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Google Lunar X Prize principals
Bob Weiss, Larry Page, Peter Diamandis, and Buzz Aldrin (from left) point to where the X now marks the spot: the Moon. (credit: J. Foust)

Google’s moonshot

Even since SpaceShipOne captured the $10-million Ansari X Prize almost three years ago, many in the space community wondered what the X Prize Foundation would do as an encore. The success of the competition—not only in technical development of a vehicle that could meet the prize requirements but also the creation of a new industry that has garnered investment many times the value of the prize—generated a lot of interest in prizes as a means of incentivizing innovation. NASA created the Centennial Challenges prize program in response to the X Prize and has organized a number of competitions, from lunar lander analogues to astronaut gloves. Those prizes, though, have been smaller and lower profile than the original X Prize, and the overall program has had problems getting even a sliver of the overall NASA budget. At the other extreme, Robert Bigelow created the $50-million America’s Space Prize for a vehicle capable of carrying crews to his planned inflatable orbital habitats. However, the tight schedule—the prize expires January 10, 2010—and a strict prohibition on the use of government funding led Bigelow himself to conclude last year that it’s highly unlikely anyone will be able to claim that prize. (See “Bigelow Aerospace’s big day at the rodeo”, The Space Review, July 24, 2006.)

While other organizations began to experiment with space prizes, the X Prize Foundation itself expanded its horizons beyond space. In the last year the foundation has announced prizes for the high-speed sequencing of genomes and the development of a 100-mpg automobile. While the foundation continued to be involved in space with the X Prize Cup, some wondered when—or even if—there would be another space X Prize. Last week the foundation answered those questions in a big way with the Google Lunar X Prize and its $30-million purse. Whether this new prize will be as effective and influential as the original Ansari X Prize, though, is very much an open question.

Go directly to the Moon, collect $20 million

In retrospect, perhaps, neither the competition nor its sponsor is that surprising. Long before Thursday’s announcement of the prize, at the Wired NextFest technology exposition in Los Angeles, there had been discussion about a lunar lander prize of some kind, perhaps as part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program. Google’s involvement in the competition is not unexpected, either: co-founder Larry Page serves on the X Prize Foundation’s board of trustees, and Google even hosted a fundraising gala for the foundation earlier this year.

“We thought it was very important for us to have a second place prize,” Diamandis said. “It was one of the most important lessons we learned from the Ansari X Prize.”

What wasn’t known until Thursday, of course, was the combination of a lunar lander prize and Google, nor all the details of the competition. And it’s those details of the competition that may make this prize particularly interesting—or difficult. It won’t be enough to simply land a privately-developed spacecraft on the Moon: the spacecraft will also have to carry (or be) a rover that can traverse a distance of at least 500 meters and also transmit back to Earth a “Mooncast” consisting of photos, video, and a cached set of data the foundation calls “the first email from the Moon”.

The first team able to accomplish this will win $20 million—provided they accomplish this feat by December 30, 2012. After that the prize drops to $15 million for two more years, then expires entirely. The deadline, X Prize Foundation chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis said in an interview, was put in there specifically “to motivate earlier attempts” to win the prize.

Unlike the original Ansari X Prize, the Google Lunar X Prize also has a second place: $5 million to the second team to accomplish the same feat, again with the deadline at the end of 2014. “We thought it was very important for us to have a second place prize,” Diamandis said. “It was one of the most important lessons we learned from the Ansari X Prize.”

An additional $5 million has been reserved by the X Prize Foundation and Google for “bonus” prizes. The exact conditions of these second prizes have yet to be fully defined, but some of the potential bonuses described Thursday included prizes for the discovery of water ice, taking images of Apollo and/or other human artifacts left on the Moon by previous missions, surviving the two-week lunar night, traveling five kilometers or more, and also for the most “ethnically diverse” team.

“We wanted an achievable first level, we wanted it to be doable by a small team,” Diamandis explained. “But then we wanted to have them use the bonuses to extend their reach and challenge them to go further.” He added that additional bonus prizes could be added if other sponsors step forward to fund them.

Like the Ansari X Prize, this prize is intended for the private sector: at least 90 percent of the funding for each team must come from private sources and not governments, Diamandis said. Government facilities, like spaceports, can be used provided that these are available in principle to all competitors. There are also no limits on international participation: promotional materials described the prize as the largest “international prize” in history even though Bigelow’s America’s Space Prize is larger, since that is limited to US-based teams.

At NextFest the X Prize Foundation also announced a series of partnerships to help potential teams. SpaceX will provide launches to teams at cost, a savings of about ten percent off the company’slist prices, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (also on the X Prize Foundation’s board of trustees) said. Universal Space Network, which operates several ground stations for communicating with spacecraft, will provide services at “a substantial discount” to competitors from launch through the first 30 days after landing on the Moon. The SETI Institute, which is building the Allen Telescope Array radio observatory in northern California, will support communications from the rovers to the Earth at no cost—a key item given the high-bandwidth communications requirements of the competition.

“Why isn’t the next X PRIZE about solving the problems here on Earth?” reads one question. “It is. We believe it is our duty to use the resources of space to help our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth.”

While many of the prize rules have yet to be fully fleshed out, some other smaller details of the competition were announced Thursday. Each rover will carry a special plaque with a message signed by many of the Apollo astronauts (although not all: Neil Armstrong was an obvious, if not unsurprising, omission). The foundation will also offer a “Lunar Legacy” program: for $10 members of the general public can provide a photo or message that will go to the Moon with the rovers, some of which may be transmitted back to Earth. “Moon 2.0,” said Diamandis, referring to the name the foundation is giving to the next wave of private lunar exploration it is trying to jumpstart, “is completely about everyone having a chance to participate.”

Why the Moon?

All the attention paid on the nuts and bolts of the prize competition itself, however, ignores a broader question: why have a prize for sending a spacecraft to the Moon? Landing spacecraft on the Moon is hardly uncharted territory, and the Soviet Union even had robotic rovers, Lunokhod 1 and 2, traversing the lunar surface in the early 1970s. Moreover, focusing on robotic missions to the Moon would be a major shift for the X Prize Foundation, whose attention on space topics had previously been on suborbital human spaceflight.

The foundation and Google offered several justifications for a lunar competition. One key issue was that the Moon, “Earth’s offshore island”, could play a key role in improving life on Earth. “It could provide our world with abundant resources and clean, affordable, limitless energy,” the narrator of a video screened at the event (and available online) said. (The video was specifically referring to the development of solar power satellites using lunar resources, and not helium-3.) The implication was that, without an effort like this prize to spur innovation that would lower the cost of lunar exploration, those benefits would not be realized. “The Google Lunar X Prize is designed to kickstart Moon 2.0, a revolution in space to benefit all humanity.”

The foundation also tackled this issue in a Q&A document released with the prize materials. “Why isn’t the next X PRIZE about solving the problems here on Earth?” reads one question. “It is. We believe it is our duty to use the resources of space to help our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth. The motivation of the original X PRIZE was to open space for the development of humanity, and to lower the price of space travel to set the stage for further exploration—much like the mission of the Google Lunar X PRIZE.”

Another angle played up by the prize backers is the educational benefit of the prize. Seeing teams compete to send a rover to the Moon, they believe, will get students interested in space in much the same way the early space race between the United States and the Soviet Union energized students to learn about and eventually pursue careers in the field. A section of the prize web site is devoted to education, with learning guides, videos, and other information. “Science has a serious marketing problem,” said Google co-founder Larry Page, “and I think this is the best antidote I’ve seen for it.”

Ultimately, though, there may have been a more practical reason why the X Prize Foundation decided to pursue this particular competition versus alternatives like a human orbital spaceflight prize or a suborbital point-to-point prize. “Human orbit and the Moon were considered as our two next possible steps,” Diamandis said. “We were quietly talking to companies about both opportunities, and Google got really excited about the Moon, so that’s what we launched next.”

A real lunar lander challenge

Few would argue that the Google Lunar X Prize is not, at some level or another, interesting and intriguing. Having Google involved not only provided the competition with a hefty prize purse, but also media attention at least as valuable during last week’s launch. It also has people lining up to participate: at the announcement, Diamandis said that there was a “rumor” that a team would enter the competition that day; by Thursday afternoon Red Whittaker, a robotics expert at Carnegie Mellon University who has been involved in previous efforts to develop privately-financed lunar rovers, said he was putting together a team for the competition.

“Human orbit and the Moon were considered as our two next possible steps,” Diamandis said. “We were quietly talking to companies about both opportunities, and Google got really excited about the Moon, so that’s what we launched next.”

While any number of teams will be competing for the prize, whether any of them can win the prize is open for debate. The technology will be a particular challenge: teams will have to develop a spacecraft that can survive a trip through cislunar space and land softly on the lunar surface. It will then have to deploy a rover that can travel hundreds of meters across the lunar surface, transmitting panoramic images and high-definition video back to Earth. Such an effort is certainly not impossible, as both the Soviets proved in the early ’70s and JPL has demonstrated today on Mars, but it is not necessarily easy nor cheap. In this case, Whitaker, who has extensive experience designing rovers on Earth, may be analogous to Burt Rutan in the original X Prize: the experienced engineer who immediately assumes the early lead in the race.

The challenges of this competition, though, go beyond the technology. The tight deadline of the competition—teams have just over five years to claim the $20 million grand prize, and two more years after that to get $15 million—will amplify all the issues associated with the mission, from raising funding to securing a launch to developing and testing the rover. That deadline ensures that the prize remains competitive if even only one team is in it, but will it make the competition too difficult?

There is also the issue of financing. Teams will need to raise a significant amount of money up front to pay for the vehicle development, launch, and operations. Moreover, it’s unlikely that the prize money alone will cover all the costs of the effort. For example, even when purchased at the promised discount, a Falcon 1 launch will likely cost $6–7 million alone. Sojourner, the small rover flown to Mars on the Mars Pathfinder mission a decade ago, cost about $25 million to develop. Sojourner was far less sophisticated than the rovers that will go to the Moon in this competition, but even if one assumes the development cost will be the same, the total mission cost will still exceed the maximum prize purse, even when adding all the bonus prizes.

That means, barring a wealthy benefactor who donates money with no desire to get a return on her investment, teams will have to seek additional sources of revenue to cover their costs. There are many options available, from sponsorships to the sale of images and video above and beyond what’s required for the prize. Whether a credible business plan can be crafted using those lines of revenue, though, remains questionable. In the 1990s into the early 2000s several ventures sought to develop private lunar landers and/or rovers that would make money in any number of ways, from the return of lunar rocks to the sale of images to allowing people to drive the rovers themselves. Those companies, including Applied Space Resources, BlastOff, LunaCorp, and TransOrbital, all either faded away or have gone into extended dormancy. (Diamandis led one of those ventures, BlastOff, and a number of BlastOff alumni were present at the prize announcement last week.)

If a team is successful and wins the prize, it’s not clear exactly what markets it will open up. While the X Prize Foundation played up the energy and resources available on the Moon, it’s a long way from building a robotic rover that can return HD video to building solar power satellites using materials mined from the lunar regolith. A low-cost lunar spacecraft could be of interest to space agencies like NASA that have their own plans to return to the Moon, provided the spacecraft meet their needs and the agencies can overcome any internal opposition to going outside to procure such a spacecraft rather than develop it in-house.

One can certainly see the value in reducing the cost of lunar exploration, and one can make the case that the Moon contains resources that could eventually benefit humanity on Earth. However, the process to get from here to there—and how to make money doing so—is less obvious now.

All this stands in sharp contrast to the Ansari X Prize. That prize had its origins in a key problem: how to lower the cost of getting into space. The solution was to tap a very large market—people—by encouraging the development of vehicles that could carry people into space briefly at relatively affordable prices, creating a virtuous cycle that would lead to the development of more capable vehicles that would in turn open more markets and create more launch demand. Whether this approach is ultimately successful remains to be seen, but the logic is clear.

The logic of the Google Lunar X Prize, though, is more muddied. One can certainly see the value in reducing the cost of lunar exploration, and one can make the case that the Moon contains resources that could eventually benefit humanity on Earth. However, the process to get from here to there—and how to make money doing so—is less obvious now. Perhaps one of the teams that decide to compete for the prize will find a way to tie everything together and bootstrap a new era of commercial lunar exploration and utilization, the “Moon 2.0” envisioned by Google and the X Prize Foundation.

By then, though, Google may be setting its sights elsewhere. When asked if Google might consider a similar prize for Mars exploration, Page hesitated. “I think we’ve got our hands full with this one right now,” he said. “Maybe someday.”


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