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

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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 »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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