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Science & Environment

Moon Express Reaches Finals In Google Lunar Xprize Competition

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The only vehicles that have ever touched the surface of the moon were created by a government. Now private companies from five countries are racing to create a working moon spacecraft. The Google Lunar Xprize competition offers $20 million to the first company that can successfully land an unmanned vehicle on the moon, travel at least 500 meters and send high-definition video back to Earth. The deadline is the end of this year. One of the finalists is an American team called Moon Express, and founder Naveen Jain told me landing on the moon is only the beginning.

NAVEEN JAIN: We can think of the moon as our eighth continent which is absolutely rich in the natural resources. And these natural resources have been collected over billions of years with all the asteroids that have actually been hitting the moon. And that's why we see all the craters with our naked eyes.

SHAPIRO: So you're talking about, like, mining.

JAIN: That's only the part of the thing. So ultimate goal for Moon Express and for me, really, is to be able to create a multi-planetary society because if you think about it, we're living on this spacecraft called planet Earth. And if we get hit by an asteroid - it's only a matter of time. And if we do, we'll all become the dinosaurs. And I don't think any one of us is going to like to be a dinosaur.

SHAPIRO: To actually get to the moon, you have to work with another company that will create the rocket. How much collaboration does this require?

JAIN: Well, you know, to us the rocket is really a commodity. And there are so many different companies that are building the rockets. And the price of these rockets are coming down just like in the internet world - think of them as fiber. So whether it's SpaceX that brought the cost down from $200 million to $70 million and someday is going to be in the thousands of dollars - and as you start to get the reusable rockets, the cost of these things are going to continue to come down.

SHAPIRO: You know, as you talk about all of these private companies bring down the cost of space travel, Republicans in Washington right now often argue that it is better for private companies to bankroll scientific advances like this rather than the government to fund it. Does your work prove them right?

JAIN: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, when we land on the moon, it shows that the entrepreneurs are now capable of doing things that were only done by the superpowers.

SHAPIRO: Does this mean that NASA, for example, is obsolete?

JAIN: NASA is not obsolete. What happens is NASA starts to work with the private companies who continue to advance the things that NASA had started. So NASA can still do some of the foundational work. But a lot of the experimental, in terms of entrepreneurial work, will still be done by private companies. So if you think about it, the private companies are the ones that are building the reusable rockets. It wasn't the NASA that did that.

SHAPIRO: When the responsibility for this kind of work shifts from the government to the private sector, the government has responsibility for its citizens in a way that a company does not. And so for example, a government might be more expected to look at the environmental implications of mineral extractions on the moon or on Earth than a private company might. Do you risk losing that accountability to the people when projects like this move from governments to private companies?

JAIN: In fact, other way around because the private sector can only thrive when they take care of the people around themselves. And...

SHAPIRO: But tobacco companies and such have proven that not to be the case.

JAIN: Well, to some extent, I would argue that just because you're elected doesn't mean you're going to become a good superpower.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying governments can be corrupt, too.

JAIN: Well, more than the corrupt - what I was trying to say was that just because your elected president doesn't make it worthwhile for you to be able to run a superpower - and I'm going to stop it right there (laughter).

SHAPIRO: You're one of five companies around the world that are finalists for this prize. When this competition is over, do you expect that global corporations will still be racing to colonize planets and mine the moon, as it were?

JAIN: The way to look at this stuff is when we land on the moon, that will inspire every entrepreneur around the world to find their own moonshot. And the biggest success for me would be when every person who wakes up in the morning and say, what is my moonshot? Would that be curing the cancer? Would that be finding abundance of energy or creating the abundance of food or creating abundance of fresh water? And I hope our landing on the moon becomes that seminal event that changes the way the entrepreneurs look at the problems.

SHAPIRO: Naveen Jain is one of the founders of Moon Express. His company is a finalist for the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize competition. Thanks a lot.

JAIN: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESTINATION MOON")

DINAH WASHINGTON: (Singing) So away we'll steal in my space mobile, a supersonic honeymoon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.