I have to admit that after watching Elon Musk present his plan to colonize Mars to the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) 2016, then outline how he will build and deploy a "Big Falcon Rocket" at last year's International Astronautical Congress, IAC 2018 was something of a letdown. For the first time in three years, the IAC lacked a big tentpole event headlined by Mr. Musk at this year's show, which wrapped up in Bremen, Germany, last week.

But that doesn't mean there was nothing to announce.

To the moon, Alice!

The most notable announcement coming out of IAC 2018 was that Airbus and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are teaming up with the European Space Agency, Agencia Espacial Mexicana, and French construction company Vinci Construction, which builds projects  for mining, water infrastructure, renewable energy, and residential and office purposes, to form a non-profit corporation fostering innovative solutions to colonizing the moon.

Dubbed The Moon Race NPO gGmbH, this non-profit will hold a five-year "Moon Race Competition" (MRC) that will aim to jump-start inventions that will help astronauts to:

  • Extract water from the Moon for drinking, breathing (oxygen), and rocket fuel (liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen).
  • Manufacture useful objects from lunar regolith and metals deposits.
  • Utilize lunar minerals and moon water to grow food.
  • Generate energy to keep the whole show going.

They'll be working on food, water, and energy to sustain life on Earth's only natural satellite, and once that's accomplished, manufacturing building materials and extracting other valuable resources needed to expand mankind's footprint on the moon -- and potentially, to send back to Earth.

Regarding the timeline, MRC will run for five years, paying out "monetary awards" upon the completion of specific milestones:

  • Early 2019: MRC will solicit proposals from companies with lunar ideas they'd like to try out and describe the financial incentives it will offer for success.
  • Late 2019: MRC will announce which applicants have been approved to compete at the next International Astronautics Conference -- IAC 2019 -- to be held in Washington, D.C.
  • 2020: Applicants will submit prototypes of their technology to demonstrate "proof of concept." Promising prototypes may win monetary awards.
  • 2021: Applicants will test prototypes "in lunar environment" to win further monetary awards and continue developing their technology.
  • 2023: Two years later, applicants should have operating units built and ready to be configured for launch. More monetary awards will be doled out.
  • 2024: Launch to the moon (and win yet more money)!

Along the way, The Moon Race promises to provide "support and guidance," "access to experimental facilities," and "monetary awards" to participants. In this way, it will function not just as a contest, but as a type of technology incubator.

Who will participate -- and what does this mean for investors?

MRC says it will be targeting "start-ups and SMEs worldwide," which tells us, first of all, that the monetary awards will probably be small -- and probably too small to interest space giants such as ULA or SpaceX in participating. More likely, we're talking about sums that would attract companies the size of a Made in Space (zero-G, 3D printing), Planetary Resources (space mining), or Bigelow (space habitats).

Of course, because these companies are just small start-ups at this stage, it's unlikely that any publicly traded companies will be participating. Initially at least, there'll be nothing for us to invest in here.

So why do we care?

That being said, if MRC succeeds in developing new technologies that make lunar exploration and exploitation practicable, that's something to look out for. In its press release announcing its participation in MRC, Blue Origin noted that it's particularly interested in fostering companies: "looking for a ride to the lunar surface. The goal is consistent with our aim to land large payloads on the Moon [with Blue Origin's Blue Moon lander, now under development] that can access and utilize the resources found there."

Thus, for Blue Moon, at least, MRC is all about creating a customer base for its New Glenn rocket and Blue Moon lander. As for the rest of us, if MRC succeeds in discovering start-ups with groundbreaking new technologies that larger companies might decide to acquire and incorporate into their own publicly traded businesses, then this, too, is worth keeping an eye on.

It's a brave new world for space investors -- and maybe not even the same world you grew up in.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Rich Smith has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.