors can only hope.

Looking for out-of-this-world investing ideas?Rule Breakersis always on the lookout for the next great innovations and disruptive technologies. Check it outfree for 30 days.

Fool contributorTim Beyers, ranked 806 out of 15,210 inMotley Fool CAPS, once owned a National Geographic map of the moon. He couldn't tell you where it is now, though. Tim owns shares of SpaceDev. Get the skinny on all of the stocks in his portfolio by checking Tim's Foolprofile. The Motley Fool'sdisclosure policyglows like a moon over Wall Street.

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