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Mountain View, CA
Moon Express Landing A Pickup Truck

By TJ McCueThursday, May 29, 2014
3D Design, Design, Manufacturing

In one of the NASA Ames buildings is a large trampoline-like net – its sole purpose is to keep the Moon Express lunar lander from crashing onto a hard surface if something goes wrong during a test. While Andy Aldrin, president of Moon Express, jokes that the lander is more like a pickup truck than an iPhone (to which it is often compared), you do not want to treat it like one.

Not that they do – you get the sense that this team of engineers and space experts handles the lander with loving hands, passionate attention. At the very least, not much goes wrong when you spend as much time thinking as deeply about every detail of landing on the moon, as this team does. They are also working toward winning the $30M Google Lunar XPrize – a well-known contest they entered in 2010.

Moon Express was our first official Autodesk visit following the launch of #3DRV at Maker Faire. We spent a few hours touring the facility and operation, which, most importantly, is guarded by Wookies (see photo below) and just a few Star Trek cutouts of Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk. The company was founded by Dr. Bob Richards, Naveen Jain, and Dr. Barney Pell in August 2010 and was quickly selected by NASA for its $30M Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program.

Dr. Andy Aldrin is the son of Apollo 11 lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, who along with Neil Armstrong made their historic Moon landing on July 20th, 1969, becoming the first two humans to set foot on another world. He joined the company in March of this year.

So what is Moon Express doing? The official company story revolves around developing flexible and scalable new robotic spacecraft that will radically reduce the cost of space exploration and unlock the mysteries and resources of the Moon. Their first mission is slated for 2015 and is the first of many to come – future missions will focus on science and exploration.

Ian Eck from San Francisco magazine joined me on the tour. I enjoyed his post: Your Startup Is Like Uber for Hamsters? That's Nice. Theirs Is Going to the Moon and particularly loved the title.

Jim Kaidy, principal engineer for guidance and navigation control systems at Moon Express, walked me through several three dimensional (3D) models of how they plan to land on the moon. He showed me how they used actual moon footage to create a mockup that allows them to “practice” the approach, landing and first movements while on the moon. EJ, a mechanical design engineer, talked about how the power of 3D software is really about that it lets them fail early and often – you can design and test very quickly.

After Andy Aldrin used the iPhone/pickup truck analogy, I started thinking about the practical realities of what I can do with a truck compared to what I can do with an iPhone. If I had the choice of what to take to the moon, it would certainly be the truck (calm down iOS lovers – that is not a slight. I’d try to sneak my iPhone 5S along, too)… and the pickup might just save my life in more ways than one.

On the personal side, Andy kindly shared some of his underwater photography with me. Beautiful work. He has an eye and approach that allows him to capture the details of being an underwater explorer – skills that probably help him guide Moon Express. I’m hoping he sends over some images we can share with the 3DRV audience, even though the images are not 3D! He might be quite impressed with the work that the team at Open ROV (mentioned in my Maker Faire post here) is doing just up the street from him.

Follow along at! #3DRV

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