It’s a new kind of space race, and a Mountain View startup is now in the lead - even before anything launches.
On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it has given Moon Express clearance to conduct the first private lunar mission.
"In Silicon Valley, we call something impossible a moon shot," Moon Express co-founder Bob Richards said. "We have a moon shot; it's a real moon shot."
Moon Express wants to deliver scientific instruments via robots using a rocket built by a Southern California startup.
"In our very first mission, our goal is really just to land on the moon softly and do what only super powers have done before," Richards said. "And we’ll be going back again and eventually bringing some samples back."
The FAA approval puts Moon Express far ahead of its competition for the Google Lunar X-prize: $20 million to the first team to land on the moon, travel 500 meters and send back video.
Richards said they’ll spend about $10 million to get there. But the real prize, he said, is when they start to mine the moon.
"It has vast resources, trillions, quadrillions of dollars worth of resources, that could be used as we expand as a species into space to the moon and beyond," Richards said.
The Moon Express team is still light years away from sending people to the moon, he said. Before it launches next year, the FAA will need to inspect the spacecraft and give final clearance.
The mission about 18 months away - but the countdown already has begun.