Earlier this week, I accidentally stumbled into the wrong part of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Inside an enormous, empty event space, a small group of young engineers tinkered with a futuristic machine that looked to be part hovercraft, part Mars rover. When asked what they were working on—just a stone’s throw from ringing slot machines and filthy nightclubs, mind you—one team member indicated that it was a lunar lander. Pardon?
“Well, like, it goes to the moon,” he explained matter-of-factly.
Today, Moon Express, the startup behind the project, unveiled the MX-1, its first spacecraft that’s designed to do exactly as the engineer described—to land on the surface of the moon. The privately held company, which is backed by billionaire Naveen Jain and is competing for Google’s Lunar X Prize, which is offering prize money to the first craft that can get to the moon, move 500 meters, and send back two broadcasts. The company is in Las Vegas for Autodesk’s University conference, where it plans to unveil the MX-1, which is in on track not only to deliver payloads to the moon by 2015, but potentially return to earth with treasures of its own. “One of the Holy Grails is to prove that we can bring something back,” says Moon Express CEO Bob Richards.