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.