In response to a new NASA initiative to select and fund payloads to fly on commercial spacecraft to the moon, Moon Express has made a complimentary proposal. The private lunar exploration company has put up $1.5 million in incentive money for NASA selected payloads that would fly on its spacecraft to the lunar surface. The incentive program would kick in up to $500,000 each for three payloads that would fly on Moon Express’ first flights to the moon, starting in 2017. The initiative is called the Lunar Scout Program.

Moon Express co-founder Bob Richards stated, “The Moon Express Lunar Scout Program is designed to expand our partnership with NASA and support the lunar science community with new low-cost lunar orbiter and surface missions.” The idea is to lower the cost of going to the moon to such an extent that many groups from the corporate and academic worlds will be able to participate in lunar Space exploration.

Moon Express was established in 2010 to facilitate commercial transportation to the moon and the transmission of data back from the lunar surface to Earth. The long-term goal of the company is to mine the moon for rare minerals as well as water and an isotope called helium three that could be used as fuel for future fusion reactors.

The company is a front runner in the Google Lunar XPrize, having acquired a launch contract with an American-New Zealand company called Rocket Lab, which is developing the Electron launch vehicle. Moon Express also made history last summer when it obtained the first ever mission approval document from the United States government, allowing it to land on the moon.

The mission approval was required under the Outer Space Treaty that obligates signatory states to supervise private lunar exploration by its citizens.

The NASA initiative and the Moon Express response constitutes the next step in a new model of space exploration, established first by President George W. Bush in 2004 and then expanded by President Barack Obama in 2010.

NASA will become a customer for private space missions, as well as a partner, using the flexibility of the private sector to facilitate its mandate to explore the high frontier of space. The model is likely to serve as a basis for an expected renewed program to return to the moon starting in the next presidential administration.