In Google Moon Race, Teams, And X Prize Foundation, Face a Reckoning

The future is way behind schedule.
That’s the feeling you pick up on when you talk to people in the civilian space business. Forty years after the Apollo missions, there are still no lunar bases like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are no Pan Am space planes ferrying bureaucrats to meetings on orbiting stations, no piloted missions to Jupiter.
In fact, with the recent retirement of the space shuttle fleet, the U.S. has no indigenous technology for getting crews to space at all. And far from being an everyday experience, spacefaring is still ruinously expensive. As an exercise, try averaging out the costs of building and running the International Space Station on a per-visitor basis, as if it were an orbiting hotel. You get a hefty rate of $7.5 million per person per day.
But a hardy community of space entrepreneurs believes there’s a way to continue humanity’s exploration of the solar system at costs far below those seen in previous eras. When these enthusiasts were young, many of them wanted to be astronauts or NASA engineers, and found themselves working instead for aerospace or software companies or the military. But now they’re designing space missions of their own. And a Google-funded competition—the Google Lunar X Prize—is serving as a kind of private stimulus package.
Announced in 2007, the Google Lunar X Prize offers a $20 million grand prize to the first team that can land a robot on the lunar surface, cover 500 meters of terrain, and send back high-definition video and photos. There’s also a $5 million second prize; $4 million in bonus prizes for completing specific objectives such as finding water ice or traveling more than 5 kilometers; and a $1 million award for the team that “demonstrates the greatest attempts to promote diversity in the field of space exploration.” The deadline: December 31, 2015.
Both the Los Angeles-based X Prize Foundation, which is administering the competition, and Google, which is providing the prize money, are investing their reputations in the success of the contest, which is designed to stimulate sustainable private-sector innovation in space exploration. Google has even assigned a full-time manager, former Air Force captain Tiffany Montague, to oversee the effort. “By setting an example and creating this space economy,” Montague says, “we’re making a big bet and investing in this long-term game of space access for everyone.”
Google co-founder Larry Page announces to Google Lunar X Prize competition in 2007.
But the game isn’t yet open to all. Already, seven of the 33 teams that initially registered for the Google Lunar X Prize have dropped out or been absorbed into other groups, leaving 26 competitors. That number could soon drop again, as teams prepare for a summit in Washington, D.C., next month where they’ll brief the foundation on their progress—and face some soul-searching about whether to continue independently or partner with other teams.
So while the prize deadline is still more than three years away, it seems likely that 2012 will be the make-or-break year for many of the teams. That’s due in part to the requirement that teams raise 90 percent of the money for their landers and rovers, including the funds needed to book passage into orbit, from private sources. A berth on a launch vehicle can cost anywhere from $10 million to $60 million, depending on the size and weight of the craft. And a launch window must be reserved two to three years ahead of time, with much of the fee due up front. This means any team that’s serious about winning the grand prize needs to come up with tens of millions of dollars, pronto.
“If nobody has a ride booked by this December, then the competition has become unwinnable,” says Bob Richards, the co-founder of one of the leading teams, Mountain View, CA-based Moon Express. Richards’ team has less to worry about than most: it’s backed by Naveen Jain, the billionaire founder of dot-com-era search provider InfoSpace. But for many of the teams, it will be a tough scramble to come up with launch funds, even as they approach the time when they must start to “bend metal” if they hope to fly a working lander and rover.