First commercial Moon landing gets go-ahead

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Small step for commercialization of Moon surface.

The first private Moon landing has won government authorization. The decision opens the door to the commercialization of the Moon's surface.

The US State Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have granted TransOrbital, Inc. of La Jolla, California, permission to send its TrailBlazer probe to map the surface of the Moon and photograph Earth. The launch is scheduled for June 2003 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

"The Moon is ripe for commercial development," says Dennis Laurie, head of TransOrbital. "It's a lot closer than you think, at least in travel time, which is four days."

The permit process took more than two years and twenty centimeters of paperwork to complete. TransOrbital had to prove it would not contaminate the Moon with biological material, pollute the surface, or disturb any historical landing sites.

Laurie predicts that the Moon will support similar activities to today's Earth satellites. In the long term, TransOrbital hopes to develop communications and navigation systems for Moon exploration and tourism. "Costs [of Moon travel] will be coming down and opportunities going up," says Laurie.

“The Moon is going to get some due, no matter what Wendell Mendell , Johnson Space”

Several other private companies are pursuing Moon missions. LunaCorp of Fairfax, Virginia, hopes to put SuperSat, a high-bandwidth live video satellite, into Moon orbit in 2003. The company's president, David Gump, says LunaCorp also plan to send their IceBreaker rover into "craters where the sun doesn't shine" in search of lunar polar ice.

But Wendell Mendell of NASA's office for human exploration at the Johnson Space Center in Houston contends that public efforts will make it to the Moon before commercial endeavours, and cites European and Japanese trips scheduled for the next year.

NASA is showing renewed interest in the Moon since the Lunar Prospector mission of 1998-99, he adds. The mission aided technologies for the Mars missions and found hints of water at the lunar poles.

"The Moon is going to get some due, no matter what," says Mendell. He thinks funding will be a significant obstacle to commercial enterprises. Lunar Prospector, which was similar to TransOrbital's TrailBlazer, cost $63 million.

TransOrbital and LunaCorp intend to fund their endeavours through corporate endorsements and by licensing video footage and images obtained by their spacecraft for advertising, education and entertainment - such as immersive video games that leave players feeling as if they've been to the Moon and back.

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Johnson Space Center, Houston

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Powell, K. First commercial Moon landing gets go-ahead. Nature (2002) doi:10.1038/news020902-8

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