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Polaris rover illustration
Astrobotic Technology, who plans to send its Polaris rover (above) to the Moon’s south polar regions in late 2015, is one of the few Google Lunar X PRIZE teams that has announced it has a launch contract. (credit: Astrobotic Technology)

The Google Lunar X PRIZE at five: can it still be won?


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September 13 may, at first glance, appear to be a relatively unremarkable day in space history, but it’s linked to a couple very different recent milestones. It was on September 13 a year ago that NASA, White House, and Congressional leaders met to finalize an agreement on NASA’s future human spaceflight plans, including a design for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, that was announced the following morning (see “A monster rocket, or just a monster?”, The Space Review, September 19, 2011). That anniversary went largely unnoticed last month, except during a panel at the end of the AIAA Space 2012 conference in Pasadena, California, this September 13th about the SLS, when NASA project officials displayed a whimsical illustration of the SLS with birthday party hats attached to its boosters and balloons adorning the core stage.

2012 is “the first of the two ‘shakeup years’ when reality hits and teams really figure out whether they need to move forward or decide that they’ve gone about as far as they can go,” said Hall.

Four years before that Capitol Hill meeting, and just down the 110 Freeway from Pasadena, another announcement reshaped the space community. On September 13, 2007, at the Wired NextFest in downtown Los Angeles, Google and the X PRIZE Foundation formally announced the Google Lunar X PRIZE (see “Google’s moonshot”, The Space Review, September 17, 2007). The goal of the GLXP: land a privately-developed spacecraft on the lunar surface, travel at least 500 meters across the surface, and return images and video. At stake was $30 million, including a $20-million first prize and a $5-million second prize, along with several other bonus prizes.

When the competition was announced, that $20-million prize would be available only until the end of 2012; it would then decrease to $15 million before going away entirely two years later. Those deadlines have since been modified, which is a good thing: with three months to go until the end of 2012, no team appears that close to mounting a reasonable bid to win it. Even with the deadline extended until the end of 2015 (with the first prize falling to $15 million if a government mission “successfully explores the lunar surface” first), it’s likely the next several months will determine which teams—if any—have a reasonable shot of winning the prize in the next three years.

Entering the shakeup years

The end of 2015 may seem like a long way off: it’s more than three years away, after all. However, because of the long lead times associated with the development of these missions, as well as obtaining launch contracts, even those running the GLXP acknowledge that the competition is now in a critical time.

“This year is going to be a very interesting year. It’s the first of the two ‘shakeup years’ when reality hits and teams really figure out whether they need to move forward or decide that they’ve gone about as far as they can go,” said Alex Hall, senior director of the GLXP, in a talk earlier this year at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Washington, DC.

The impending shakeup, she said, is a function of the schedules teams need to be on in order to have a vehicle ready to fly by the end of 2015. That includes getting a launch contract and starting to develop hardware for the mission. Whether a team plans to procure a dedicated launch or fly as a secondary payload on another launch, she said, teams need to start making down payments and discuss technical issues soon in order to be ready to launch before the prize expires.

Making those arrangements, though, is a function of money, and raising it has been one of the biggest obstacles for teams to date. “You could look at this cynically and say that actually it’s who’s the best at fundraising and not who’s the best at solving a technological challenge to get to the Moon,” Hall said.

In her ISDC talk, Hall discussed the results of a survey of the GLXP teams, showing that 46 percent of the teams—12 of the 26 then in the competition—had raised less than a quarter of the money they believed they needed to mount a mission. “This is not a statistic that concerns me,” she said, noting that several were “very confident” that they could raise money. “We have horses in the race.”

“Through this launch service contract, Barcelona Moon Team consolidates itself at the head of the teams participating in the competition, since securing the launcher is half the importance of the mission,” claimed Claramunt.

However, she said there is a creeping “realism” among some GLXP teams that if they can’t make significant progress, financial or otherwise, this year, they’ll need to decide whether or not to stay in the competition. Just over a third of the teams—9 of 26—have indicated that if they can’t raise “substantial” funding this year, they’ll consider merging with another team or dropping out entirely. “This is really just pragmatism,” Hall said. “If you’re not at the point by the end of this year where you’re substantially far along in both your spacecraft and your launch contract negotiations, you’re probably not going to be making an attempt before the end of 2015.”

The first evidence of that shakeup came just days after Hall’s ISDC presentation, at a GLXP team summit also held in Washington. At the event, one of the GLXP teams, Moon Express, announced it was acquiring another team, Next Giant Leap, for an undisclosed sum. “There are many synergies between our companies,” Bob Richards, Moon Express co-founder and CEO, said in a statement about the deal, later saying that Next Giant Leap’s work on a control system for a lunar lander made the deal particularly attractive. The acquisition reduced the number of GLXP teams to 25, where is remains today, although with the anticipation of more deals—or dropouts—in the months to come.

Contending teams

If having—or soon signing—a launch contract is a key milestone for GLXP teams that are serious about flying before the end of 2015, there only a handful of contending teams. Only two have announced launch contracts as of today. Last year Astrobotic Technology announced it signed a contract with SpaceX for a Falcon 9 launch. The company, spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2008 with robotics pioneer William “Red” Whittaker as its CEO, plans to fly its Polaris rover to the Moon in October 2015 to prospect for ice at the Moon’s south pole.

While Astrobotic has long been recognized as one of the GLXP’s frontrunners, the other team with a launch contract is more obscure. In August, Barcelona Moon Team announced it signed a launch contract with China Great Wall Industry Corporation for the launch of its as-yet-unnamed rover on a Long March 2C in 2014. “Through this launch service contract, Barcelona Moon Team consolidates itself at the head of the teams participating in the competition, since securing the launcher is half the importance of the mission,” claimed team leader Xavier Claramunt in a statement announcing the launch contract. (Claramunt is also president of Galactic Suite, a commercial space habitat developer whose website claims it plans to have “its first orbital resort by the end of 2012”—a goal it appears it will miss by a wide margin.)

Having a launch contract, though, is not the only signal of a team’s development. Moon Express, for example, has yet to announce a launch contract but has been building up the foundations for their effort. In addition to their acquisition of Next Giant Leap, the company announced in August the hiring of three veteran space professionals to serve as leads for various aspects of the development of the team’s lander. A month earlier, Moon Express brought on board James Crawford, a former NASA scientist who previously worked as the engineering director of Google’s book-scanning project, as its chief technology officer and software architect.

The hiring of those experienced engineers complements Moon Express’s primarily young workforce. “We have about 25 people on the payroll right now, but you have to knock on a few office doors before you find anyone over 30,” Richards said in a panel about the GLXP at the SETICon II conference in Santa Clara, California, in June. Indeed, during an early August visit to Moon Express’s offices, on the Ames Research Park campus of NASA’s Ames Research Center, the staff was primarily young engineers working on projects ranging from software to control a lunar telescope to engineering the deployment system of the landing legs for the spacecraft.

Anticipating further growth—the company expects its headcount to grow to 40 to 50 in the next year—Moon Express is in the process of moving to a larger building at Ames, a former bank branch building. (The building is located next to a former McDonalds now used by the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, earning it the nickname “McMoons”.) In early August, Richards gave a tour of the building, which had been stripped of almost all vestiges of its past life as a bank (the vault, he noted, was still there), but had yet to be renovated. A recent video released by Moon Express shows that work is still in its early stages.

Pragmatism versus optimism

However, for every team signing launch contracts or building up its workforce, there are teams that appear to be making little progress, and thus with little chance of mounting a mission in the next three years. With that disparity in mind, GLXP officials have been carefully calibrating what it means for the competition to be considered a success.

“Success is not just landing on the Moon. Success involves stimulating this fledging economy,” Hall said at ISDC. That includes teams working with each other and with other companies, conducting educational outreach, as well as promoting entrepreneurial, or “NewSpace”, efforts in various countries. “In some countries, where the NewSpace discussion has just started, we’ve even had some impact on policy.”

“We’re not that far behind the most optimistic schedule ever imagined,” said Pomerantz, but added that “victory is far from a sure thing.”

There has been, throughout the prize competition, skepticism about its viability, and complaints and criticism about the perceived slow pace of progress over the last five years. That has ranged from complaints about aspects of the Master Team Agreement, such as media rights, to beliefs that Google, which is providing the prize purse, is not doing enough to promote the prize and thus increase its visibility (see “Still eyeing the lunar prize”, The Space Review, August 8, 2011). The challenge of raising significant amounts of money—estimates of the costs of mounting a GLXP mission range from $60 to $100 million—has been exacerbated by the sharp economic downturn that started not long after the prize was announced. Moreover, there’s a perceived diminished interest in the Moon by NASA, who in 2010 cancelled the Constellation Program for a human lunar return and replaced it with plans for human missions to near Earth asteroids and Mars.

One former prize insider is not disappointed by the progress made over the last five years and remains optimistic about the chances of winning. “As we stood up on stage at the Wired NextFest in Los Angeles in 2007, we thought that there was a remote possibility that—if everything went right—someone might be only months away from a launch attempt as of September 2012,” wrote Will Pomerantz, the former director of space projects at the X PRIZE Foundation, in a personal blog post last month marking the fifth anniversary of the prize announcement. “That was the best case scenario, timeline-wise.”

“We’re not that far behind the most optimistic schedule ever imagined (indeed, in some respects, we’re ahead of the game), even with a crushing recession and some other negative externalities,” he continued. Winning the GLXP, he believes, is still possible, “but that victory is far from a sure thing.”

As for those skeptics about the GLXP, Pomerantz noted that, in the past, some were similarly skeptical about the prospects of winning the Ansari X PRIZE for commercial human suborbital spaceflight—won eight years ago this month by SpaceShipOne—and, later, the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, administered by the X PRIZE Foundation as part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize competition effort. “Of course, the fact that all of those prizes subsequently were won does not mean that the Google Lunar X PRIZE will definitely be won,” he writes, “however, it does give one a sense of how much faith to put in others’ assertions about the guaranteed failure of this or other prizes.”

Even failing to win the prize doesn’t deter some teams, who have a vision and business plan that extends beyond the prize competition. “You know, if one of the other teams wins, that’s great, too,” Richards said at SETICon. “This is not just about winning the prize. It’s about creating a whole new industry. We believe in a long-term vision of opening up the Moon’s resources for the benefit of humanity.”

“For me, it will be particularly important that, after the Google Lunar X PRIZE is won, that we go back to the Moon,” Hall said. “Whether it’s the same team or more teams, we must continue to evolve that technology.”


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ISPCS 2014