Investing in Space: Japan’s ispace opens Denver headquarters as companies chase moon market

Investing in Space: Japan’s ispace opens Denver headquarters as companies chase moon market

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It seems like everyone wants to go to the moon these days, with serious lunar programs underway in China, India, Japan and the United States. One company is pushing to tap two of those markets: Tokyo-based lunar lander company ispace is rebooting its U.S. subsidiary, aiming to be a key transportation provider in the nascent moon business.

In Denver, Colorado, ispace is cutting the ribbons today on a new U.S. headquarters. The company's invested over $40 million to date in the subsidiary, which allows ispace to sell to NASA – one of the biggest sources of moon money currently – without violating export control regulations.

While the Japanese side of the company is working on flying its Series 1 lunar lander again after April's crunching first mission, the U.S. side is developing a separate lander it's now calling Apex 1.0, scheduled to launch on the company's third overall mission.

Ron Garan, named CEO of ispace U.S. in June, is a former NASA astronaut and previously served as senior vice president of high-altitude balloon company World View. Garan's leading the reboot of the U.S. division. Though ispace established a Denver office in 2020, the division's been without a leader for about a year, Garan told me.

We had about 50 employees when I took over. We're over 85 right now, and we'll be over 100 by the end of the year, Garan said.

While Garan said ispace U.S. is making tremendous progress, he admitted that it's been a lot of work due to technical, cultural and organizational challenges. The company's third mission was scheduled to launch in 2025 but is slipping to 2026.

The new Apex 1.0 lander is replacing its previously planned Series 2 lander, Garan said. Apex 1.0 is designed to carry as much as 300 kilograms of payload to the surface of the moon. That's lower than the 500 kilograms of payload the initial Series 2 design targeted, but still 10 times the capability of ispace's Series 1 lander.

We're really committed to helping to create this commercial market, which is going to be absolutely critical to achieving the vision that we want to achieve on the moon, Garan said. We're building what are effectively prototypes right now, while in parallel developing the production manufacturing capability to be able to do this on a regular basis.

The U.S. ispace team is one of several companies that have won contracts from NASA to deliver science and research cargo to the moon's surface under the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. In the year ahead, three other U.S. companies – Intuitive Machines, Astrobotic and Firefly – expect to launch competing missions to the moon's surface. But Garan emphasized he and ispace are rooting for all the other CLPS players too, because each company's success further opens the market for lunar services.

Part of the reason why there's not excessive demand is because it hasn't really been done yet. We haven't really demonstrated the ability to take commercial payloads to the lunar surface. We're on the verge of that happening, Garan said.

The only way that we get to the point where we're able to have a permanent human presence, able to have a significant number of people living and working on the moon, is to spark a commercial market. We have a lot of companies out there right now that would love to do stuff on the lunar surface or a lunar orbit, but they're not willing to make the investment because it really hasn't been demonstrated yet, Garan added.

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