Google Lunar X-Prize

It’s been a long time since I last blogged. Between being busy at work, starting into another book series with Tiffany (one of our favorite traditions is reading good books together), and trying to raise two increasingly active and silly little boys, I haven’t had much chance to provide a lot of bloggy goodness lately. It also doesn’t help that my favorite topic to discuss online also happens to be closely tied to my day-job, so sometimes propriety forces me to say less than I would like to.

All that aside, I wanted to give a couple of thoughts about the recently announced Google Lunar X-Prize. While there is a chance that my company may participate in this competition at some point, we aren’t formally involved with the competition yet, so I figure I can still give a few thoughts on the matter.

So far, most of the response in the blogosphere has been, shall we say, mixed at best. The three biggest complaints I’ve seen are that an orbital X-Prize would’ve been more useful, that there really aren’t any useful markets that this prize could help promote, and lastly that the prize is far too small for what it’s asking for. I don’t think that these opinions are invalid, however I have a couple of thoughts I’d like to discuss.

First, lets discuss the complaint that an orbital X-Prize would’ve been more useful. The claim is that this prize really isn’t doing much of anything to really open up space development, because its ignoring the earth-to-orbit launch problem, and that therefore the prize is irrelevant at best. While there is some truth to this line of reasoning–the technical immaturity and unaffordability of existing earth-to-orbit launch services is probably the single biggest impediment to commercial space development–I think there are several other things that need to be considered:

One, it has been nearly three years since Scaled Composites won the original X-Prize for suborbital space launch. While I fully expect that at least two or three (or maybe more) of the existing companies targeting the suborbital tourism market will get there, and more importantly, be financially successful at it, it’s likely to take far more time than most of us had previously imagined. The engineering challenges of developing a reusable suborbital vehicle are impressive, and the market and more importantly financial challenges are even more daunting. I think that several of the competing companies have structured their business approach such that they can have the endurance neccessary to see this through (XCOR being an excellent example). But the reality is that we may be lucky to see any of the competing companies actually offering personal spaceflight services before the end of the decade. The companies most likely to be able to build a commercially successful orbital launch vehicle are these suborbital companies. The larger space companies, while they have the technical competence and the financial staying power necessary, are also all very risk averse and are not well structured for executing on a first-generation reusable orbital transport. I could go further into why I think that the emerging suborbital companies are more likely to develop the first generation of reusable orbital space transports, but that’s a post for another time. The main point though is that there are very few companies or groups that are even remotely ready to tackle the challenge of developing affordable and reliable reusable orbital transportation systems. A few of them will likely be there eventually, but I think an orbital X-Prize may actually be dangerously premature at this point. By encouraging emerging space companies to move faster than they’re really ready for yet might end up causing an alt.space equivalence of the Apollo Program–premature over-optimization of globally suboptimal approaches. The approaches most likely to win such a prize if offered now may very well not be the optimal result that would develop naturally without a prize.

Two, an orbital prize by necessity needs to be a lot bigger than even the $30M that Google is putting up for this prize. Even if the requirements were only say 2-3 people to LEO twice in a week, the prize would likely need to be in the $100M range to be really effective. As it is, there already is an existing prize for reusable orbital transportation: the $50M, Bigelow Aerospace sponsored America’s Space Prize. Now, there are several things about this prize that make it far less likely to be useful than it could’ve been, such as the large minimal crew size, the long minimum flight duration, and also the ban on using any government development funding (note this last one is one of my biggest concerns about the Google Lunar X-Prize). However, I doubt that the prize would’ve been won even if those restrictions had been more reasonable. That maybe just be my opinion, but $50M just isn’t a huge amount of money, and you have to raise the money to compete in the first place. A successful orbital space prize would need a lot more money than Google was willing to offer, and a lot more than the X-Prize is ever likely to raise.

Three, there’s more to opening up space to commercial development than just the earth-to-orbit launch problem. While that may be the 800lb gorilla in the room at the moment, I’m not sure how much there is that we can do to accelerate the solution to that problem at the moment. I think it will be solved, but as I said, it is going to take a while. In the meantime, its perfectly reasonable to start working on some of the other problems and technologies needed to be solved before we can become a spacefaring society. The ability to autonomously land stuff safely and reliably on planetary surfaces is one of them.

The second major complaint ties in with my last point on the first complaint. There really are several potential “follow-on” markets that can be encouraged by this prize. Several of them will for the near-term at least revolve around potential government markets, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t markets, or that they won’t eventually spread out to more commercial customers. For instance, as I mentioned above, it may very well be that competitors for this prize may end up maturing some areas of space technology that open up the possibility for them to provide services to future government projects such as other unmanned planetary landers. I have some further thoughts on this, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Also, depending on the approach taken, competition for this prize may help private companies develop some of the subsystems, technologies, and techniques necessary for future manned commercial landers. It’ll be very hard to make a business case close on commercial manned lunar landers at this exact point in time, but many of the long-range navigation, communication, and landing technologies developed for this prize may be directly applicable to future projects. By gaining experience with developing spacecraft that can operate in the cislunar environment, can land autonomously, can perform maneuvers in deep space, etc., these companies will help position themselves for the commercial opportunities that may open up when the earth-to-orbit transportation becomes more affordable. While the propulsion system and scale for a manned lunar lander is likely to be very different than the subscale robotic landers that will be involved in this competition, many of the non-propulsion disciplines will be directly relevant.

The last complaint revolves around the size of the purse. Many prior commercial and government low-cost lunar lander efforts have estimated the cost of such an undertaking to be in the $40-60M range, with the launch portion of the project being a large component. I have a few thoughts, though they aren’t entirely original:

One, there’s nothing that says that a prize competitor has to actually turn a profit on the prize itself. Scaled spent over $25M to win the $10M X-Prize, and as several people have pointed out, there are often groups who will spend tens of millions to compete in events, some of which don’t even have a cash prize! The real key is that the total value delivered to the team and its investors/sponsors has to exceed the cost by a sufficient margin. For instance as one commenter quipped, it might well be worth $50M to Bill Gates to have the winning rover broadcasting with a big Microsoft logo on its side while winning a Google sponsored prize. Also, potential commercial and governmental follow-on markets can sometimes justify spending more than the value of the prize to win it (see: SpaceShip One). There may also be some potential sponsors who would be willing to provide money “just to say they did it”. So, just because it may cost more than the prize is worth to win it, doesn’t necessarily mean that nobody will try or even succeed, in spite of spending more than “the prize is worth.”

Two, most of the comments that have come to these conclusions have assumed that the competitors will purchase launch services for the competition in the traditional fashion–ie that someone is just going to buy a slightly discounted Falcon 1 flight from Elon, or purchase a secondary payload slot from ULA, or buy a Dnepr launch from the Russians. While I agree that in order to be successful in this competition, competitors are almost certainly going to launch on existing launch vehicles, I also highly doubt that the launch “purchase” transaction involved is going to go the way that most people are assuming. I’ll leave it at that.

Three, some people have been assuming this prize can’t be won because for some reason they think a company needs to have an orbital launch vehicle to compete. It’s true that none of the alt.space companies are successfully flying things to orbit right now, but as per point two above, I think that’s pretty irrelevant. This isn’t a launch prize, its a prize for a lunar lander/rover. I’d give at least 95% odds that whoever wins this will fly on an existing launch vehicle, and not try to roll-their-own.

Anyhow, those are some of my thoughts on the main complaints. I do have some of my own worries about the prize, particularly about the form of the final rules, the short timeline, and particularly how they handle the rules about limits on government income for competitors, but my overall opinion is positive. I’m of course biased as heck, being a certified and certifiable lunar enthusiast and being an engineer at a VTVL rocket developer, but I still think it’s a good idea.

The following two tabs change content below.
Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
This entry was posted in Launch Vehicles, Lunar Commerce, Space Development, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Google Lunar X-Prize

  1. Anonymous says:

    .

    do you really think that Google wants someone’s rover land on the moon before his (multimillion$$$ business) partner known as “NASA”?

    “Space” is NOT (and, I believe, NEVER will be) the Google’s “core business” (why do on the moon to earn million$$$ if they earn billion$$$ every year on earth?) so, that prize is mainly an excellent “VIRAL MARKETING” operation to have a GLOBAL publicity without spend a CENT (now) and Google has ALREADY reached his goal (NO NEED that a rover will really lands on the moon in 2012…)

    http://www.ghostnasa.com/posts/008moonprize.html

    .

  2. Thomas Matula says:

    Jon,

    One note. Scaled didn’t spend $25 million to win the X-Prize, Paul Allen did. Scaled was just the contractor Paul hired to do the job.

  3. K.L. says:

    The GLXP was a good bit of news. Regardless if anyone will claim it, it will still make a bunch of serious people work for it…

    (OffTopic)
    I’d love to hear any news about Mastens current progress. The last update was a month ago.

    It seems that you at Masten have deliberately taken a course of “no news updates”, but I hope you may still be within schedule for the X-Prize Cup.

    I guess there’s still a horde of things to do before you are where you want to be, but… Can you say anything about your whereabouts, Jon?

    Well anyhow, good luck with the remaining six weeks before XPC! And hope to hear some good news, if you can comment…

  4. David Stever says:

    Anonymous- you don’t think that Google wants someone to beat NASA?!? Why not? It’s not Google’s money, no matter what happens, and they get to write off the money they pony up for the outcome. Like you said, this is all viral marketing, and Google wins no matter what happens, and they get to post the rover pictures on whatever site they have up in 2012.

  5. Jon Goff says:

    Gaetano,
    You seem to be missing the point. If this is just a PR stunt by Google, they will actually get a lot more PR out of it if someone serious competes and wins. If this just fizzles out, they only get the one time PR benefit (which quite frankly really isn’t that useful IMO). But if you get one or two teams seriously competing, it ends up being a lot more useful for them overall. As for thinking that Google wouldn’t want a private space venture to land before NASA? That’s just plain batty.

    ~Jon

  6. Jon Goff says:

    Tom,
    Exactly. What was the name of the entity Paul set up to do that? Was it Mojave Space Ventures? Or was it Mojave Aerospace Ventures?

    Anyhow, I expect that if anyone wins this prize, they’ll likely have to do something similar–have an outside angel investor like Paul Allen or such put together an entity to go after the prize that then “subcontracts” out various portions like the lander, the rover, and the translunar transportation segments. I guess doing that might help with any rules about government income for the prize winning entity.

    Of course, it is going to be really hard finding anyone with that kind of cash available–it’ll be interesting to see if someone can pull it off.

    ~Jon

  7. Jon Goff says:

    K.I.,
    Sorry about the light blogging over the past month. We’ve just been super busy (same reason why I haven’t been blogging much lately). I’ll poke Ian about putting out an official update sometime this next week. I try to be careful about what I say about MSS stuff on this blog, since I’m not an officer in the company.

    ~Jon

  8. Anonymous says:

    Jon,
    it’s true that a prize winner adds lots of PR benefits to Google, but that’s not likely happen since the costs will be higher than the $20M prize
    some say the competitors could spend more than $20M adding their own money like Rutan has done with the SS1 (that had a cost $20M higher than the prize) but the suborbital prize’s experience will be soon turned in a multi-million$$$ while the lunar lander can’t become a profitable business in the short time
    about NASA and the lunar rovers… some rumors said that NASA has closed its Ames Center lunar rover project since it was a possible competitor of the manned program, because, a successful lunar rover program with sharp 3D images and good scientific results, would have proposed again the question “why spend 100 times more to send humans on the moon?”
    so, why do NASA shoud be happy to see dozens rovers on the moon before its first (new) landing in 2020 ???
    about Google vs. NASA… there is just one NASA in the world, and only NASA has an immense archive of images and data that grows every day… now Google is a partner of NASA and share its database to create new services (full of AdSense advertising…) then, I doubt that Google could risk to lose this (long-term/multi-million$$$) partnership/friendship with NASA just to have a few images from the prize’s lunar rovers… this is the reason the Google lunar prize is so low (within or under the costs limits to accomplish the mission) so, will be very difficult that someone may win it…
    gaetano

  9. Anonymous says:

    .

    a conspiracy theorist could say that Google has decided the prize’s amount and rules in concert with NASA… 🙂

    gaetano

    .

  10. Jon Goff says:

    Gaetano,
    Just because you can’t see commercialization opportunities for systems developed in this prize doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I think the prize amount is definitely high enough to be worthwhile, IMO its the deadline that’s going to be toughest to meet.

    Anyway, I’m getting annoyed at you libeling companies left and right (first Scaled about their Family Support Fund, now Google for announcing a perfectly legit prize). Keep it up, and I may have to ban you from my site.

    ~Jon

  11. Anonymous says:

    where did you get that $40-60M figure?
    I’m sort of related to Moon/Mars exploration, and I would say such a mission would cost at the very least $150M.
    Don’t forget you have to rove for 500 meters. People take Pathfinder as the way to go, but it drove maybe 20m total. The MER rovers are closer to what you want to think about ($400+M each). In addition, you have to have your own ground stations. If you use the ones “provided free of charge”, you’ll get a rather bad bandwidth and realtime HD video will be … difficult let’s say.

    Last but not least, if you lose the first rover, a repeat would cost more than half the price of the first one (+launch), so such an undertaking is super risky.

    I think that’s just a PR stunt by Google. They get a lot of press coverage now, are associated with the Moon exploration even though they are not helping one bit. The deadline they set is clearly unrealistic. To launch in 2011-2012, you’d have to start *building* now. Also, because of inflation, the prize gets more difficult naturally every year. Why cut it off by $5M in addition in 2012???

  12. Anonymous says:

    Jon,
    often reality is not sweet like dreams… however, the Lunar X Prize CAN have a WINNER… http://www.ghostnasa.com/posts/009prizewinner.html
    gaetano

  13. Anonymous says:

    anonymous: “Don’t forget you have to rove for 500 meters. People take Pathfinder as the way to go, but it drove maybe 20m total. The MER rovers are closer to what you want to think about ($400+M each). In addition, you have to have your own ground stations. If you use the ones “provided free of charge”, you’ll get a rather bad bandwidth and realtime HD video will be … difficult let’s say.”

    Are they asking for realtime HD video? The guidelines say “near-realtime videos” of the roving and, in a separate point, HD video. The total is “approximately a Gigabyte”. This is from the Moon, not Mars, so the Mars rover comm bandwidth situation is a bit different.

    For the roving distance for Pathfinder and MER, you might consider some other factors that made it harder for the Mars rovers to build up mileage. First, their mission was selected for science interest, not just safety and ease of roving. This one will be able to select a landing site based solely on ease of roving (unless they want to go for bonus points).

    Also, the Mars rovers carried some other instruments that these won’t need to carry, affecting power, comm, etc.

    Also, the Mars rovers needed to stop frequently to actually do science investigations. These rovers won’t have to do that. They’ll be focused on moving (unless they’re looking for ice or something. It would be cool to have some bonus prizes related to science measurements).

    The lunar rovers also won’t have to deal with the long communication delay for Mars. A rover operator on Earth could be moving them almost continually.

    All these factors bring to my (non-Engineer) mind something more on the size scale of Pathfinder rather than MER.

    Having said all that, though, I also think it will be very tough, and nice sponsorships, lots of hard work, and hopefully more bonus prizes will be involved.

  14. kert says:

    I’d go even smaller than pathfinder. Lets not forget that space robotics has always been way behind terrestrial, partly due to long time the missions spend in planning.

    I mean, we had a bunch of completely autonomous cars going through desert at more than 15mph average for 130 miles in 2005.
    Driving 500m on lunar surface with 2-second time lag in guidance is a relative piece of cake, in terms of robotics at least.

    Thats also where i’d look for sponsors, companies doing robotics. and having a huge PR relevance with robots. Honda and iRobot immediately come to mind.

    In fact, iRobot military PackBot is off the shelf perfect rugged plaftorm for task like this, and it weighs less than 30 pounds.

  15. Anonymous says:

    well, “near real-time” would still be very difficult
    to upload 1Gb of data, you’d need a looooong time. It is forbidden by the US to irradiate the Earth with X-band radiation (although the Japanese SELENE will do it…), so you have to go S-band, which is not optimal for large dataset

    I agree that you don’t have all the difficulties of delay and mission duration, but the lunar environment is pretty challenging still, at least thermally

    One point against going too small is that you are going to land on loose soil, and look at how difficult it was for the MER rovers not to get stuck in 10cm high ripples (ok, there won’t be ripples, but plenty of fine grain soil). And look at the later Apollo missions, how much dust and soil the man-size rover moves around. For reference, the Russian Lonokhod were about the size of the MERs I think (or bigger, with the main body 1+m above ground). The iRobot thing would most likely drive a couple of meters and sink… or you’d have to put it in a big bubble 😉

    Also, the point of not landing in a complicated area compared to Pathfinder, granted. But remember that this wasn’t the big issue because they had airbags. And for Apollo 11, which was supposed to land on a flat surface, they discovered large boulders just before landing…

    You can still do it, you can still be lucky and have no problem. But if you don’t want to waste $20M+ (at the very least!), you want to be more careful, and cost will go up dramatically.

    Sponsoring is the only way to go I agree. Economically, it’d totally outlandish otherwise.

  16. kert says:

    The iRobot thing would most likely drive a couple of meters and sink…

    Huh ?? Why would that be ? It has certainly way more ground contact area per weight than any four- or six-wheeled robot.
    You may want to widen the tracks maybe a bit, but thats it.

    Take a look at this thing in real action, being tossed around and driven through water and up the stairs on Youtube,
    http://youtube.com/results?search_query=packbot

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *