SAN FRANCISCO — Moon Express, a leading contender in the race to send the first commercial robotic spacecraft to the Moon, has hired Andrew Aldrin to become its president. 

Aldrin, the former business development director at Denver-based United Launch Alliance and son of Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, is scheduled to move to California later this month to take over the job currently held by Bob Richards, the Moon Express co-founder who also serves as the firm’s chief executive.

“If you are landing on the Moon for the first time, you want an Aldrin as your pilot,” Richards told SpaceNews, adding that Andrew Aldrin has more than 20 years of business leadership experience and a thorough understanding of space policy.

As Moon Express president, Aldrin will oversee the firm’s approximately 40 employees located at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and its propulsion development and test facilities in Huntsville, Ala., which the company is expanding as it prepares for its first flight to the Moon in 2015.

Moon Express has raised more than $15 million in its quest to become the first privately funded robotic spacecraft to reach the lunar surface and win the Google Lunar X Prize, Richards said. The competition promises a $20 million grand prize to the first team that succeeds before the end of 2015 in landing a commercial spacecraft on the Moon, traveling 500 meters and sending high-definition images and video back to Earth. The second team to achieve those goals stands to win $5 million. The X Prize Foundation promises an additional $1 million in bonus prizes for teams that succeed in completing various tasks including detecting water and conducting operations at night.

The Google Lunar X Prize announced Feb. 19 that an independent panel of eight judges selected Astrobotic Technology Inc., Moon Express, Japan’s Hakuto, Germany’s Part-Time Scientists and India’s Team Indus to compete in the final phase of three separate competitions to win milestone prizes totaling $6 million. The milestone awards were added to the Google Lunar X Prize in November as a way to spur on competitors facing the daunting technical and financial challenge of sending a privately funded spacecraft to the Moon. Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic and Moon Express were named as finalists in all three competitions, which are focused on specific aspects of the mission: technology designed for soft lunar landings, travel across the Moon’s surface and high-definition imagery.

Moon Express has not yet revealed which rocket it plans to fly in 2015 except to say its spacecraft is designed to ride as a secondary payload on a commercial rocket such as the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9. “The launch is a very important part of our business and it will be great to have Andy lead that effort,” Richards said. 

With Aldrin taking over as president, Richards plans to devote additional time to raising public awareness of his firm’s ambitious goals. “I’ll have more time for public relations, outreach and evangelizing,” Richards said. 

In December Moon Express unveiled its MX-1 lunar lander, a single-stage spacecraft powered by hydrogen peroxide and designed to travel to the Moon’s surface from geosynchronous transfer orbit. Beyond winning the Google Lunar X Prize, Moon Express plans to offer ongoing lunar transportation, exploration, prospecting and mining services.