An intensifying US-China space rivalry and Elon Musk's ambitious Mars program have fired up scores of startups across the world chasing lucrative contracts, as humans race for resources that could foster life beyond Earth.
Among those is a small Japanese company seeking to make a mark next month with what could be a first for a commercial firm.
Tokyo-based ispace Inc. is scheduled to send a lunar lander any time between November 9 and 15, carrying multiple government and commercial payloads, including two rovers. Like Musk's dream for a Martian colony, the startup's grand vision is to build a human settlement on the moon by 2040, but before that it wants to become the lunar version of FedEx - earning money by ferrying scientific equipment and commercial goods to the moon.
Ispace's maiden mission will put to the test not just the technological credentials it's built since its founding in 2010 but also the faith of its backers, one of whom is a former SoftBank Group Corp. executive. A lot rides on its success, including a potential initial public offering as early as this fiscal year and a shot at a bigger sliver of an industry pie that Morgan Stanley estimates will triple to $1 trillion in two decades from 2020.
"There's a vast market for services like these," ispace's founder and Chief Executive Officer Takeshi Hakamada, 43, said in an interview. "If something goes wrong with this attempt, we can still use the feedback from the failure to boost the quality of the next launch."
Bankers for IPO
The company is preparing for a listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and has picked SMBC Nikko Securities Inc., Bank of America Corp., Morgan Stanley and Nomura Holdings Inc. as lead managers, people familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified discussing confidential information. A representative for ispace declined to comment.
Ispace says it's raised about $237 million in total as of July, of which $57 million is borrowings. It was valued at about 76 billion yen ($513 million) in a Series C equity financing in August last year. Led by Incubate Fund, the round brought in six other investors including SoftBank's former chief strategy officer Katsunori Sago and funds managed by Innovation Engine Inc. and SBI Investment Co.
The moon lander mission is part of ispace's lunar exploration program called Hakuto-R, which means white rabbit in Japanese. The startup says it can reduce fuel costs by taking advantage of the moon's gravity to travel. The downside is it will take as long as five months to reach the moon, compared to the roughly three days it took for the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
SpaceX's Falcon 9
Set for launch on a Falcon 9 rocket built by Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. from Cape Canaveral in Florida, ispace's moon lander is part of a $73 million NASA contract won by a team led by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Draper. The deal envisages end-to-end delivery services to the far side of the moon under the US Artemis program.
"The first private lunar lander will be a major milestone for the space industry," said Caleb Henry, a senior analyst at Quilty Analytics, a US-based research and advisory firm.
Ispace's success will also be critical to Japan's own space program as the moon once again becomes the focus of geopolitical intrigue. NASA is targeting a return this decade with its Artemis, while China and Russia have announced plans for a joint lunar base. Last year, Japan's Lunar Industry Vision Council urged closer cooperation between state and private sectors to remain competitive in the budding space economy.
Sago said the company's valuation has the potential to multiply over the coming years. "I don't invest in startups unless they have enough potential to grow by 10-fold or so over the long term," he said.
Currently, a dozen companies are developing landers and lunar vehicles, mainly through NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, program. One leading company in this sector, Masten Space Systems Inc., filed for bankruptcy in July. The firm received a $4.5 million bankruptcy auction-opening bid from space robotics tech developer Astrobotic Technology Inc. in August.
Debacles in space programs aren't rare, and for its part, ispace has already had a brush with failure. It was one of the finalists in Google's Lunar XPrize, a $20 million award for the first privately funded team to land on the moon, travel 500 meters (1,640 feet) and beam high-definition video back to Earth. The competition concluded without a winner, but the teams, including ispace, have persisted with their efforts.
"There are a million ways space missions can go wrong and only one way to go right," Quilty Analytics' Henry said, noting it's hard to predict whether ispace's launch will be successful. "While this is an exciting field, it remains a difficult business financially and technologically."
Jumpei Nozaki, ispace's chief financial officer, is well aware of the risks. In an interview, he stressed that a successful landing is not the only goal and the performance of each and every stage will be assessed.
Hakamada said he can see the formula for success in Musk's SpaceX, which has executed projects repeatedly undeterred by setbacks. Now, he is about to face his biggest test when he steps into the space center to witness the take-off.
"I was told that your life changes after watching the launch in person," he said. "It's going to be an exciting and nervous moment."