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

4/18/12Follow @wroush

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company visits, networking events, and workshops on the future of technology. It was through this organization that Richards, an aerospace engineer who once worked as a special assistant to famed planetary scientist Carl Sagan, met Jain as well as prolific Silicon Valley angel investor and AI researcher Barney Pell. The three decided to co-found a company to explore the Moon’s mineral wealth—and to go after the X Prize.

Moon Express is basing its Moon craft on the Common Spacecraft Bus, a coffee-table-sized orbiter originally developed by the defense establishment for the Strategic Defense Initiative. The plan is to create a lander version of the bus and put it into Earth orbit aboard either an Orbital Sciences Taurus II rocket or a Space X Technologies Falcon 9 rocket. From there, it would follow the usual Apollo translunar path to lunar orbit, descend to the surface, and deploy an array of “microhoppers.” Rather than rolling on the surface, they’d fly away from the lander in hops ranging from hundreds of meters to several kilometers. Richards says each hopper could be a mission unto itself, paid for by external customers.

The total estimated price tag for Moon Express’s first mission: just under $60 million. Even if the team grabbed the grand prize and all the bonus prizes, it could only get $25 million of it back—which is exactly why any new moon mission has to be part of a larger enterprise.

“We are not being driven by the X Prize, but we are desirous,” says Richards. “We are in a race, but we have to do it right on the first mission, not just to ensure our reputations but because we have customers who are depending on us.”

If Moon Express does win the prize, it will be a case of keeping it all in the family, given that Jain is on the board of the X Prize Foundation, and that Richards has known Diamandis since the 1980s. In 1987 the pair co-founded the International Space University, a Strasbourg, France-based interdisciplinary program headed until 2004 by none other than Arthur C. Clarke. A 2000 Forbes article named ISU as the capital of a so-called “Space Mafia.” Richards says that characterization was accurate, though he calls it “a completely open conspiracy.” “There really are genetic ties between a relatively small number of people in this industry called space,” he says. “It’s all about networking the people who are going to be the catalysts for humanity as a multi-planet species, for creating that future we all saw on Star Trek.”

The Funding Race

Too many other teams are still in the running to mention them all, but the leaders include Astrobotic, a spinoff of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; Rocket City Space Pioneers in Hunstville; Team Space IL, the only Israeli team competing for the prize; and Team Phoenicia, a Menlo Park, CA-based team that was just tapped by one of its competitors, Team JURBAN, to supply the engines for its own lander.

That sort of cooperation between teams will probably pick up as some groups start to realize that they can’t do everything on their own—or that they can’t make the deadline at all. “Once the front-running teams really solidify their launch dates, other teams will say, ‘We’re obviously not going to be first, let’s figure out what to do with the value we’ve created,’” says Hall. I think we will still have a reasonable number of teams by the end of the year, but it’s going to be a very interesting year.”

The toughest competition of all may be over funding. The world of space entrepreneurs is small; the world of corporations, foundations, and private donors willing to sink tens of millions of dollars into moon exploration is not much bigger. And that’s what’s causing at least one team leader, Fred Bourgeois, to voice criticisms about the way the X Prize Foundation has structured its agreements with the teams.

To understand Bourgeois’ concerns, you have to start with the economics of the rocket business. The most expensive part about getting to the moon, by far, is reserving a launch vehicle from a company like Space X or Orbital Sciences. These companies require a deposit on the order of $10 million just to get in the queue, plus another $10 million for a solid launch date, Bourgeois says. “Along with that, you also have to develop a spacecraft, and you can’t start bending metal without money, and that’s over $10 million. So if you don’t have $30 million on the books, you shouldn’t even start.”

Team FREDNET doesn’t have that much yet, but is “coming very close,” Bourgeois says. “Can anybody get the money fast enough? That is the real issue.”

Bourgeois’ first fundraising worry is over restrictions on how the teams can parcel out the media rights to their missions. Imagine that Team FREDNET wanted to underwrite its mission by striking a deal with the Discovery Channel or National Geographic for rights to photos and video from its rover. It couldn’t, because the “master team agreements” that each team has signed with the X Prize Foundation say those rights belong to all of the teams as a bundle, and can only be apportioned by the foundation.

“It started with them wanting a ‘mooncast’ and the initial rights to video from the missions,” says Bourgeois. “From there it grew to the life stories of every team leader. Then they wanted the first communications from the moon, and the right to put the names of their employees in those first messages. They want the right to put their stamp and brand on all those things”—things Team FREDNET would like to give to its own contributors as rewards, Bourgeois says.

“It’s a growing problem of where do you draw the line of allowing a team to capitalize on its image and mission, versus how much do you allow the X Prize Foundation to fund its future operations by selling media from this one-time event,” he says.

Bourgeois’ second worry is over the general fundraising environment for space enterprises. “We are a 501(c)(3) and so is the X Prize Foundation,” he says. “That means we are competing for the same funding sources—people interested in space.” Bourgeois is careful to say that overall, the Google Lunar X Prize competition “is a really good thing” and that “there are still people involved at the X Prize Foundation who have good intentions.” But in effect, he says, the foundation is sucking the oxygen out of the room by … 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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