Editor's Note: Inc. Magazine announced its pick for Company of the Year on Tuesday, November 29. It's Riot Games! Here, we spotlight Moon Express, one of the contenders for the title in 2016.

In 1962, John F. Kennedy famously declared that the U.S. should go to the moon not because it would be easy but precisely because it would be hard. More than 50 years later, Moon Express co-founder Naveen Jain has a new reason for the mission: "We choose to go because it's good business."

The moon symbolizes adventure and discovery, sure, but Jain makes no qualms about it: He thinks it will be very, very profitable. Others seem to agree: Nearly two dozen private investors have poured a total of $31.5 million into his company since its founding in 2010.

Even so, Inc. has considered Moon Express for this year's Company of the Year not because of its ambitions, but because of what it has actually accomplished. In July, the startup, which Jain co-founded along with Barney Pell and Robert Richards, became the first company to win U.S. government permission to travel to the moon. It says it's on schedule to land a rover there sometime in 2017, possibly launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral, where the company is based.

"Before now, there wasn't really a process in place for getting approval to go to the moon," Jain says. The company submitted its request to the Federal Aviation Administration in April. By the time it was approved, it had passed through NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, and other government bodies. While many of the space industry's heavyweights--Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic--spent 2016 talking up their respective ambitions to go to Mars or build a space tourism business, Moon Express might be the company closest to getting humans to a place they haven't visited in 44 years.

So why is going to the moon good business? For one, scientists would pay a pretty penny to send up equipment that could study the lunar body. Moon Express already has an agreement with the University of Maryland and Italy's National Laboratory of Frascati to launch reflectors that will measure energy on the moon's surface.

There's also that popular project of space tourism: While Musk envisions $250,000 one-way trips to Mars, Jain imagines $10,000 or less week-long vacations on the moon, which he says could be just as connected to the mother planet as any two cities back on Earth.

Perhaps most profitable, though, will be resource mining. Jain envisions creating a whole new industry around moon rocks. "If you love someone, don't give them a diamond," Jain says, only half joking. "Give them the moon." In all seriousness, space experts estimate the market for the moon's materials--which include iron ore, precious metals, and helium-3 gas that could be used to provide nuclear power--to be in the trillions of dollars. In 2015, President Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which grants people and companies the right to own any commodities acquired beyond Earth.

Lunar resources have value not only on Earth, but in space as well. Fuel composes nearly 90 percent of a rocket's weight, and taking off against the pull of Earth's gravity requires an amount of thrust many times greater than what's required on the moon. So the ability to take the moon's ice and split it into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used to make propellant, could potentially open the door for less expensive deep-space exploration, including trips from the moon to Mars. (Other startups, like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, are trying to achieve similar ends by landing on asteroids.)

For Moon Express and any other space company, the key to sustainability is getting the cost of launches down. Advances in technology have reduced that price many times over in recent years, and Jain estimates that Moon Express's first lunar journey will cost less than $10 million. "Going to the moon can be marginally profitable when it costs hundreds of millions of dollars," Jain says. "It becomes very profitable when it's in the tens of millions." The company also stands to benefit from Google's XPrize competition, which promises $20 million to the first private company that can land a module on the moon, travel 500 meters across its surface, and beam back high definition video and images.

That's not to say any of this will be easy. "There's no air on the moon, so parachutes don't work," says Tom Jones, a former NASA astronaut who made four trips to the space shuttle. "You're coming in at 5,000 miles per hour or more, and you have to rely on rocket power alone--fired precisely at the right time--to get down softly. If everything doesn't happen in sequence, you get a smoking hole in the ground."

Still, he says, he's encouraged to see startups like Moon Express make progress. "They're bringing some innovation to the field, shrinking the package down to a 21st-century miniature size, which will make getting to the moon more affordable."

As profitable as the moon might be, Jain admits getting there will also just be pretty darn cool. If and when Moon Express does succeed, he thinks it will knock down barriers for future entrepreneurs.

"Landing on the moon is not just about landing on the moon," Jain says. "It's about showing people the possibilities--showing that a small group of entrepreneurs is capable of doing what only world superpowers have done before."

Published on: Nov 17, 2016