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

4/18/12Follow @wroush

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an estimated $944 million. How much the Soviet Union spent on its two Lunokhod Moon rovers in the 1970s remains unknown.)

There’s no limit on the amount GLXP teams are allowed to spend in pursuit of the grand prize, but the point is to keep the cost of the missions low—or, at any rate, to discover a viable business model along the way. Development costs for Rutan’s Spaceship One were estimated at $25 million, or 2.5 times the size of the Ansari X Prize, so the assumption is that winning the Google Lunar X Prize will cost the winning team at least $50 million. To cover those costs, teams could do everything from prospecting for rare minerals on the Moon to selling corporate sponsorships to contracting with government or academic scientists to put their own payloads on board the landers. (They could even sell media rights to news organizations—more on this below.)

“Obviously Google and ourselves want someone to win this competition, but that isn’t the only goal,” says Hall. “The really key goal is to stimulate this new space economy, as it relates to going beyond the Earth in cost-effective and repeatable ways.”

I’ve been talking with two teams representing contrasting approaches to achieving that goal. Both Moon Express and Team FREDNET are routinely mentioned among the dozen or so frontrunners in the competition, and both have already won NASA contracts worth up to $10 million. (The agency has, in effect, matched the Google prize by offering $30 million all told for data sent back by the teams’ lander systems.) But they couldn’t be more different when it comes to style, presentation, and strategy.

Team FREDNET, based in Huntsville, AL, is named after its co-founder and CEO, entrepreneur Fred Bourgeois, who also founded Applios, an open-source software consulting firm. The team is non-profit and proudly proletarian, billing itself as an all-volunteer effort and as “the first and only 100 percent open source competitor” for the Google Lunar X Prize. It hopes to raise $40 million by getting a million backers to donate $40 each. “We don’t have even one billionaire backer,” the group asserted in a January fundraising plea.

Bourgeois grew up in Huntsville, where every kid he knew had parents who worked for NASA or the Army. “When I was in high school, I saw the Enterprise [the prototype space shuttle] fly over my house,” he says. “I grew up believing that someday I would live and work in space.”

He wound up in computer science, and did stints as a contractor at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. But he says his space dreams gradually went by the wayside as he “got distracted by compiler development and networking and protocols.”

In September 2007, while stuck at home with torn shoulder tendons, Bourgeois heard the news about the Google Lunar X Prize. Typing with one hand, he immediately wrote a two-sentence e-mail and sent it to 20 acquaintances. It read, “Going to the Moon open source. Interested?”

Of the 17 people who replied, 14 told Bourgeois he was crazy. Two, software engineer Richard Core and hardware developer Dan Smith, decided to join him as co-founders of Team FREDNET.

More than 700 others from more than 60 countries have since signed on. “An open source mission differs in that you allow anyone in the world to join, and you create opportunities for people to develop things in collaboration,” Bourgeois says. The team’s models are Linux and the Arduino microcontroller, designed by a team of developers in Italy using Creative Commons-licensed hardware specifications and an open-source programming library.

Team FREDNET hasn’t unveiled its own lander and rover hardware design yet, but in photos and videos it has shown two concepts. One is a basic four-wheeled rover. The other, more intriguing design is the “Picorover,” a self-propelled sphere that looks like a hamster ball. The outer skin of the ball has studs to give it traction on the powdery lunar surface. Inside, behind a hemispherical window, there’s a high-def video camera, radio transmitters, and other equipment. To qualify for the prize, the team would simply have to roll the ball 500 meters away from the landing site while sending back video.

Ensuring public participation in the mission, so that average citizens can see and even control what’s happening to the rover in near-real time, would be “the really cool thing for me,” Bourgeois says. “I don’t know about you, but I want to drive that rover on the moon. I want to have the controls in my hand and make it turn around and take pictures of things. And I want give other people the opportunity to experience that.”

If Team FREDNET represents the 99 percent in civilian space exploration, then Moon Express is much closer to the 1 percent. (Or perhaps the 0.001 percent, given that co-founder, chairman, and main backer Naveen Jain is a billionaire.) With more resources at its disposal, MoonEx has already successfully flight-tested a prototype lunar lander inside the Hover Test Facility at NASA Ames Research Center, where the company is headquartered. It’s also been able to put more money into publicity: at an Autodesk corporate event last November, MoonEx landed a mock-up of its vehicle on a stage in front of 8,000 people at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

Moon Express is the product of a complex web of connections between longtime space entrepreneurs. According to co-founder Richards, who’s also the CEO, it’s essentially a spinoff of Singularity University, the executive education program he co-founded in 2008 with Diamandis, Ray Kurzweil, and Michael Simpson. Singularity charges participants $12,000 for a week of … 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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