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Moon Express illustration
Moon Express plans to place a lander on the Moon that will deploy “microhoppers” that can travel up to several kilometers to collect data. (credit: Moon Express)

Still eyeing the lunar prize

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Four years ago next month, the X PRIZE Foundation announced its newest space prize: the Google Lunar X PRIZE, or GLXP (see “Google’s moonshot”, The Space Review, September 17, 2007). Up for grabs was $30 million in prize money provided by the search engine giant for the non-government teams (the prize purse includes awards for both first and second place) able to land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel at least 500 meters, and transmit a series of data packages that include photos and high-definition video. The competition also had a deadline to, as foundation CEO and chairman Peter Diamandis put it back in September 2007, “motivate earlier attempts” to win the prize.

Nearly four years later the prize has gone unclaimed, although not for a lack of interest. By the time the X PRIZE Foundation closed team registration at the end of 2010, 29 teams were registered to compete (one has subsequently dropped out) from around the world. However, developing a lunar lander—and raising the money required to build and launch it—has turned out to be harder that some initially thought. The prize deadline has reflected this: originally the $20 million first prize was to decrease to $15 million at the end of 2012, and then go away entirely by the end of 2014, but now first prize will only be decremented “whenever a government-funded mission successfully explores the lunar surface”, according to the prize guidelines posted on the prize web site, something the foundation estimates is “currently projected to occur in 2013.”

Moon Express enters the fray

One of the newer teams not deterred by the various technical and fiscal challenges of the Google Lunar X PRIZE is Moon Express. Established last year, Moon Express attracted attention because of the people behind the team, a mix of space and Internet entrepreneurs. Moon Express’s co-founders include Bob Richards, a longtime space entrepreneur who had previously been with Odyssey Moon, the first team to register for the competition, as well as Barney Pell, a computer scientist who worked for a number of Silicon Valley startups, and Naveen Jain, another Internet entrepreneur best known (although not without some controversy) for founding InfoSpace in the 1990s dot-com boom.

“I think it’s one of the biggest business opportunities in history,” Moon Express co-founder Barney Pell said of long-term plans to harvest platinum-group metals from the lunar surface.

Moon Express had kept a low profile after its entry into the GLXP competition last fall. Last month, however, it started opening up more, hosting a “gala celebration” in Silicon Valley last month on the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. (Plans to demonstrate “its commercially developed Lunar Lander technology in a flight test” apparently were scrubbed by a technical glitch, according to accounts of the event.) Richards, the CEO of Moon Express, also spoke at the NewSpace 2011 conference held a week later at NASA Ames.

Moon Express is enabled by what Richards described as four disruptive technologies, he said in his conference address. Those technologies include commercial launches, microminiaturization that enables small spacecraft, propulsion systems originally developed for the “Star Wars” missile defense system, and a common spacecraft bus developed at NASA Ames. Combined, they make possible to do something commercially what had previously been only within the realm of governments.

Richards did not go into much technical detail about how Moon Express would carry out a GLXP mission, although what he did describe showed that the company is taking a different approach than many other teams, who have focused on developing landers carrying rovers. Instead, Moon Express plans to develop a lander with several “microhoppers” on board, each weighing only a few kilograms. “Each one of them is a micromission,” he said. “They’re flying cubesats with high-tech avionics.” The microhoppers would travel from 500 meters to several kilometers from the main lander, allowing them to achieve the distance requirement of the competition.

Richards said he saw considerable potential in the microhoppers for various applications, and that the spacecraft could be sold to governments and universities for their own missions. However, he acknowledged that the GLXP prize purse alone wasn’t sufficient to make Moon Express a profitable venture. “$30 million isn’t enough to do it, but it is enough to catalyze it,” he said.

Moon Express’s long-term vision appears to be prospecting for, and eventually mining and transporting, lunar resources, including precious metals scattered on the lunar surface by asteroid impacts. “There’s vast amounts of platinum-grade metals on the Moon, just sitting there on the surface,” Pell said in a video interview with “I think there’s more platinum on the Moon than there is in all the mining reserves in planet Earth.” He estimated it would be possible to bring back $40 billion in such metals a year, with an investment of $20 billion in infrastructure over an unspecified period to collect and transport those resources. “I think it’s one of the biggest business opportunities in history.”

The challenges of raising money and interest

As Moon Express ramps up its efforts, the other teams in the competition are making slow progress. The GLXP has attracted an unusual mix of teams. Some, like Moon Express, Astrobotic Technology, and Next Giant Leap, are startup companies created to win the prize as the first step of a broader business plan for commercial lunar activities. Others are teams of individuals, universities, or other organizations, who see the competition as an interesting challenge, but many not have firm business plans beyond the competition itself. In some cases, these teams have leveraged the Internet and open source technologies to create virtual groups that are widely dispersed geographically. Notably, no major aerospace companies joined the GLXP on their own, but some have partnered with other teams.

“Getting the money to do this is way harder than any of us imagined,” Team FREDNET’s Bourgeois said. “To me, I thought people would be jumping out of the woodwork to invest in going into space, because this is fun and this is important.”

At the National Space Society’s 2011 International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Huntsville, several of the GLXP teams spoke about their efforts in a pair of roundtable sessions. That discussion focused less on the technology behind getting a spacecraft to the Moon and more on the financing and business case for supporting and sustaining such missions.

“You can’t do this for the prize. The value of the prize is less than the cost of the mission,” said Fred J. Bourgeois, III, leader of Team FREDNET. “We’re building something now that we’re not making money from, and probably won’t make money from for the first three to five years. After that five-year period, after we’ve established a pattern of operational space missions, that’s when we start making money back on our initial investment.”

“Fundraising for all of us is interesting,” said Tim Pickens, leader of the Rocket City Space Pioneers team and also chief propulsion engineer of Dynetics, one of the companies supporting his team. He noted that he’s worked on smaller amateur ventures where people were willing to donate to feel like they were a part of the team, but that wouldn’t scale to something bigger like this. “If we’re going to raise serious money for this, there has to be a business case that closes.”

“We’re the corporate team,” he added, referring to the companies such as Dynetics, Teledyne Brown, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, and Moog who are part of his team. “If we don’t win this, we’re really going to have egg on our face.”

“Getting the money to do this is way harder than any of us imagined,” Bourgeois said. “That’s the thing that’s really surprising. To me, I thought people would be jumping out of the woodwork to invest in going into space, because this is fun and this is important. So I thought people would be just raring to go.”

The team members at the ISDC roundtable didn’t see any easy solutions to helping raise money. Increasing the prize purse, such as doubling it, wouldn’t do much to accelerate the progress of teams. “It would have to be so much [of an increase] as to appeal to the greed of a sponsor” and overcome their concerns about risk, said Wes Faler of Part Time Scientists.

While raising the prize purse wouldn’t do much to help, some teams would like Google to do more to help raise the profile of the competition and this make it easier for teams to get support for their efforts. “Where’s the Google doodle for the X Prize, for this event?” asked Pickens, referring to the special versions of the Google logo used to honor particular events or people. Google, he noted, has tremendous reach and brand recognition that could go a long way to help teams sign up sponsors and raise money. “We really do need to know what the big splash is going to be from Google’s standpoint for these teams.”

What’s in it for Google?

Comments like that represent a broader issue that has puzzled some since the prize’s inception nearly four years ago: what’s in it for Google? Namely, why should a company best known for search engine technology and related Internet services be putting up $30 million of its own money for a prize to land a privately-developed spacecraft on the Moon? Is there some hidden business plan behind their support for the prize?

“I know this may not sound plausible, but we’re not in this to generate revenue or increase our brand,” said Tiffany Montague, director of space initiatives at Google, during a panel session at NewSpace 2011 last month. “Our founders are extreme space nuts.”

“We have to be cheerleaders for NewSpace,” Montague said of the Google’s role in the prize competition. “This is an opportunity to really spur the industry, to get people talking, to make space relevant.”

Montague argued that Google was a large enough and rich enough company that it could afford to do little interesting projects in areas where it could have an impact, “to shake things up,” as she put it. “We’re doing pretty well,” she said of Google, noting it has double NASA’s annual budget in cash on hand. “We don’t have to demonstrate that there’s a return on investment. We enjoy a very nice position in the world right now. We get to things because we like them, because we think they’re the right things to do.”

Montague’s panel session at NewSpace 2011 had the general title of “The Promise of NewSpace” and a diverse set of participants ranging from NASA Ames director Pete Worden to Space Frontier Foundation co-founder Rick Tumlinson. Yet the panel became primarily devoted to Google’s interest in sponsoring the GLXP, as many members of the audience sounded skeptical that Google was involved only because it was an interesting project.

She insisted, though, that Google supported the competition because it was an interesting project that could support a growing field, and not because the company saw it as a long-term profit center. “You’re looking at the entire Google space program right here,” she said of herself.

Montague also said Google was not involved in one recent controversy involving the competition, namely, language in a proposed version of the Master Team Agreement (MTA) that teams must sign on to in order to be eligible for the prize. Some teams had raised concerns that the MTA language took too much of the media rights away from teams, depriving them of a source of funding. “It does make it harder to get investment money,” Bourgeois said at the May ISDC roundtable, citing one case where uncertainty about the rights was a “showstopper” for one potential investor.

“We really are the good guys,” she insisted, noting the MTA was between the X PRIZE Foundation and the teams, and not Google. “We want the same things. We want the teams to be household names, we want space to be relevant to everybody. That’s all we really care about.”

Montague said that Google hoped the prize would spur the development of entrepreneurial ventures. “We have to be cheerleaders for NewSpace,” she said of the company’s role in the prize competition. “This is an opportunity to really spur the industry, to get people talking, to make space relevant.”