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​Could the moon be America's next economic frontier?

Private trip to the moon
Company gets green light to take trip to the moon 02:57

Moon Express was started with a tweaked concept from President John F. Kennedy, Jr., said founder Naveen Jain.

"To rephrase JFK, we chose to go to the moon not because it's easy, but because it's good business," said Jain, the former CEO of dot-com InfoSpace, told CBS MoneyWatch. He said he was initially drawn to space exploration not because he had an interest in it, but because he's "a fan of everything that can become disruptive."

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And Moon Express has plans to disrupt some major businesses on Earth. Last week, the company became the first private business to receive FAA approval to land on the moon. While the 2017 launch date is still a ways off -- and the company's lunar lander still needs to be built -- Jain has no shortage of business plans for the moon, which he notes has been estimated to hold "16 quadrillion dollars worth of resources."

One of the first projects will be lunar burials, with Moon Express working with space memorial company Celestis to provide the service. The idea is similar to families who want to commemorate their loved ones by sprinkling their ashes over a favorite body of water or golf course. Instead, customers will pay about $12,500 to send a capsule of their loved one's ashes to the lunar surface via Moon Express' lander.

"Much closer to heaven is to send the ashes to the moon," Jain said. "It's symbolic of something you see everyday when you look up."

In other words, Jain believes people will pay to be able to look up at the moon and feel some part of their loved one is commemorated in the night sky. It's clear there's a market for space burial, given that Celestis has been providing space memorials since the late 1990s.

Artist's rendering of a Moon Express "micro-lander" on the moon. Moon Express

Its Founder's Flight sent the ashes of "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and psychologist (and space proponent) Timothy Leary into orbit. Yet so far, only one person's ashes have actually been buried on the moon: Eugene Shoemaker, a scientist who trained American astronauts, said Celestis co-founder Charles Chafer. His ashes were taken to the moon by NASA, via its Lunar Prospector mission.

The moon "is a compelling site for a memorial," Chafer said. "Two of our services are below the average cost of a funeral, but [the lunar burial] has to be a little more."

The company already has more than a dozen "participants" lined up for the moon memorial, including the remains of lunar geologist Mareta West. Chafer said that when he first started the business, he projected that the typical customer would be a "white man who lived near a space center." But its customer base has proved to be much more diverse, and he says about two-thirds of the people who purchase space burials for their loved ones are women, he said.

Celestis believes it may send the remains of 100 to 250 people on Moon Express' lander next year, but over the next few years that could grow to several thousand lunar memorials.

Space burial might be one of the first business lines for Moon Express, but Jain has plenty of other ideas. He plans to bring moon rocks back to Earth and sell them as alternatives to diamonds, taking aim at companies such as De Beers.

"I believe [moon rocks] are worth billions alone because no one can get moon rocks," Jain said. "Diamonds are the symbol of love from De Beer, but the moon has been a symbol of love for centuries. If you love her enough, give her the moon."

Another business line, Jain said, could be selling a service for new parents who want to commemorate the birth of their child by sending molds of their footprints to the moon. "We don't know what is going to capture people's imaginations," Jain said.

Ultimately, the long-term economic potential may reside in mining rare elements and helium-3, a gas that's considered to be a potential clean fuel. Ultimately, Jain said, he believes people will live and work on the moon.

That's long been a popular science fiction idea, serving as the basis for movies such as 2009's "The Moon" (where the main character mined helium-3) and novels like Ian McDonald's "Luna." But the idea was also studied by the American government, such as the U.S. Air Force's LUNEX project in the 1950s, which proposed a permanent moon base.

Jain is optimistic that humanity will get to live on the moon, but in the near-term he has some less lofty goals to achieve, such as raising the final funds to build the lander.

"In the long term we'll take people to the moon," Jain said. "That will be the real honeymoon."

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