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

4/18/12Follow @wroush

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Pete Worden, then commander of the Air Force’s 50th Space Wing, which manages the Global Positioning System as well as the Air Force Space Command’s fleet of satellites. Worden says now that Montague was the “most impressive” in a group of 10 students brought to the wing’s Colorado Springs headquarters for a foretaste of careers in military space operations. He says Montague was already focused on contributing to space research, and that she struck him as “one of the most incredibly intense and committed people I have ever met.”

When Montague learned that Worden was planning an expedition to Mongolia to study how the extra-dense Leonid meteor storm of 1998 might affect satellites, she insisted on going along. Later she went to work for the highly classified National Reconnaissance Office, where she rose to captain, overseeing flight test engineering for optical sensors on B-57 spy planes. “During that period there was a neat idea—archaeologists were seeing areas in the desert where Native Americans had turned over rocks to create a pattern in the desert varnish, sort of like the Nazca diagrams in South America,” Worden recounts. “Tiffany managed to get one plane re-vectored to fly over those sites and get the data to the archaeologists to see if there were similar patterns. It was not conclusive, but that was typical of my dealings with her. If there is a frontier of knowledge and exploration, she is going to be there.”

But there’s one frontier Montague didn’t get to explore. She twice applied for NASA’s astronaut training program, and did not get selected. She isn’t sure why—she says the astronaut program was a “black box.” But the experience brought home to her the long odds facing anyone who wants to leave the Earth.

“Since the beginning of time, there have only been about 530 people who have ever been to space,” she says. “I’m talking Apollo, the Russians, space tourists, all of those people. Which is surprising, in the sense that there are hundreds of thousands of people who are seriously qualified, and only this scant hundreds who have had the opportunity. It’s a tough situation.”

After her second rejection, around 2005, Montague says she had to “fish or cut bait”—that is, decide whether to stay in the Air Force for a full 20 years (for retirement pay), take a job with an intelligence agency or a defense contractor, or try something totally different. She chose Google, where she went to work for the site reliability engineering team, the troubleshooting operation that keeps the company’s global network running.

Almost immediately, Montague started using her “20 percent time,” the hours Googlers are encouraged to put into side projects, to engineer a collaboration between NASA and Google’s digital mapmaking teams. It helped that her old mentor Pete Worden had just been named director of NASA Ames Research Center, a mile down the road from Google in Mountain View. Thanks to that partnership, high-resolution NASA images of the Moon and Mars ended up as part of the Google Earth virtual globe software.

Soon Montague learned that top Google executives Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt are also space buffs. “In fact, that is true of most of Google,” Montague says. “These young, vibrant people have grown up with a diet of sci-fi and Apollo and the notion that anything is possible, and that as we hit the 2000s we should have this ability to go to space.”

In 2007, that attitude led to a deal that would change Montague’s life. Page, Brin, and Schmidt had a meeting with Peter Diamandis, the space entrepreneur who’d become famous for organizing the $10 million Ansari X Prize. That suborbital flight competition was won in 2004 by aviation designer Burt Rutan and his SpaceShip One, with backing from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. “They got to talking about what would be the natural successor to that, and settled on the idea that the Moon would be it,” says Hall, an old friend of Diamandis who joined the X Prize foundation last year. Diamandis persuaded the Google executives to put up the money for the biggest incentive prize ever: The Google Lunar X Prize. (The pot needed to be larger than the one for the Ansari X Prize because the task is harder.)

Montague was asked to run Google’s side of the competition. “I gladly took that mantle,” she says, “because in my own personal story, the idea of being involved in space is the most hypnotic, most challenging thing I can think of to do. It was obvious I wasn’t going to be selected as a government astronaut. The next best thing is to influence the space program from the commercial side. So that is the big gamble—that I could help open up access to space and make it more egalitarian.”

If you if you look at the official job title on Montague’s business card, egalitarian isn’t the word that comes to mind. It reads Intergalactic Federation King Almighty and Commander of the Universe. Google tells employees that it doesn’t really care what they put on their business cards—and Montague, who sports a streak of blue in her otherwise raven-black hair, took the opportunity to heart. But she says she had to grow into her own playful side at Google.

“I marched in here in February 2005, thinking ‘Who is accountable here? Why is this like clown college? Why is everybody riding around on unicycles?’ But eventually I had to shed that kind of militaristic view, and it all made sense to me. Now I’m practically a poster child for this kind of Googliness, and I evangelize about this stuff”—meaning the importance of things like interdisciplinary collaboration, rapid product iteration, and intelligent risk-taking—”to the government, the military, and anybody who will listen.”

A Tale of Two Teams

While Montague promotes the competition, and keeps tabs on the additional $5 million that Google has already given to the X Prize Foundation to cover administrative costs, the 26 GLXP teams face their own daunting task. Putting a remote-controlled rover on the surface of another world wouldn’t be a first—but doing it for under a quarter of a billion dollars would be. (NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission, with its Sojourner Rover, cost about $280 million. The subsequent Mars Exploration Rover missions, Spirit and Opportunity, cost … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. 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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