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SpaceIL lander
SpaceIL has a contract to launch its lunar lander (above) on a SpaceX Falcon 9, making SpaceIL the first Google Lunar X PRIZE team with a verified launch deal. (credit: SpaceIL)

Still chasing the Moon

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It’s almost hard to believe that it’s been eight years since the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) was unveiled. In September 2007, the X PRIZE Foundation announced that, with the financial backing of Google, it was offering a $20-million prize for the first privately-developed spacecraft to land on the Moon, travel at least 500 meters across its surface, and transmit video and other data. The prize came at a time of increased enthusiasm for lunar exploration, both as part of NASA’s plans at the time to return humans to the Moon and initiatives by a growing number of other nations (see “Google’s moonshot”, The Space Review, September 17, 2007)

Had everything gone according to plan, the competition would have long ago ended. Original plans called for reducing the grand prize to $15 million if no one won it by the end of 2012, and ending it entirely should no team win by the end of 2014. But everything has not gone according to plan: delays by teams developing their missions, for financial and/or technical reasons, led prize organizers to push back the deadlines, keeping the grand prize at $20 million through 2015. In the latest revision, the X PRIZE Foundation said that the GLXP would be extended through the end of 2017, but only if at least one team said it had a launch contract in hand by the end of the year. Otherwise, the prize would expire.

Had everything gone according to plan, the competition would have long ago ended. But everything has not gone according to plan.

Last week, the foundation announced that the competition would indeed continue though the end of the 2017, as one team provided organizers with sufficient proof of a launch contract. A second also announced this month that it has a launch contract, although that is pending verification. And, outside of the GLXP, a European venture is trying to raise money with crowdfunding to start work on its own, somewhat unusual lunar mission venture.

Contracts to keep the prize alive

While much of the speculation about frontrunners in the GLXP has centered around a couple US-based commercial ventures, Astrobotic and Moon Express, neither was the first team to have a validated launch contract. Instead, that honor went to SpaceIL, an Israeli team that announced October 7, with prize officials, that it has a contract to launch its lunar lander in the second half of 2017.

SpaceIL’s lander will be one of two “co-leads” on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch purchased last month by a Seattle company, Spaceflight Industries. Spaceflight is selling space on the “dedicated rideshare” mission for dozens of small satellites, most of whom will be going to sun-synchronous orbits around the Earth. At the time of the contract announcement last month, Spaceflight officials said the mission has two primary payloads that would have greater control over the launch schedule than other payloads, but declined to name them at the time.

Eran Privman, CEO of SpaceIL, said that picked Spaceflight’s Falcon 9 mission after making an extensive international search. “We tried everyone around the world,” he said in a phone interview, looking at options from Europe, India, Russia, and the US before settling on the Falcon 9. He said SpaceIL had previously considered flying as a secondary payload on a future, unnamed Russian lunar mission, but after the Ukraine crisis started last year decided to look at other options after concerns about getting needed export control approvals.

The lander will be a “hopper” that, after landing, will take off and land again. That approach allows the team to meet the requirements to travel at least 500 meters across the surface without developing a separate rover, as some other teams are doing. The spacecraft’s structure is now in “detailed design,” Privman said, including work that had to be deferred until the team picked a launch vehicle, whose interface and other characteristics affects the vehicle’s design. Other elements of the lander, like its sensors and avionics, are more advanced.

SpaceIL has set itself apart from other teams because of its structure and fundraising model. SpaceIL is a nonprofit organization, and has no plans for follow-on missions or other commercialization of its lander should it win the GLXP. Instead, Privman said SpaceIL hopes that the landing will trigger an outpouring of interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. “The real vision is not to put a lander on the moon but use it as a tool to inspire, like the Apollo program in the US in the 1960s,” he said.

That model has allowed it to tap into funding sources from foundations. SpaceIL has raised $40 million to date, Privman said, with about 80 percent coming from the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Family Foundation and Morris Kahn’s Kahn Foundation. Those two foundations provided a round of funding that allowed SpaceIL to secure its launch contract, SpaceIL said.

Privman said SpaceIL still needs to raise $10 million, and has a tight schedule to have its spacecraft ready for launch in the next 18 months. “We believe it is doable, but challenging,” he said.

“We believe it is doable, but challenging,” Privman said of SpaceIL launching by late 2017.

Getting the SpaceIL launch contract validated, and thus unlocking the two-year extension, involved more than just the team submitting the contract to the X PRIZE Foundation. “We worked with the team for the last four to five months on this,” said Chanda Gonzales, senior director of the prize at the foundation. That included going back and forth with the team to work through issues associated with the contract, she said.

Verification of the contract involves two aspects, Gonzales said. One is technical feasibility: ensuring that the launch can, in fact, send the lander to the Moon. The other is financial: that the contracts are in place and initial down payments made. “At the end of the day, we were able to verify and accept everything in the contract,” she said.

Last week’s announcement came less than a week after another GLXP team announced a launch contract of its own. On October 1, Moon Express announced that it signed a contract with Rocket Lab for three launches of the latter’s Electron small launch vehicle, including two scheduled for 2017.

Moon Express plans to use the launches to send to the Moon a new, smaller version of its MX-1 lander. It, too, is a hopper, designed to take off and land again to meet the GLXP requirements. The spacecraft will, by necessity, be very small: Electron is capable of placing only 150 kilograms into a sun-synchronous orbit, and thus can send on a small fraction of that to the Moon.

Moon Express CEO and co-founder Bob Richards said in an interview that the company was able to take advantage of advances in spacecraft miniaturization to shrink MX-1. “We’re able now to shrink again the geometry of our spacecraft using 3-D printing and new materials to dramatically reduce the mass of our structure,” he said. “We’re able to reconfigure, repackage our MX-1 technology into a vehicle that’s optimized for the Electron rocket.”

Richards estimated MX-1 could deliver a payload weighing “something under” 10 kilograms to the surface of the Moon. “That’s good for our purposes in our first missions,” he said. “Call it an entry-level lunar mission.”

“That’s good for our purposes in our first missions,” Richards said. “Call it an entry-level lunar mission.”

The low cost of the Electron—less than $5 million per launch—allowed Moon Express to afford a multi-launch contract that provides some backup capability. “If we fall short on the first, we’ll do it again on the second, and if we fall short on the second, we’ll do it again on the third,” Richards said. If Moon Express wins the GLXP on one of those early missions, it will use subsequent launches, including an option for two additional launches, to carry payloads for university or government researchers.

At the time of the October 1 announcement, Moon Express believed that its contract satisfied the requirements for a validated launch contract, but that had not been verified yet by the X PRIZE Foundation. Bob Weiss, vice chairman and president of the foundation, confirmed that was still the case at the time of the SpaceIL announcement. “They haven’t submitted the notification of their contract yet,” he said. “SpaceIL is in a class of one.”

Moonspike rocket
Moonspike says it will develop not just a lunar impactor spacecraft but also a rocket (above) to launch it. (credit: Moonspike)

Moonspike’s crowdfunding gambit

While GLXP teams work to get spacecraft developed and launch contracts signed—with the extension, the remaining 15 teams have until the end of 2016 to have their contracts verified by the X PRIZE Foundation—another effort is underway to send a spacecraft to the Moon, albeit in a very unconventional way.

On October 1, a new European venture called Moonspike started a month-long crowdfunding campaign, seeking to raise nearly $1 million to start work on its own lunar spacecraft. Moonspike plans to also develop its own small launch vehicle to send the tiny spacecraft to crash-land on the Moon.

One of founders of Moonspike, technology executive Chris Larmour, said the idea came to him earlier this year while watching videos of the Earth taken from high-altitude balloons. “I wondered if we could do something different, and the first thing that came into my head was, ‘How hard could it be to get to the Moon these days?’” he said in an interview.

Larmour soon teamed up with Kristian von Bengtson, a founder of a Danish organization called Copenhagen Suborbitals that had been trying to develop a one-person suborbital vehicle. Von Bengtson left Copenhagen Suborbitals last year, but soon decided he needed to get involved in another space project. “I have found out, on a personal level, that life is quite boring without having a space program,” he said.

Moonspike’s planned three-stage launch vehicle will send a spacecraft weighing about 150 kilograms towards the Moon. The spacecraft’s payload will be a small impactor, designed to survive crash-landing on the lunar surface, carrying flash memory with images and other data provided by backers of the mission.

“We need to build a rocket to prove to ourselves and others that this can or cannot be done by a small, dedicated group of people,”said Larmour.

That initial set of backers will come from Moonspike’s crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. For £19 (the British-based venture’s campaign is denominated in pounds; that amount is about $29), a backer can reserve one megabyte of memory of the lander. Alternatively, for the same amount of money, a backer can instead opt for a mission patch.

Larmour and von Bengtson acknowledge that crowdfunding will not pay for the whole mission. “We expect to have to spend tens of millions of dollars,” Larmour said, which he said they will later raise from individual and institutional investors. “We have plans to raise that money down the line, but we need to get started, and that Kickstarter is designed to help us literally kick start the company and the project.”

The idea of using crowdfunding for a lunar mission is not new: another British venture, Lunar Mission One, raised more than $1 million last year to start work on what will eventually be a billion-dollar lunar lander (see “Crowdfunding a billion-dollar Moon mission”, The Space Review, November 24, 2014). Moonspike, though, has raised eyebrows because of its plans to build both a spacecraft and a new launch vehicle, something even GLXP teams have avoided doing.

Larmour defended that decision as key to the project’s original vision. “I started this journey asking the question of how hard it would be to get something to the Moon, not asking how hard it would be to pay someone else to get it there for me,” he said. “We need to build a rocket to prove to ourselves and others that this can or cannot be done by a small, dedicated group of people.”

That small launch vehicle, which will be developed by a team of engineers in Copenhagen, could also be used for other applications, von Bengtson suggested. “We’re not trying to beat SpaceX, but you never know where this will take us,” he said. “It might lead to other missions later on.”

Moonspike is taking a risk with Kickstarter because of its all-or-nothing funding model: projects receive the funds if the total pledges exceeds the project’s goal. Fall even a little short of the goal, and the project gets nothing.

So what happens if Moonspike misses its goal? “We go back to work, I guess,” Larmour said. “We don’t have a plan B. I don’t think it would be feasible to raise early-stage money in that degree for a project of this nature.” The funds, he said, would support vehicle design and development, including engine tests, showing potential future investors that Moonspike has more than what he calls a “paper rocket.”

And, right now, they may need to come up with a Plan B. With the campaign set to expire November 1, Moonspike has raised only a little more than 10 percent of its goal of £600,000 ($922,000). According to Kicktraq, a service that tracks Kickstarter campaigns, the project is on a track to end up with between £91,000 and £130,000 ($140,000 and $200,000) by November 1, far short of its goal. Even an initial surge of pledges was not at the pace needed to reach the goal, and pledges have dropped off significantly since then. By contrast, Lunar Mission One raised more than £200,000 in its first day.

It wouldn’t be surprising, though, if Moonspike did come up with a Plan B should it fail to raise its funds on Kickstarter, even if that delays its plans (its schedule is already nebulous, as Larmour declined to give a planned date for the mission in an interview.) The GLXP and its various teams have, over the last eight years, long since moved on to Plans B, C, D, and beyond in an effort to keep their dreams of landing spacecraft on the Moon alive.