DARPA is asking a $170 billion question about making money on the Moon

The Moon rush has begun—the US, Europe and China are spending billions on plans to return humans to Earth’s favorite satellite. One big difference this time, according to NASA, is that people are going to stay, bringing the tools to allow for long-term exploration. The other big difference? Private companies are playing a much larger role in these missions than they did in the era of Apollo.

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In the US, companies are investing their own funds alongside NASA to develop robotic Moon landers (Astrobotic Technology and Intuitive Machines), landers for astronauts (SpaceX and Blue Origin), space suits (Axiom Space), and infrastructure like communications and navigation satellites and power sources (Crescent). Further out, there’s talk of mining minerals or ice. The consultants at PwC have estimated that the lunar economy could be a $170 billion market (pdf) by 2040.

But this market is built on the idea that companies will find customers besides government agencies for their goods and services. The model is SpaceX’s collaboration with NASA to build new rockets and spacecraft to service the International Space Station. Now, NASA has reliable access to space, and SpaceX has a booming business launching commercial satellites and private astronaut missions.

The problem, when it comes to the Moon, is that launching satellites and even space tourism were markets that existed before SpaceX did. It’s not entirely clear yet what the source of private demand will be on the Moon.

Enter DARPA, the US military’s advanced research agency. Its mandate is to pull the future forward by backing novel technology development, something it helped do with electronic communications networks that became the internet, and with autonomous vehicles, among other examples.

How do you make money on the Moon?

“I hear this phrase, ‘$97 billion cis-lunar economy.’ How is that turned into money that exists in a bank account? I don’t think we know that yet,” says Dr. Michael Nayak, a planetary scientist and former Air Force test pilot who is working as a DARPA program manager.

This summer, Nayak launched the 10-year Lunar Architecture capability study (LunA-10), which will pay private companies to work together on plans to enable a private economy on the Moon by 2035. The goal is to have quantifiable economic and technical analysis to get “self-sustaining, monetizable, commercially owned-and-operated lunar infrastructure.”

How much mass will we need to transport to the Moon? How much power will habitats or robots need? What kind of robots will we need, anyhow? And most important, in Nayak’s view, what would it take to get companies selling goods and services to each other, rather than to governments?

The answer isn’t clear, but Nayak is negotiating with 14 companies that offered proposals to put together the study group, which will then work through their ideas and present its findings in spring 2024. Ideally, the framework will give both NASA and private companies a better idea of the gaps in technology development that could slow their advance to the Moon, and where to direct their resources and energy. It also may reveal that the lunar economy isn’t in fact ready for prime time, but even a null hypothesis is valuable.

Part of the challenge is a lack of information. Scientists believe that water ice exists on the Moon and could be used to obtain water, hydrogen, and oxygen—which could facilitate long-term human presence and the production of rocket fuel—but it’s not clear how easy it is to get. There’s also hope that minerals on the Moon could be used to make components for space hardware, or that rarer elements could be found that are worth taking back to Earth. That’s why NASA is sending a series of privately built robotic landers and rovers to explore the Moon ahead of a planned human landing.

A framework for a new economy

In the meantime, Nayak and his team started with the basics. His first question: “What are services on the Moon that people pay for? Power, and bits, and the ability to move stuff.”

Most of the companies pitching to join the project plan to offer those services. But three additional categories arose from the initial proposals—an in-depth market analysis, and buckets focused on taking advantage of lunar resources, and construction and robotics.

In parallel, Nayak is launching another project called Lunar Operating Guidelines for Infrastructure Consortium, or LOGIC. The aim is to develop technology standards that can be shared by different companies. For example, several organizations are planning to build satellite networks around the Moon for guidance and communications, so a shared protocol to access that data would make it easier for users to prepare their hardware. It would also be bad news if your robot on the Moon didn’t have the right jack to plug into a lunar power plant, another place where standards are important.

The first results of all this planning will likely be something as simple as one NASA contractor paying another to get a mission done—a robotic surveyor operated by one firm getting its power and guidance needs serviced by an infrastructure company.

The mentality among people in the space industry is, if you build it, they will come. Intuitive Machines is a publicly traded company that’s on track to launch the first private mission to the Moon this year with NASA’s backing. The main job of the mission (aside from proving that IM can in fact make a safe landing) is transporting scientific sensors, but the company is gaining some revenue from private companies like Columbia Sportswear, which helped develop insulation for the spacecraft, and carrying artwork by Jeff Koons.

IM’s CEO, Steve Altemus, says that right now his company’s revenue is about 80% government contracts and 20% commercial deals. But Altemus is hoping to move that ratio closer to 60-40 once he proves that IM can touch down safely and start providing other services on the Moon.

And that’s kind of the point of this DARPA strategy session: Once there’s some evidence that the technology needed to make money on the Moon exists—or a clear pathway to get there—then investors will follow.