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For Rare Metals Mining or Reality TV, Moon Will be "Massive Wealth" Creator, Say Engineers

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Last Thursday, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the last time, ending, for the foreseeable future, the US government’s efforts towards manned space flight. Manned trips to the moon ended an even longer time ago: the last US trip to was in 1972.

The private sector has stepped in and is attempting to fill this gap. Google’s Lunar X contest offers $30 million in prizes to “the first privately funded teams to build robots that successfully land on the lunar surface.” According to the New York Times, NASA has also stepped in and awarded smaller grants to a few teams.

The ultimate goal for some of the teams participating in Lunar X lies in commercializing the moon. The Lunar X contest’s website features an introduction to each of the 30 teams involved in the contest, and most of these teams have posted both basic technical plans and their overarching goals for the project. While many of these goals are pretty standard -- increased recognition for their countries, getting kids interested in science, etc -- others have grander plans. Some are unexpected. For example, Naveed Jain, co-founder of Moon Express, said that his primary goal is to position his firm as “a future Federal Express for moon deliveries.”

In fact, it may one day be Moon Express return trips that will earn the company its keep.  The moon is “probably the biggest wealth creation opportunity in modern history,” Barney Pell, a former NASA computer scientist and now a co-founder of Moon Express told the Times. A moon-focused shipping company could eventually make a fortune hauling platinum and other rare metals back to earth.

In 1967, 100 nations ratified the Outer Space Treaty, which bans countries from claiming ownership of any region of the moon. Private companies were not covered by the pact. According to the Times, lunar mining operations "could fall under similar legal parameters as fishing in international waters." And so the race to hang on a shingle on the moon's surface is on.

Jain has a lot of other ideas for monetizing the moon, however, including “a Moon Idol, just like American Idol,” where “You take the top 10 contestants and play their voices on the moon, record it and see who sounds the best.”

He acknowledges that there’s no air to sing through on the Moon, but believes that singers’ voices could be played and recorded through moon dust. Other ideas include writing marriage proposals on the moon and sending time capsules to the lunar surface where their materials could be preserved indefinitely. The company would also allow companies to sponsor their lander with  advertising on its exterior walls.

Commercial space flight is a few years away, but its potential has excited people the world over. Regardless of who wins, the prospect of commercial trips to the moon should make at least one person very happy.

WATCH: Click on the video below to watch Pell describe his company's "business of going to the moon."  According to the entrepreneur and scientist, "There's enough water on the moon to power a space shuttle launch every day for the next 3,000 years."

POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.