SLC-36 before its demolition. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Moon Express, a California company competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, announced Jan. 22 that it has signed an agreement to use a former launch site at Cape Canaveral for building and testing its lunar lander spacecraft.

Moon Express said it has signed an agreement with Space Florida, the state space development agency, to use Space Launch Complex 36 (SLC-36) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, although the company said it would make an initial capital investment there of as much as $500,000.

The U.S. Air Force used SLC-36 for launches of Atlas rockets from 1962 until 2005. Most of the structures at the site, including the launch towers used by the Atlas vehicles, were demolished after the Air Force decommissioned the facility. The Air Force transferred the site to Space Florida in 2010.

Bob Richards.  Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky
Bob Richards. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Moon Express plans to use the site as a hardware development and testing facility for its MX series of lunar landers. “It will be a complete vehicle fabrication, integration, assembly, and testing site,” Moon Express Chief Executive Bob Richards said in a Jan. 22 interview.

The company started performing tethered test flights last year of a prototype lander, MTV-1X, at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility. Richards said Moon Express will move those flights to SLC-36 as soon as March, when the company expects to start free flights of the lander.

Moon Express said in its announcement that its SLC-36 facility will create 25 to 50 jobs. The company will retain its current offices at the NASA Research Park on the campus of the Ames Research Center in California, which Richards said will be used for vehicle software development and related work.

Moon Express is one of 18 teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, which offers a $20-million grand prize to the first team to land a spacecraft on the surface of the moon and travel at least 500 meters across its surface while transmitting high-definition video. In December, the X Prize Foundation, which runs the competition, extended the deadline for winning the prize by one year to the end of 2016.

The company, though, is one of several teams in the running for interim “milestone prizes” for the successful development of landing, imaging and mobility systems. Moon Express is a finalist for prizes in all three systems, which will be announced at a ceremony in San Francisco Jan. 26.

Richards said he was confident the company would win all three prizes, with a combined value of $1.75 million, based on the specific requirements it set with the prize judges. “In our minds, we’ve more than achieved these goals,” he said.

The company is on track to fly before the prize expires, Richards said, and expects to announce a contract in the coming months for the launch of its MX-1 lander as a secondary payload. “We’re on the hunt for a launch,” he said.

Watch some of Moon Express’ recent test flights at NASA Kennedy Space Center.


Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...