It's official now. We're going back to the Moon.
Well, not "we" exactly.
Israel. Technically, it's Israel that's going "back" to the Moon -- but it will be doing it with some help from American money. Last week, Google XPRIZE, a small cog in the machinery that is Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL), announced it has been presented with a "verified launch contract" by Israeli nonprofit space start-up SpaceIL.
Specifically, SpaceIL has contracted with Spaceflight Industries, which S&P Capital IQ describes as a private company specializing in "small-satellite products and services." Spaceflight is apparently planning past simple Earth orbit, however, and recently purchased a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX, with plans to send it to the Moon.
Once there, this rocket will deposit SpaceIL's lunar lander, whose mission will be to explore "at least" 500 meters of lunar real estate, beaming back high-definition video to prove its accomplishment. If SpaceIL succeeds, it will become the fourth entity to successfully put a lander on the Moon. And because the only other previously successful explorers were the U.S., Russia, and China, SpaceIL will become the first private company to land on the Moon.
SpaceIL has until Dec. 31, 2017, to actually get its lander to the Moon. Fortunately, it's already made a lot of progress. Discussing the project with representatives of Google XPRIZE, I learned that SpaceIL has already raised approximately $40 million of the estimated $50 million it will need to accomplish the project.
The actual launch will probably cost more than that, granted. The going rate on a Falcon 9 alone exceeds $60 million. But to defray costs, SpaceIL will be taking along several secondary payloads for the ride, dropping them into Earth orbit before making its own Moon run. The rationale here is similar to a homeowner taking in boarders to help pay the mortgage -- these extra payloads will help to pay the freight on SpaceIL's primary mission.
As for the payload itself, SpaceIL confirms that it has completed its "new and improved design" for the spacecraft, and is already beginning to assemble the components needed to build it.
Who is SpaceIL?
Speaking of SpaceIL, perhaps we should address just who's behind it. A nonprofit organization founded by three Israeli engineers in 2010, SpaceIL is not your typical space explorer. Rather, it's an organization built on private contributions (including online crowdfunding), plus major financial backing from the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Family Foundation (yes, that Sheldon Adelson), from Morris Kahn's Kahn Foundation, from Israel Aerospace Industries, and the Israel Space Agency, as well.
None of these backers will be receiving any profits from SpaceIL's venture. For one thing, Google XPRIZE's $20 million purse for the first private company to land on the Moon won't come close to covering the cost of this mission -- much less yield a profit. Nor does SpaceIL itself hope to profit from the mission. To the contrary, in an email exchange, SpaceIL assured me they have "committed to using the potential prize money to promote science and scientific education in Israel," with the aim of "inspiring the next generation of Israelis to choose [careers in] Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math (STEM)."
What does it mean to you?
If no one is making a buck off this mission, is it really important for investors at all?
Yes. First and foremost, because in choosing to ride a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the Moon -- rather than a Delta or Atlas rocket from United Launch Alliance -- SpaceIL has given us further evidence that SpaceX is a rising star, and that ULA's rockets are becoming increasingly price-uncompetitive with its upstart rival.
That can't be good news for ULA joint venturers Boeing and Lockheed Martin. It suggests Boeing's continued reluctance to divest its 50% interest in ULA is a bad idea, and could convince Lockheed Martin to push its partner to make a sale.
Meanwhile and more generally, SpaceIL's "moonshot" gives us further evidence of the changing dynamics in spaceflight, as more and more upstart players join the space race. If one of these upstarts -- SpaceIL perhaps, or one of its 15 rivals for the Google XPRIZE -- gets to the Moon before a ULA rocket carrying an official NASA mission makes the run, it will prove conclusively that the Moon is no longer the province of governments and nation states. It will prove that lunar expeditions, and lunar exploitation, and space exploration, are things that private companies can accomplish just as well.
And if they can do it all for just $50 million per mission? That will be a game changer, for sure.