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Moon Express and Team Indus landers
Two landers being developed for the Google Lunar X PRIZE, by Moon Express (left) and Team Indus. (credit: Moon Express/D. Webber)

Commercial space exploration: no longer an oxymoron!

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Webster’s reminds us that an oxymoron is “a figure of speech in which opposite or contradictory ideas or terms are combined.” For example, how can we, in the same breath, be speaking of “space exploration” and “commercial?” Surely it’s governments who underwrite the exploration of space, to be followed later by companies who commercialize the operation.

Well, that is certainly how it used to be done. For example, governments demonstrated the potential for satellite telecommunications, to be followed later by a plethora of companies and organizations who made the technology ubiquitous. But now? Not so much.

The big thing about it—what is really extraordinary—is that these competing teams are doing all of this while operating on a totally commercial basis.

Just look at the two images above. They are prototype lunar landers undergoing a series of tests as part of the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) competition. These are high fidelity spacecraft engineering models and have been developed by two of the teams competing to try to win the grand prize for landing on the Moon, traveling 500 meters, and transmitting high definition imagery back to Earth. On January 26, at an awards event at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, each of these development spacecraft won milestone awards of $1 million each for their respective teams.

Five teams won a combined $5.25 million in prizes for work they performed throughout 2014 demonstrating significant progress towards flight readiness by systematically removing program risks. The risks were reduced by a combination of analysis, simulation, and testing. The awards, and the risk reduction, were focused on three main subsystems of the spacecraft: the landing, mobility and imaging subsystems. And, of course, the big thing about it—what is really extraordinary—is that these competing teams are doing all of this while operating on a totally commercial basis: no more than 10 percent of their funding is allowed by the rules of the competition to come from government sources.

Just think about it. These five teams (and there are others too: a total of 18 remain in the competition today) have been raising funds, designing lunar-capable spacecraft, conducting analyses and simulations, and ultimately developing software and building hardware to undergo flight test programs. And they are doing it on the proverbial shoestring. The total prize money for the competition is only around $30 million.

The teams consist generally of enthusiastic amateurs, often associated with a university, working without any recognizable infrastructure. They have been doing vibration tests. They have been doing thermal vacuum tests. They have been flying their hardware and checking out their navigation and hazard avoidance software. They have been demonstrating that they know how to take the imaging and how to ensure that they survive the launch environment and the journey to the Moon. When was the last time even a government did this? Other than China’s recent lunar lander, it has been a very long time since anyone tried to do any exploration on the surface of the Moon.

So, that date—January 26, 2015—is maybe more significant than generally realized. That $5.25 million in prize money awarded in San Francisco for progress in achieving risk-reduction milestones towards an eventual Moon landing represents, in a very real and tangible sense, a turning point. Since that date, we must recognize that it is no longer a contradiction in terms to use “space exploration” and “commercial” in the same phrase. Commercial space exploration is no longer an oxymoron!

That $5.25 million in prize money awarded in San Francisco for progress in achieving risk-reduction milestones towards an eventual Moon landing represents, in a very real and tangible sense, a turning point.

This is becoming much more like the commercial satellite business. Payments are awarded for progress in completing milestones. The payments for the milestones are fixed price and known in advance. The technical requirements for each milestone have been negotiated in advance. There are no partial payments. Nobody gets paid anything unless the milestones have been satisfactorily achieved (in fact, the independent judging panel monitoring the GLXP did not award all of the possible milestone prizes). This is not the space exploration program of former generations. This is not a cost-plus exercise. This is not government funded. This is a group of young people, from teams all over the world, working in their spare time and often in borrowed facilities, and using the benefits of modern software and optical developments to attempt the next stage of lunar space exploration.

So now we have a new field to develop, and something for the academics to chew on. This is the field of commercial space exploration. We already know something about its constituents, but we need to know a lot more. We need new market research, cost analyses, and, quite frankly, data. Eventually the regulatory people will catch up, and the lawyers will figure out how to make it legal, but right now the focus will need to be on the new business opportunities that are opening up. If only $30 million is needed as an incentive to get landers on the Moon, how soon will the other elements of this commercial space exploration sector follow? The entrepreneurs are already lining up to do their part.

Here is a partial list of possibilities for commercial space exploration development:

  • Geostationary orbit (GEO) combined tourism hotels/space stations
  • Orbital lunar space tourism
  • Lunar scientific activities
  • Lunar in situ resource utilization experiments
  • Lunar sample return
  • Space debris resource management
  • Low Earth orbit (LEO) and GEO spacecraft servicing
  • LEO fuel depot services
  • Asteroid mining
  • Lunar resource exploitation
  • Solar system travel enabling opportunities; and my favorite
  • The pub at the gateway to the solar system (probably in GEO)

We have a new beginning. The GLXP Grand Prize must be claimed by the end of 2016, so look to various regroupings of teams and finalization of innovative launch arrangements during this year. It promises to be a lot of fun. The young people spending their time on these teams certainly think so. They know that they are creating history. Someone once said that it is very messy looking at a paradigm shift from the inside. That is certainly true, but it is also possible to sense something inexorable about it. We are never going back to spending five percent of GDP for a decade in order to do space exploration, even if it was great to get that kickstart back in the 1960s. You are witnessing the start of the new way. It’s called Commercial Space Exploration.