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Mighty Eagle test flight
NASA's Mighty Eagle lunar lander testbed performs a brief flight November 26 at the Marshall Space Flight Center. The vehicle was controlled with software developed by Moon Express for that company's commercial lunar lander spacecraft that, among other goals, could capture the $20-million Google Lunar X PRIZE before it expires in two years. (credit: NASA/MSFC)

As China goes to the Moon, prize teams stay in the race

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When the X PRIZE Foundation announced in September 2007 the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP), there was considerable optimism at the time that the winner, whoever that might be, would be the next entity to soft-land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon (see “Google’s moonshot”, The Space Review, September 17, 2007). The private sector seemed to be making great advances in spaceflight, as the earlier Ansari X PRIZE for suborbital spaceflight demonstrated, while national space agencies were proceeding much more slowly. Other than NASA’s own Vision for Space Exploration, which likely would have included a robotic lander as a precursor to a human lunar landing planned for no later than 2020, the most promising country was China. Yet, at the time the prize was announced, China was still a month away from launching its first lunar mission, the Chang’e-1 orbiter.

“The decision was made that the government landing penalty no longer served any useful purpose and it was removed,” Hall wrote of the provision that would have cut $5 million from the prize.

That optimism—or, perhaps in retrospect, irrational exuberance—has now all but disappeared. Barring a catastrophe in the next two weeks, China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft will land on the Moon later this month, most likely on December 14. That spacecraft carries a rover, officially named “Yutu” last week; the technical capabilities of the rover are not well known outside China, but it may well have the ability to go more than 500 meters from the lander, one of the key requirements of the prize.

Chang’e-3, of course, can’t win the prize: government organizations aren’t eligible. Nonetheless, the fact that, six years after the prize’s introduction, the first spacecraft that (at least in principle) could technically meet the prize’s requirements was built by a government space agency with access to significant national resources speaks to the difficulty of the challenge that the prize organizers may have greatly underestimated. But, even as the prize rules continue to be tweaked, a few teams remain active with the hope of following in the rover tracks of Chang’e-3 in the next couple of years.

Changing prize rules

When the X PRIZE Foundation announced the GLXP in 2007, one key aspect of the competition was the prize structure. The competition featured a first prize of $20 million, but only if a team won the competition by the end of 2012. Under the original rules, if no team won by the end of 2012, the prize decreased to $15 million through the end of 2014, at which time the prize expired. The original rules also included a $5-million second prize, to encourage teams to continue even after a team claimed the first prize (a flaw in the earlier Ansari X PRIZE), and assorted $1 million bonus prizes, bringing the total prize purse to $30 million.

The foundation changed the rules a few years ago, when it was clear that a winner by 2012, or even 2014, was unlikely. The $20-million grand prize would remain in place through 2015, but would be decremented to $15 million if a government mission got to the lunar surface first: an effort to provide a similar degree of schedule pressure as China’s lunar plans became clearer (see “The Google Lunar X PRIZE at five: can it still be won?”, The Space Review, October 1, 2012). Even that, though, failed to provide the impetus needed to get a private mission off the ground.

Last month, the X PRIZE Foundation announced another change in the prize structure for the GLXP. The “government landing penalty” that had been previously added is no longer in place, just weeks before the Chang’e-3 mission would have triggered it. “The decision was made that the government landing penalty no longer served any useful purpose and it was removed,” wrote Alex Hall, senior director of the GLXP, in a November 13 blog post.

Instead, the GLXP has added a series of “Milestone Prizes” designed to be awarded before any spacecraft is ready to go to the Moon. Up to $6 million of the overall prize purse will be awarded by the end of next September to teams that demonstrate certain developmental benchmarks. “These benchmarks require a showing (via actual testing and analysis) of robust hardware and software that will combat key technical risks in the areas of imaging, mobility and lander systems—all three being necessary to achieve a successful Google Lunar XPRIZE mission,” Hall wrote in a separate blog post last month.

Last year, Hall said that 2012 and 2013 would be “shakeup years” for the teams competing. And there has been a shakeout of sorts: teams have merged or dropped out of the competition, with the X PRIZE Foundation now currently counting only 22 active teams, down from a peak of about 30.

Under the revised prize structure, there will be up to four $250,000 prizes for teams that demonstrate imaging systems, up to four $500,000 prizes for mobility system demonstrations, and up to three $1-million prizes for landing systems. The prizes would be deducted from the first- or second-place prizes any of the teams won for achieving the overall goals of the competition.

The restructured prizes, Hall explained, are designed to help teams deal with the near-term challenges—particularly in funding—of developing lunar landers. “Recognizing and rewarding these milestones will not only help the competing teams by allowing them to access financing at a critical point in their mission timeline, but it will also raise public excitement and support for the teams,” she wrote.

Teams press ahead

That restructuring may address one of the criticisms that some teams had about the competition: that the foundation, or Google itself, was not doing enough to help teams in what turned out to be a more difficult than expected environment (see “Still eyeing the lunar prize”, The Space Review, August 8, 2011). Hall, in her blog posts, acknowledged that the 2008 financial crisis and resulting deep recession made it more difficult for teams to raise money, while NASA’s own space exploration policy shift away from the Moon in 2010 made it less likely the space agency would be a major customer, in terms of buying data or payload space, on these commercial landers.

Last year, Hall said that 2012 and 2013 would be “shakeup years” for the teams competing: if teams were serious about mounting a lunar lander mission by the end of 2015, they needed to make serious progress in those two years, including building hardware and making launch arrangements, in order to be ready to fly no later than 2015. And there has been a shakeout of sorts: teams have merged or dropped out of the competition, with the X PRIZE Foundation now currently counting only 22 active teams, down from a peak of about 30. And many of those teams still officially active have made little public progress that would suggest that they would be ready to fly a lunar lander before the prize expires in 25 months.

A few teams, though, are still serious about pursuing the prize. Last week, one of those teams, Moon Express, carried out a test of its flight software using Mighty Eagle, a lunar lander testbed developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The Moon Express software controlled Mighty Eagle as the vehicle took off using its hydrogen peroxide engine and flew to an altitude of three meters, hovering there for several seconds before landing.

“Our first goal as a company is just to land on the Moon,” Richards said of the first Moon Express mission, which could allow the company to claim the prize.

“Our collaboration with NASA has been exceptionally helpful, and our friends at Marshall Space Flight Center shared our enthusiasm today for an important step forward in our commercial lunar plans,” wrote Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, in a blog post after the flight. That test, and earlier tethered tests of the vehicle using the company’s software, took place under a reimbursable Space Act Agreement, with Moon Express paying for the costs of the tests.

Richards has made it clear that Moon Express, while competing for the prize, has a business model that looks beyond simply winning the GLXP. In its long-term plans, the 2015 mission that would allow it to win the prize is just an initial technology demonstration mission. “Our first goal as a company is just to land on the Moon,” he said in a speech at the AIAA Space 2013 conference in San Diego in September. “That would be a great success for us. If we can actually prove some of our operations, serve some of our customers like Google, who want to see some video and some picture brought back, serve some of our other customers who want to send payloads to the Moon during a two-week first mission, that is even better.”

That demo mission would be followed by a mission for the International Lunar Observatory Association, who wants to fly a telescope to the south pole of the Moon that could be operated by the public. The third mission, he said, would be the “Holy Grail” of the company: a sample return mission that would fly between 2018 and 2020. “Everything that we’re doing as a company is building up this capability of being able to bring resources back,” Richards said. That mission, he said, would bring back about a kilogram of lunar materials, something he said would be both profitable and inspiration, and also establish legal precedents for the future utilization of lunar resources.

Moon Express, unlike most other GLXP teams, does have some wealthy backers, including entrepreneurs Naveen Jain and Barney Pell, who serve as the company’s chairman and vice-chairman, respectively. “We’ve been very fortunate at Moon Express to have great backing from our investors,” Richards said at Space 2013. “All the money isn’t in the bank; it never was and it was never intended to be. But it will be, provided the company continues to perform and meets its technical milestones.”

Moon Express is also raising money from others. Last month, Klee Irwin, a health food entrepreneur, announced he had made a “six-figure” investment in Moon Express. “I invested less for financial payoff and more to fund space science and assist in the expansion of Earth-based life and technology into the vast regions beyond Earth,” he said in a press release about the investment.

Moon Express’s emphasis on commercial missions beyond the GLXP is a very different focus than another team that’s made progress in recent months, the Penn State Lunar Lion Team. As the name suggests, the team is based at Penn State University (whose mascot is the Nittany Lion, hence the “Lunar Lion” name) and its Applied Research Laboratory, featuring a mix of lab engineers, university faculty, and students.

“I don’t see who’s going to win this if we don’t, given the position we’re in right now,” said Penn State Lunar Lion team leader Michael Paul.

Although a university-based team might seem to be at a disadvantage to commercial teams, the Lunar Lion team has achieved several milestones in recent months. In September, it announced a Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) to test methane/liquid oxygen rocket engines developed at JSC that could be used for the Lunar Lion lander. The small engines—each generates about 90 newtons (20 pounds-force) of thrust—were designed for roll control, but team leader Michael Paul said in a September interview a cluster of them could serve as the descent engine for their lander.

Last month, the team announced it had paid a “launch reservation fee” for its mission. The team is working with Team Phoenicia, a company that originally signed up for the GLXP but dropped out the competition to focus instead on arranging secondary payload opportunities. Lunar Lion paid a $100,000 fee, although the total cost—and on which launch they would fly on—weren’t disclosed.

The university-based nature of Lunar Lion means different funding models, and also a different degree of transparency about those financing efforts, than commercial teams. Paul, speaking to university trustees last month, said they have raised more than one third of the estimated $60-million cost of the mission. Like many other, albeit more terrestrial, university projects, Lunar Lion is relying on donors, in the form of corporate sponsors and individual donors. Penn State itself is providing $8 million.

Paul, in a September interview, said that in addition to its pursuit of large individual and corporate donors, the team was considering a crowdfunding campaign to raise small amounts of money from larger numbers of people, and to connect with a broader audience as well. He acknowledged, though, there was no certainty they would have all the funding in hand in time to win the prize. “Fundraising takes a long time, and there’s always the risk that the end of 2015, the end of the prize, is going to come and go we’re not done,” he said.

However, he said the university is taking a big-picture view of the Lunar Lion effort, regardless of their ability to win the GLXP. “The university sees the value in what we’re doing so far beyond a $20-million endowment, which is what the prize would become when we win it,” he said. “The university sees the value in a research center at Penn State that is for leadership in space exploration, and that’s what we’re building at Penn State through this effort.”

Asked what he thought were the odds of winning the GLXP, Paul said it was difficult to measure their probability. “We’ve done everything that we can strategically to align ourselves with the best aerospace companies in the world, people of significant means, and the Penn State community at large, to make this a reality,” he said. “But I don’t see who’s going to win this if we don’t, given the position we’re in right now.”

It is, of course, possible that no one will win the prize purse before it finally expires at the end of 2015 (unless Google and the X PRIZE Foundation change the rules again.) But, if it stimulates companies like Moon Express and university labs like Lunar Lion, it still might be a success in the long run regardless of whom if anyone, gets that $20-million check.