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

4/18/12Follow @wroush

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striking its own sponsorship deals with outside donors and sponsors. “We had at least one potential sponsor that was cut off from working with us because they entered into a partnership with the X Prize Foundation, even though we were working with them first,” he says.

I asked Bob Richards at Moon Express whether he shares any of Bourgeois’s concerns. He doesn’t. “The media rights are a complete rabbit hole,” Richards says. “It’s not a treasure chest that is going to get you the deposit on a rocket. We’re talking about a $50 million to $100 million venture, and the media rights might be 1 percent of what you need. If you’re focused on the 1 percent and not the other 99, you are focused on the wrong thing.”

Hall, at the X Prize Foundation, says the terms of the master agreements are always open to negotiation. “It’s a back-and-forth dialogue,” she says. “We are actively working on a number of projects that the teams want to do with the media and we are figuring out what is the best way to do that.”

At the moment, the media rights issue is still somewhat theoretical, Hall points out, since no team has even secured a launch contract, making it hard for media organizations to know which horse to bet on. But even after plans begin to firm up, she thinks the teams will get better coverage overall if they negotiate in concert. “We all recognize this is something we want to get the maximum value out of,” she says. “The foundation’s position has been that we can get the best value as a bloc.”

As for the alleged competition over donors between the foundation and the teams, Hall says she’s familiar with Bourgeois’s contention, but that she doesn’t see evidence for it. “Fred, uniquely among the teams, has raised this issue with me multiple times,” she says. “I have seen no evidence at all that there has been some kind of donor who wanted to donate to the foundation at the exclusion of a team.”

In fact, she says the Google Lunar X Prize is no longer soliciting money from anyone. “The X Prize Foundation is out there raising funds to support its prize development in a wide variety of areas-health, cleantech, all sorts of things—but at the moment there is no active raising going on for any specific space prize.”

If teams are having trouble lining up sponsors, Hall says, it’s probably because they haven’t made enough progress. “Few of these big-name sponsors or individuals are going to commit to a team at a very early stage, because they want to back the winner, not somebody who will drop out or fall behind,” she says. “Once we get a few teams pulling away from the rest of the pack, fairly or unfairly those teams will probably start attracting more attention and will be more likely to land investors and sponsorship deals.”

Making Heroes

Back at Google, Tiffany Montague is watching these debates closely, and she says Bourgeois’ worries should not be dismissed. “His concerns are valid and shared by other teams,” she says. “To commit to the timeline, the teams need to have their funding sorted enough to reserve their launch attempt. The media rights issue essentially boils down to the potential for sizable new team sponsorship avenues, assuming that the foundation and the teams are not competing with each other for the same broadcast media opportunities…If the goal really is to create a robust commercial space ecosystem, then we should be serious about roadblocks.”

Hall, who is the former director of the Chabot Science Center in Oakland and the former CEO of zeppelin company Airship Ventures, is still relatively new to the X Prize Foundation—she took the reins of the Google Lunar X Prize last summer. That means Montague, who has been communicating with the teams from the beginning, may actually be in the best position to mediate disputes and smooth feathers. “The only people who have been involved in every single master team agreement discussion are myself and Tiffany and no others from day one,” says Bourgeois. Richards seems to trust her, too. “Google stepping up to back the prize has been the most credible thing to happen to space since Spaceship One and Branson putting his brand behind Virgin Galactic,” he says. “And Tiffany is the Google space program.”

If it becomes apparent that no team is on track to win by the end of 2015, the foundation is at liberty to move the deadline back again, to 2016 or beyond. But to do so in the absence of another economic catastrophe would be an embarrassment for all concerned—a kind of admission that the original goal was too ambitious.

And at this point, there’s no need for the future to slip further behind schedule. Both Hall and Montague say they’re looking for ways to bring the teams more exposure, and hopefully more money. Google and the foundation need to be “evangelizing the ideas, attracting new investment, and generally helping these teams become science heroes and household names,” Montague says.

Perhaps uniquely among big companies, says Montague, Google “tends to be comfortable with ambiguity,” and doesn’t need to see immediate and tangible rewards from the money it puts into areas like space exploration. But it does want to be sure that its X Prize bet will have some impact, if only by nurturing a future workforce or the dual-use technologies that could come out of further lunar exploration. “We want to give this money away,” she sums up. “This is not just a stunt or a race to the moon, this is about a movement. And I wouldn’t be doing this if I weren’t 200 percent personally invested in this. God knows, if this doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it’s all useless to me. This has to happen.”

[Editor's Note: On May 3, Montague will speak about the Google Lunar X Prize at The Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley, a half-day Xconomy forum at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA.]

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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