Ryerson grad racing to the moon

Bob Richards, Moon Express, Robert Mackenzie, Moon, Space

Digital rendering of MX-1, Moon Express’ lunar lander. (Courtesy Moon Express)

As a Ryerson student, Bob Richards was obsessed with Carl Sagan, author and host of Cosmos.

“I had Carl Sagan in my crosshairs.” Richards said. “I was so inspired by him that I really was on a mission to become his student. I started kind of stalking him at conferences and making myself familiar.”

In 1980, Sagan wrote a novel and created a parallel 13-part TV series on PBS called Cosmos. His work explored scientific theories, the universe and humanity’s place in all of it. In 2014, the show was recreated with host Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“I was just inspired. I was probably one of the first people to get the hardcover book and was just absorbed in it on a family vacation in Florida,” Richards said on the phone, as he sits on his veranda overlooking the Kennedy Space Center from across the Indian River in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

After studying aerospace and industrial engineering at Ryerson from 1977 to 1981 — and a few years at University of Toronto — Richards was accepted to Cornell for his graduate studies. There he was not only a student of Sagan’s, but worked as his special assistant.

“I developed a special relationship with him. I guess he figured he’d either have to call the police or deal with me,” he joked.

Bob Richards, Moon Express, Robert Mackenzie, Space, Moon,

Digital rendering of Moon Express’ MX-1 lunar lander orbiting the moon. (Courtesy Moon Express)

More than 30 years after Sagan and Cosmos inspired him, Richards is now inspiring young engineers and entrepreneurs himself. The Toronto native has been a part of several private space companies and was even part of a NASA team that put a Canadian flag on Mars (while running the space division of Canadian company Optech, Richards won a spot for Canada on the NASA Phoenix Mars lander mission).

But for more than 10 years, Richards has been focusing on a more audacious goal: building a commercial lunar business. His company, Moon Express, is a competitor in the upcoming Google Lunar Xprize — a $20-million race to the moon.

The main goal of the competition is to achieve a repeatable and affordable way to fly to the lunar surface, according to Lunar Xprize director of technical operations, Andrew Barton. “The moon is nearby, but it’s sort of lost interest for the governments,” he said.

Bob Richards, ideacity, Moon Express, Robert Mackenzie

Bob Richards speaking at the 2016 ideacity conference. (Courtesy Moon Express)

An Xprize is a competition that “pushes the limits of what’s possible to change the world for the better” according to the website. The not-for-profit Xprize Foundation was created by Peter Diamandis, a longtime friend of Richards and co-founder of Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company.

The Google Lunar Xprize was announced in 2007 and challenges teams of innovators from around the world to land a spacecraft on the moon, travel a distance of 500 metres and transmit real-time and high-definition video back to earth. The first team to accomplish the mission is awarded $20 million. In order to qualify, a team must announce a verified launch contract by the end of this year and complete the mission by the end of 2017.

For Richards, winning the Lunar Xprize would be a momentous achievement. “It would be a very personal moment for me to stand on the stage with my buddy Peter and hold that great big cheque that I’m sure they’ll print for the press conference,” he said.

This summer, Moon Express was the first private enterprise in history to be given permission by the U.S. government to travel beyond earth’s orbit. The team signed its launch agreement with Rocket Labs more than a year ago, and has already received $1.25 million in advance prizes from Lunar Xprize for successfully testing its landing and imaging technologies.

“Any team to have gotten to this point, to have the launch contract and to have made that kind of progress on the regulatory front as well is really in the leading pack,” Barton says.

But winning the Xprize isn’t the primary goal for Richards or Moon Express. “Moon express was never formed to win the prize. Nor did any of its investors … invest in Moon Express to win a prize,” Richards said.  “They invested because of the business model that I was promoting, which was to open up the resources to the moon.”

Richards, Moon Express and Lunar Xprize demonstrate the recent growth in the commercial space industry. There are 15 other Lunar Xprize teams from around the world with plans to travel to and mine the moon. By the end of the decade, private companies plan to be mining near-earth asteroids. On Tuesday, Elon Musk announced the outline of his plan to take people to Mars by 2024.

LISTEN: Bob Richards on his friendship with Elon Musk

These private companies are making their mark on an industry that has been dominated by government bodies since its inception, and Richards has been on the forefront of this private space exploration movement.

Beyond winning the Lunar Xprize, Moon Express plans to land on and study the moon’s south pole — something that no spacecraft has ever done — and to bring back lunar rocks and samples, which would be the only privately owned moon materials on earth. Moon Express has three launch dates between 2017 and 2020 to complete these goals.

After that, the company will prospect for water on the moon. Water makes up the key elements of rocket fuel, and once it is found and harvested, Richards believes he’ll have a space economy that will fuel further exploration of the moon and “human expansion beyond the moon, to Mars and everywhere else in the solar system.”

LISTEN: Bob Richards on our future in space

Back on earth at Ryerson, Richards’s influence is still present decades after he left.

“He definitely motivates me on actually going further in the space sector,” Abhinav Sundar, a first-year aerospace student, said. “He not only thought about, ‘can we make money,’ but ‘can we actually inspire other students to continue the momentum that I have for my love of space?’”

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