Space

The Race to Sell the Moon

Private space voyages

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After years of inattention, the moon will soon be deluged with mechanical visitors from Earth. Both Europe and Japan intend to send spacecraft to our largest natural satellite next year, and China is rumored to be preparing a moonshot as well. And in June 2003 a California company, TransOrbital, intends to launch the first private mission to the moon.

TransOrbital plans to send an unmanned probe, dubbed the Trailblazer, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a former Soviet launch site in Kazakhstan and the world's oldest spacepad. It took two years for the company to win the U.S. government's approval for its project, but the dream of exploring space without working for the feds goes back long before that, from serious efforts to raise capital to quixotic projects like the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, a tongue-in-cheek effort in the '90s to create "a worldwide network of community-based groups dedicated to building their own spaceships" by the year 2000.

TransOrbital may be the first private enterprise to get through the hoop, but it isn't the only one in the running: The Virginia-based LunaCorp, for example, hopes to put a craft into lunar orbit next year as well.

How do you finance a company that explores the moon? In the past, futurist speculations have ranged from extraterrestrial mining to space tourism. TransOrbital and LunaCorp are setting their sights lower: They plan to photograph and videotape their voyages and to sell the results back on Earth. Among other uses, TransOrbital hopes to turn those photos into a more low-key form of space tourism: a video game that simulates a space journey for moon- dreaming couch potatoes.