Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The New Moon Race

Ralph Buttigieg
Sydney, NSW

A new Moon race has began. On September 13 2007 two Americans, Xprize founder Peter H. Diamandis and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, announced The Google Lunar Xprize is a $30 Million prize to send private a rover to the moon. This will be a challenge to teams from around the world. If successful world attention will be focused on the Moon like nothing since Apollo. ( current US plans call for a human return to the Moon after the Xprize completion date). The competition has been designed to inspire current generations:

The Google Lunar X PRIZE is an unprecedented international competition that will challenge and inspire engineers and entrepreneurs from around the world to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration. The X PRIZE Foundation, best known for the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private suborbital spaceflight, is an educational nonprofit prize organization whose goal is to bring about radical breakthroughs to solve some of the greatest challenges facing the world today.

“The Google Lunar X PRIZE calls on entrepreneurs, engineers and visionaries from around the world to return us to the lunar surface and explore this environment for the benefit of all humanity,” said Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation. “We are confident that teams from around the world will help develop new robotic and virtual presence technology, which will dramatically reduce the cost of space exploration.”

“Having Google fund the purse and title the competition punctuates our desire for breakthrough approaches and global participation,” continued Diamandis. “By working with the Google team, we look forward to bringing this historic private space race into every home and classroom. We hope to ignite the imagination of children around the world.”

As expected the GoogleLunarXprize has also generated plenty of controversy. Some are dismissing the whole thing as a PR stunt by Google. Others are complaining because their pet projects are not the goal. Lets have a deeper look.

David Nolan at Popular Mechanics gives five reasons why the prize won't be won. Clark Lindsey responds to the criticisms but I like to make a few points. The contest does not require the team to build the rocket, they can hire a commercial vehicle. Back in 1998 a Chinese communication satellite, Asiasat 3 failed to reach a stable orbit, so engineers rescued the craft by sending it on two lunar flybys making it the first commercial spacecraft to reach the Moon. Perhaps a team could send their rover piggyback with a geostationary satellite. Or perhaps they can use the Interplanetary Super Highway as Brian Wang suggests.

The Xprize people know the prize is winnable from previous experience. Remember this is not a new idea.. Lunacorp tried for several years to develop a commercial lunar rover using Russian technology but didn't get anywhere. More relevant was a company called Blastoff!. It was a started by several entrepreneurs in 2000 and managed to raise several million dollars before the bust killed it. One of those entrepreneurs was Peter Diamandis of Xprize fame. Diamandis explained how the project came about:

It turns out that Bill Gross (and Larry) were both space fans. One day Bill was talking to his son about the space program and decided he wanted to buy him a moon rock... so he naturally looked on eBay to see if one was available for purchase (of course there are no moon rocks in the public sector). This exercise got him thinking about space... after a few other chance meetings, and a reflection on the tremendous success of the July 1997 Mars Pathfinder internet outreach (run by Kirk Goodall), Bill got the idea that he would fund the first private mission to the moon... a robotic mission that would make its money through internet advertising and media rights.... a company he called BlastOff! Bill and Larry viewed Pixar as the model for a company that could create entertainment and garner a multi-billion valuation. Their objective was to only build business models that could reach the billion dollar category... after all they had done it many times already!

Blastoff! eventually folded but they made enough progress for to show the Xprize people a private moon mission is possible.

The New Space critics are completely missing the point. They seem to think that the only worthwhile space research should be about reducing the cost of space access. I may be stating the obvious , but the purpose of a transport system is to transport something. If some team manages to pull this off despite the high cost of transport, fantastic! This will be a world wide event. Millions of people will be following it on the Internet. It will certainly create world wide interest in space exploration something Paul Breed's reusable micro-launcher idea will never do.

Theres already one serious entry I'm sure there will be more. I'm hope some Australian group has a go.