In Google's Moon Race, Teams---And X Prize Foundation---Face a Reckoning
The future is way behind schedule.
That’s the feeling you pick up on when you talk to people in the civilian space business. Forty years after the Apollo missions, there are still no lunar bases like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are no Pan Am space planes ferrying bureaucrats to meetings on orbiting stations, no piloted missions to Jupiter.
In fact, with the recent retirement of the space shuttle fleet, the U.S. has no indigenous technology for getting crews to space at all. And far from being an everyday experience, spacefaring is still ruinously expensive. As an exercise, try averaging out the costs of building and running the International Space Station on a per-visitor basis, as if it were an orbiting hotel. You get a hefty rate of $7.5 million per person per day.
But a hardy community of space entrepreneurs believes there’s a way to continue humanity’s exploration of the solar system at costs far below those seen in previous eras. When these enthusiasts were young, many of them wanted to be astronauts or NASA engineers, and found themselves working instead for aerospace or software companies or the military. But now they’re designing space missions of their own. And a Google-funded competition—the Google Lunar X Prize—is serving as a kind of private stimulus package.
Announced in 2007, the Google Lunar X Prize offers a $20 million grand prize to the first team that can land a robot on the lunar surface, cover 500 meters of terrain, and send back high-definition video and photos. There’s also a $5 million second prize; $4 million in bonus prizes for completing specific objectives such as finding water ice or traveling more than 5 kilometers; and a $1 million award for the team that “demonstrates the greatest attempts to promote diversity in the field of space exploration.” The deadline: December 31, 2015.
Both the Los Angeles-based X Prize Foundation, which is administering the competition, and Google, which is providing the prize money, are investing their reputations in the success of the contest, which is designed to stimulate sustainable private-sector innovation in space exploration. Google has even assigned a full-time manager, former Air Force captain Tiffany Montague, to oversee the effort. “By setting an example and creating this space economy,” Montague says, “we’re making a big bet and investing in this long-term game of space access for everyone.”
But the game isn’t yet open to all. Already, seven of the 33 teams that initially registered for the Google Lunar X Prize have dropped out or been absorbed into other groups, leaving 26 competitors. That number could soon drop again, as teams prepare for a summit in Washington, D.C., next month where they’ll brief the foundation on their progress—and face some soul-searching about whether to continue independently or partner with other teams.
So while the prize deadline is still more than three years away, it seems likely that 2012 will be the make-or-break year for many of the teams. That’s due in part to the requirement that teams raise 90 percent of the money for their landers and rovers, including the funds needed to book passage into orbit, from private sources. A berth on a launch vehicle can cost anywhere from $10 million to $60 million, depending on the size and weight of the craft. And a launch window must be reserved two to three years ahead of time, with much of the fee due up front. This means any team that’s serious about winning the grand prize needs to come up with tens of millions of dollars, pronto.
“If nobody has a ride booked by this December, then the competition has become unwinnable,” says Bob Richards, the co-founder of one of the leading teams, Mountain View, CA-based Moon Express. Richards’ team has less to worry about than most: it’s backed by Naveen Jain, the billionaire founder of dot-com-era search provider InfoSpace. But for many of the teams, it will be a tough scramble to come up with launch funds, even as they approach the time when they must start to “bend metal” if they hope to fly a working lander and rover.
“I have always seen 2012 and 2013 as the two critical years,” says Alexandra Hall, the senior director for the Google Lunar X Prize at the X Prize Foundation. “We are definitely closing in on the point where if the teams haven’t gotten a huge percentage of their funding and development done, we will know that—barring a miracle—they are not going to get there.”
Can the competition actually be won without another extension in the deadline? (The foundation already pushed back the date by a year in a concession to the 2008-2009 economic crisis, which slowed fundraising for the teams.) What kinds of people are pouring their lives into this game, and is the field they’re playing on a reasonably level one? Why does exploring the Moon matter to Google? Most importantly, what kinds of innovation is this new moon race likely to stimulate—and is a prize competition an effective way to jumpstart commercial activity on the Moon?
Those are the big questions I’ve been exploring lately in conversations with leaders at Google, NASA, the X Prize Foundation, and two of the Google Lunar X Prize teams. The answers I’ve been hearing are not straightforward. The challenge of landing a privately funded robot on the moon by New Year’s Eve, 2015, may still be surmountable—barely. But only a handful of teams seem to have the combination of broad technical talent and fundraising prowess needed to pull it off. And as it turns out, there’s disagreement among the competitors, and between the teams and the X Prize Foundation itself, over specific conditions affecting the teams’ ability to raise the money they’ll need.
Google, for its part, very much wants to give away the full $30 million it is offering. But to make that happen, both the search giant and the X Prize Foundation may need to work harder to help the lunar teams attract investments, says Montague.
“For a team to win, all the puzzle pieces have to fall into place on a very tight timeline,” she says. “We want to change the world with this competition—it’s meant to be both a technical and an entrepreneurial challenge. But it’s going to be a little harder to change the world if our teams can’t get off the ground financially.”
Commander of the Universe
Google isn’t building its own robot Moon lander for the competition, but if it were, Montague is the kind of person the company would put in charge of the project. Her mix of technical acumen, aerospace experience, business pluck, and unconcealed optimism is typical of today’s generation of space entrepreneurs. That makes her the ideal spokeswoman for Google’s space vision—and also, perhaps, one of the people best placed to mediate between the X Prize Foundation and the GLXP teams, raising the chances that at least one of the teams will make it to the Moon in time.
The daughter of an American father and a Chinese mother, Montague grew up in England and knew that she wanted to be an astronaut even before she entered Smith College at age 16. She joined the ROTC and, at age 20, was commissioned in the Air Force. As an 18-year-old cadet she met 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 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 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 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.”
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.]