In Google's Moon Race, Teams---And X Prize Foundation---Face a Reckoning

4/18/12Follow @wroush

The future is way behind schedule.

That’s the feeling you pick up on when you talk to people in the civilian space business. Forty years after the Apollo missions, there are still no lunar bases like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are no Pan Am space planes ferrying bureaucrats to meetings on orbiting stations, no piloted missions to Jupiter.

In fact, with the recent retirement of the space shuttle fleet, the U.S. has no indigenous technology for getting crews to space at all. And far from being an everyday experience, spacefaring is still ruinously expensive. As an exercise, try averaging out the costs of building and running the International Space Station on a per-visitor basis, as if it were an orbiting hotel. You get a hefty rate of $7.5 million per person per day.

But a hardy community of space entrepreneurs believes there’s a way to continue humanity’s exploration of the solar system at costs far below those seen in previous eras. When these enthusiasts were young, many of them wanted to be astronauts or NASA engineers, and found themselves working instead for aerospace or software companies or the military. But now they’re designing space missions of their own. And a Google-funded competition—the Google Lunar X Prize—is serving as a kind of private stimulus package.

Announced in 2007, the Google Lunar X Prize offers a $20 million grand prize to the first team that can land a robot on the lunar surface, cover 500 meters of terrain, and send back high-definition video and photos. There’s also a $5 million second prize; $4 million in bonus prizes for completing specific objectives such as finding water ice or traveling more than 5 kilometers; and a $1 million award for the team that “demonstrates the greatest attempts to promote diversity in the field of space exploration.” The deadline: December 31, 2015.

Both the Los Angeles-based X Prize Foundation, which is administering the competition, and Google, which is providing the prize money, are investing their reputations in the success of the contest, which is designed to stimulate sustainable private-sector innovation in space exploration. Google has even assigned a full-time manager, former Air Force captain Tiffany Montague, to oversee the effort. “By setting an example and creating this space economy,” Montague says, “we’re making a big bet and investing in this long-term game of space access for everyone.”

Google co-founder Larry Page announces to Google Lunar X Prize competition in 2007.

But the game isn’t yet open to all. Already, seven of the 33 teams that initially registered for the Google Lunar X Prize have dropped out or been absorbed into other groups, leaving 26 competitors. That number could soon drop again, as teams prepare for a summit in Washington, D.C., next month where they’ll brief the foundation on their progress—and face some soul-searching about whether to continue independently or partner with other teams.

So while the prize deadline is still more than three years away, it seems likely that 2012 will be the make-or-break year for many of the teams. That’s due in part to the requirement that teams raise 90 percent of the money for their landers and rovers, including the funds needed to book passage into orbit, from private sources. A berth on a launch vehicle can cost anywhere from $10 million to $60 million, depending on the size and weight of the craft. And a launch window must be reserved two to three years ahead of time, with much of the fee due up front. This means any team that’s serious about winning the grand prize needs to come up with tens of millions of dollars, pronto.

“If nobody has a ride booked by this December, then the competition has become unwinnable,” says Bob Richards, the co-founder of one of the leading teams, Mountain View, CA-based Moon Express. Richards’ team has less to worry about than most: it’s backed by Naveen Jain, the billionaire founder of dot-com-era search provider InfoSpace. But for many of the teams, it will be a tough scramble to come up with launch funds, even as they approach the time when they must start to “bend metal” if they hope to fly a working lander and rover.

“I have always seen 2012 and 2013 as the two critical years,” says Alexandra Hall, the senior director for the Google Lunar X Prize at the X Prize Foundation. “We are definitely closing in on the point where if the teams haven’t gotten a huge percentage of their funding and development done, we will know that—barring a miracle—they are not going to get there.”

Can the competition actually be won without another extension in the deadline? (The foundation already pushed back the date by a year in a concession to the 2008-2009 economic crisis, which slowed fundraising for the teams.) What kinds of people are pouring their lives into this game, and is the field they’re playing on a reasonably level one? Why does exploring the Moon matter to Google? Most importantly, what kinds of innovation is this new moon race likely to stimulate—and is a prize competition an effective way to jumpstart commercial activity on the Moon?

Those are the big questions I’ve been exploring lately in conversations with leaders at Google, NASA, the X Prize Foundation, and two of the Google Lunar X Prize teams. The answers I’ve been hearing are not straightforward. The challenge of landing a privately funded robot on the moon by New Year’s Eve, 2015, may still be surmountable—barely. But only a handful of teams seem to have the combination of broad technical talent and fundraising prowess needed to pull it off. And as it turns out, there’s disagreement among the competitors, and between the teams and the X Prize Foundation itself, over specific conditions affecting the teams’ ability to raise the money they’ll need.

Google, for its part, very much wants to give away the full $30 million it is offering. But to make that happen, both the search giant and the X Prize Foundation may need to work harder to help the lunar teams attract investments, says Montague.

“For a team to win, all the puzzle pieces have to fall into place on a very tight timeline,” she says. “We want to change the world with this competition—it’s meant to be both a technical and an entrepreneurial challenge. But it’s going to be a little harder to change the world if our teams can’t get off the ground financially.”

Commander of the Universe

Google isn’t building its own robot Moon lander for the competition, but if it were, Montague is the kind of person the company would put in charge of the project. Her mix of technical acumen, aerospace experience, business pluck, and unconcealed optimism is typical of today’s generation of space entrepreneurs. That makes her the ideal spokeswoman for Google’s space vision—and also, perhaps, one of the people best placed to mediate between the X Prize Foundation and the GLXP teams, raising the chances that at least one of the teams will make it to the Moon in time.

The daughter of an American father and a Chinese mother, Montague grew up in England and knew that she wanted to be an astronaut even before she entered Smith College at age 16. She joined the ROTC and, at age 20, was commissioned in the Air Force. As an 18-year-old cadet she met … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.teamphoenicia.org Will Baird

    Wade:

    You ought to have reached out. We’d have been happy to answer questions and we /are/ local.

    Will Baird
    Team Leader
    Team Phoenicia

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    I reached out to Will Baird, leader of Team Phoenicia, after he sent in the comment above. I asked him what he thought about Fred Bourgeois’ concerns about media rights, and about how well the overall mechanics of the Google Lunar X Prize competition are working. Baird gave me permission to post his thoughts:

    “I think at this point, the media rights are now a dead matter. The reason being that the time it would take to pitch, develop and finance the series based on a GLXP will make it impossible to tap by the end of the 2015 deadline. You might just say that the media rights ship has sailed.

    “As far as the mechanics of the challenge? Are they going well? I’d say it’s a mixed bag. I suppose though it all depends on what you hope to get out of the competition. Someone that succeeds at landing on the Moon? Or building up a number of rocket and newspace companies and laboratories. If you are looking for the latter, you’re going to get it and it will be a total success: PennState is building its Applied Research Lab using the GLXP and we’ve been selling engines and rockets, forex. If you are looking for a lunar landing, it’s in question.

    “And, yes, a lot of us are holding our cards in tight about that. I suspect that there will be a lot of news with regards to that at the Team Summit in DC.”

    Baird also pointed out that at least one competitor, the Spanish-based Barcelona Moon Team, has now signed a launch agreement, according to a March announcement from the X Prize Foundation. The team says it will use a launch vehicle and propulsion system provided by the China Great Wall Industry Corporation to get its craft into lunar orbit.

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  • Reverend Jim

    People are starving to death every day on this planet. Now some yuppie peckerhead stands in front of a podium made from gaily-painted barbecue gas tanks and announces that he’s giving away tons of money to put a robot on the moon??? Kids, THIS is what coke does to you! Stick to weed and feed your brothers.

  • Infinity Looper

    I guess Moon Express is getting cold feet about going for the X-Prize. A few days ago they fired a bunch of their engineers and told the engineers who still had jobs that Moon Express was going to become a software company with an online service that lets people name things on other planets. Engineer one day, software coder then next day. Hey, its Silicon Valley – we do this all the time!

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  • ipse lute

    What’s that space taxi ferrying? 60 million for a launch vehicle? Where is the profit in that, since the google prize is only 30 million? Many teams are buiding their own rockets! European teams, as well as asian team (especially indian ones) are relying on themselves alone! They don’t use fancy american rockets, they are building cheaper, lighter ones. There is actually no realistic criteria to evaluate the total sum of money needed for this endeavour. Every team has original ideeas, using local or affordable materials (You just can’t believe how cheap is the cheap in many countries of eastern Europe or in India). It’s just stupid to evaluate a maximal cost! The real goal should be to evaluate the bare-minimum cost, the winner should be the team with the smallest cost of money ( the most affordable)! After all, we’re trying to make it a commercial endeavour, not an exploratory one!

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