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moon express THE STAR OF THE SHOW: This single metallic entity is what all the time, money and talk surrounding the future of space travel could hinge on. Photograph by Dave Lepori

Second-place teams win $5 million, and all teams have the chance to win additional prizes by completing tasks beyond the competition's basic requirements—tasks such as photographing the hardware remains of prior Apollo missions and other man-made objects currently residing on the moon, or surviving a lunar night.

The contest will award $1 million to teams that display purposeful ethnic diversity, and an additional $2 million to teams that launch the mission from the state of Florida. These incentives give every startup team a chance to nab a cool $30 million if it meets the competition's 2015 deadline.

"I just haven't seen a hummingbird in so long. And it's right by you now, right behind you."

The journey started for Brandon when he was a student at the University of Rochester. His chance knowledge of the Open Scenes Graph software nabbed him a summer internship with NASA at the Langley Research Center in Virginia.

The internship led to a NASA-prompted iPhone app-making contest, which he won, which led to an internship spot at Ames Research Center in Mountain View. It was at AMES that Brandon would first begin to work with the moon in mind.

"The basic idea of the summer program was to make a moon rover that went along with this landing system that NASA was working towards a while ago, that they stopped working on and was eventually taken over by a private company," he explains.

After President Obama's hefty cut to the 2011 fiscal-year budget left NASA all but out of the moon exploration business, the intention was always for the private sector to come in full force and pick up the slack left behind by former fathers of innovation.

Still, even Brandon wasn't entirely confident that the seemingly regular folks (which is to say, anyone who isn't, quite literally, a rocket scientist) would be able to craft anything on par with Apollo.

"We were just developing this rover for that project, and that was honestly it."

The hummingbird is gone.

"It never occurred to me, nor anyone else on the project, that it would make it to the moon."

Brandon has a tendency to end up in situations he never really anticipated.

Around 7am, Brandon jets out his first hitchhiker's thumb. By noon, he is halfway to Cape Reinga. At around 1pm, Brandon stretches his thumb out again. A small, black four-door sedan pulls up next to him; behind its ominously tinted windows sit two teenagers, smirking, and Brandon recalls the car with such astute detail ("yellow cigarette butts and empty DB beer cans carpeting the floor, wires hanging from the dash") that even without saying it, I can almost recall the sting of instinct that must have reared its head. Against better judgment, and perhaps due to an unquenchable thirst for adventure and frenzy, he gets in, thinking, this car must be stolen. "It's our uncle's car; we're just using it while he's in prison."

Moon Express arrived on Aug. 17.

"We had this demo for this company, and it was the first time I'd ever heard of them," Brandon says. "And they loved [the rover], and what we were doing with it, with the project."

Within two days, they had come to us and offered every member of the project a job."

Brandon is one of around 20 employees currently stationed at Moon Express, and one of many science-crazed dreamers the company shipped from the East Coast and beyond to a post-bubble-burst Silicon Valley.

Brandon was thrown into the infamous Blackbox Mansion in Atherton, which, aside from "that one garage that Apple started in," can often be the birthplace of radical new ideas. It's the kind of sprawling, quasi-suburban turf that Hugh Hefner might have created had his interests been more tailored to the self-made men of the startup generation, as opposed to scantily clad bunnies.

The house is filled with other similarly big-picture-minded youngsters. Here, the belief is that the geek shall inherit the earth.

"It wasn't the best financial offer," Brandon says of Moon Express, "but, I mean, I couldn't believe it. The idea is that by 2013 we're sending something to the moon. How do you say no to that?"

Bob Richards would have been the man to say no to. The Canadian-born space entrepreneur has been orbiting a company like Moon Express for some time, having founded and served as CEO of Odyssey Moon Limited, a commercial lunar enterprise that was also the first team to join the Google Lunar X PRIZE as an official competitor.

In 1986, Richards was one of the co-founders of the International Space University in France, as well as the Singularity University in 2008. For Richards, looking forward is a simple matter of looking upward.

"The health of our home planet and the survival of our species will only be secured through the use of space resources and the expansion of Earth's economic sphere to the moon and beyond," says Richards, speaking like a true big-picture thinker, which is just another way of saying he sounds like a walking press release.

But the nature of the big picture is, as Newt Gingrich likes to put it, the grandiose, so when Richards says that "creating an off-Earth economy and multi-planet civilization will safeguard the long-term prospects of humanity," he isn't trying to downplay what's at stake.

What Richards is doing is aiding in the not-so-silent shift that the space industry has seen take place in the last five years. While murmurings of a commercial and private form of space travel have circulated for years now, never before have we seen such a massive shift to the privatization of aerospace itself.

Never before has the future of space travel depended so much on the work being done by the private sector—which was always viewed in the past as a Plan B, as a possibility, as an "if it should come to that."

Bob Richards, Brandon Plaster and the entire Moon Express operation stand at the forefront of this change. And the fear, of course, is that nothing is more dangerous than the unexpected, and trying to get somewhere far away often proves more dangerous than one can predict.

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