Date: February 20, 2011
Title: Going to the Moon with the Google Lunar X PRIZE
Podcaster: NASA Lunar Science Institute
Description: There’s a brand new race to the Moon and this time it’s not between two governmental superpowers, but now over two dozen independent commercial space companies from 17 different countries are vying for the Google Lunar X PRIZE by being the first to land a rover on the Moon. Nancy Atkinson talks with Will Pomerantz who is the Senior Director of Space Prizes from the X PRIZE Foundation.
Bio: NLSI brings together leading lunar scientists from around the world to further NASA lunar science and exploration.
William Pomerantz is the outgoing Senior Director of Space Prizes from the X PRIZE Foundation, and soon to be the Vice President for Special Projects at Virgin Galactic.
Nancy Atkinson is a science journalist and is the Senior Editor for Universe Today
Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Greg Dorais, and is dedicated to the Chabot Space And Science Center in Oakland California, home of Bill Nye’s Climate Lab, Space Explorers Summer Camp, and so much more. At Chabot Space And Science Center, the universe is yours to experience. Set amid 13 trail-laced acres of East Bay parkland, with glorious views of San Francisco Bay and the Oakland foothills, Chabot is a hands-on celebration of sights, sounds, and sensations. Find out more about the Chabot Space And Science Center at www.chabotspace.org.
Voice: You are listening to the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast which highlights the latest news information of the Moon, on the Moon and from the Moon. It is produced from the NASA Lunar Science Institute at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
Nancy Atkinson: Hi this is Nancy Atkinson for the NASA Lunar Science Institute. There’s a brand new race to the Moon and this time it’s not between two governmental superpowers, but now over two dozen independent commercial space companies from 17 different countries are vying for the Google Lunar X PRIZE by being the first to land a rover on the Moon.
With me today is Will Pomerantz who is the Senior Director of Space Prizes from the X PRIZE Foundation. Hi Will and welcome to the NLSI podcast.
Will Pomerantz: Hi – thanks for having me.
Nancy: Will, for anyone who is not yet familiar with the Google Lunar X PRIZE, could you give us an overview of the competition and what its goals are?
Will: Sure. The Google Lunar X PRIZE, is at $30 million the largest international incentive prize ever offered. So we have an essentially put a $30 million dollar carrot in the end of a very long stick and we essentially issued a challenge to the world, for these groups of very ambitious and very brilliant people to prove themselves by sending a robot to the lunar surface that can explore the surface by moving around really in any controlled fashion. It can be a rover or it can take back off and fly again, as long as it moves for at least a half a kilometer, or a third of a mile for those of us that prefer English units and send back a couple of packages and high definition video and images that we call Moon Casts. We think this is probably going to be the first time anything has been on the lunar surface since the final Soviet robotic mission in 1976, and those of us in the states really haven’t seen any data from the lunar surface since 1972, so we think that there’s at a ton to be learned sciencticially, but also there’s a huge inspirational factor there for people to be able to see those images again.
Nancy: Right. So besides being a competition between teams what are some of the basic goals of the Google Lunar X PRIZE?
Will: Well, you can really boil them down to two. One, we want to open the space frontier in the way similar to what we did it for the first X PRZE, the Ansari X PRIZE. We want to make space exploration and lunar exploration in particular radically cheaper. We think when you create a much lower price point, when you bring the price of missions down to a tenth to what it historically has been or even a hundredth of what it historically has been, you’re opening it up to a huge variety of new customers, new science communities, new industries that just can’t exist at the current price points.
I think it is important to note that the missions that our teams are designing are much less complex than the one that are designed by NASA and other space agencies. This is one of the reasons they are cheaper. But we think there’s a place for the less complex missions when they are so much cheaper that they can be conducted much more often.
Nancy: OK. Now this week you announced the final roster of teams that are competing and there are twenty nine teams, correct?
Will: That’s exactly right.
Nancy: Wow, that’s a really big number. When the prize was announced, was it back in 2007 –
Will: It was, yes.
Nancy: — did you expect to have that many?
Will: Not even close. I remember we had a wonder advisory committee, people from within NASA and other space agencies, the mavericks from around the industry that helped us pull this prize together and develop the draft rules. And I remember in the final advisory council meeting we had a right before announcing the prize, we went around the room right at the end and asked how many teams are going to compete in this. The answers ranged from zero on the low end to I think the highest was may be a dozen or fifteen at the absolute max and that probably came either for myself or from Peter Diamandis, our founder. And the fact that we have lost thirty blows us away we could be more thrilled.
Nancy: Great. All the teams have to come up with their own funding correct?
Will: Correct, that’s exactly right. We’re really a cash on delivery kind of model, payment on delivery. We are putting this money out there which we think will be very useful to teams as they try to prove that they are legitimate efforts and worthy both of people going to work there but also of investors and corporate sponsors and donors, helping to support the mission. But we don’t want to pay people to try. There are enough other people out there that are funding people to try new things. We want to reward people upon success. That means that no matter how crazy an idea might seem today, if it happens to be the best one, then we’ll reward it.
Nancy: OK. Could you tell also about a few of the teams and the types of spacecraft that are being designed?
Will: We have a huge diversity in both the sort of makeup of the team from a sociological perspective and the technical solutions they are approaching, and that makes us really happy. As you mentioned the teams are headquartered all over the world — seventeen different headquarter nations — most of them are actually multinationals, so we have team members working in almost seventy different countries on every continent except for Antarctica. That makes this very, very happy. And their structures are quite different.
We have teams that are non- profits and for-profit teams that are built around universities. We have a team that is an open-source consortium, so really all different kinds and people of all different ages. Its been interesting to note that as inspirational as the first in Moon race was and all the wonderful things happening here in the states with Apollo as well as in the former Soviet Union, or the then Soviet Union — those missions were really restricted to people who all looked alike. You essentially had to be male and for all intents and purposes, you essentially had to be white. And it’s wonderful to think that now we are just looking for intelligent people regardless of their age or color or gender or anything else. It is the idea that flow to the top, not the personalities.
In terms of the technical systems there is a pretty big range. We range from our robotic vehicles that are probably about the size of maybe your kitchen table, down to robots that are not too much bigger than the cell phone you’ve got your pocket. We have vehicles that look very much like a NASA or ESA designed rover, you know, a six-wheel rocker-bogy suspension that looks like what we have on Mars right now. But we also have things that totally different. We have snake-like robot that slither along the surface or vehicles that are just a ball that can shift its mass internally to get some mobility along the lunar surface. We have a number of vehicles that won’t rove along the surface at all, but will use the same engine that they used to land on the Moon and just reignite that, take back off and fly to another location which may allow them to explore totally different types of terrain that is totally inaccessible to a rover. Just a really a huge diverse range, and it is nice because we don’t have to gamble on one of them and say, well that one is the best. We can be open to all comers and allow the solutions is to prove themselves.
Nancy: As you talking about this I am just kind of remembering the line at the end of the Apollo 13 movie, where the character of Jim Lovell says “I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?” But he probably didn’t have anything like the Google Lunar X PRIZE in mind when he when he said that.
Will: I think that’s probably true! But as a class the Apollo astronauts are quite supportive of the Google Lunar X PRIZE. In fact a number o them have signed a plaque that will be carried by the winning teams to the lunar surface that references – and I won’t get the exact quote – but it references the plaque that was left on the leg of the final Apollo lander, and saying, you know, we left the Moon hoping that people would come back to the hills or Taurus Litrow and now someone has and how inspirational this all is. So we are very excited to be sort of referencing that history. We in fact do it quite explicitly with the price because we have a technical bonus that teams can win where they can pick up several million additional dollars if they go back to visit one of those Apollo sites or one of the sites of a non-human mission. I know that causes some concern for some people. People very rightly want to make sure that we are being respectful of those treasured historical sites. But I think it is important to recognize that no one values those sites more than the men and women around the world who are dedicating their careers to getting back to the surface of the Moon. The absolutely understand that those are our valuable treasures that need to be respected but they also understand that there’s an enormous amount to be gained from going back and respectfully revisiting the. There is some very interesting science that we can do by going back and seeing how the site and how those materials have changed over the past forty years.
Nancy: Right. I was going to ask you what type of landing sites or locations that the teams are kind of trying to shoot for.
Will: There is a pretty big mix, you know, essentially everyone is going on the near side for obvious communication reasons. Almost everyone is going in a fairly low latitude and going in kind of equatorial zones. There are few teams that are interested in going closer to the South Pole. We do have another one of those technical bonuses for people who can have a surface confirmation of the recent and absolutely exciting scientific findings about the presence of water in the form of ice, essentially distributed all across the lunar surface but particularly concentrated near the pole, the South Pole in particular. So there is a pretty big range and we also have teams who have picked for sort of a more social reasons and emotional reasons. For example, our team from Romania is going land near the Caucus Mountain Range on the Moon because they come from the same mountain range here on Earth.
Nancy: OK, that’s pretty neat. What is the deadline for the teams to get something up to the Moon?
Will: The prize expires hopefully whenever it is given away. If no one is able to claim it, it will go off the table at the end of the year 2015, so we still have several years left in front of us. I can tell you we are very pleased with the progress of the prize. Obviously in hindsight, announcing this prize about a month before the economy went into the worst recession in several generations may be was not ideal, but amazingly enough, that has not stopped progress at all. It has slowed things admittedly, but has not stopped things and things are really starting to pick back up.
We had a great step forward about six months ago when NASA took an amazing leadership role, really showing how they can be a leader in the NewSpace world by offering a program called the Innovative Lunar Demonstration and Data Program, which was essentially $30 million dollars worth of data purchases. – which is NASA saying for first time ever we are able to buy data about conducting lunar missions and about the Moon itself, rather than having to go out and pay for the acquisition of that data directly on the hopes that it will work. A great buy for NASA and I think they are getting a tremendous value and is a great way for teams to show their investors and supporters that, hey we’ve got a willing customer here. And NASA is not afraid of us; this isn’t an us versus them competition. This is an area where our success is their success and vice versa.
Nancy: Wow, this sounds like a really great competition and we’ll all be watching to see what happens and see how it turns out.
Will: It is a pleasure and an honor to work on it. I’ve loved every minute of it. And we very much enjoyed by the attention of the public. We have a big educational mission and as I mentioned we want to inspire the next generation in much the same way that Apollo did. So everything that that people do in terms of helping to call attention to the teams and the underlying goals really helps us achieve mission success.
Nancy: Right and so if people want more information they should go to your website?
Will: Yeah, they can start at our website which is the www.googlelunarxprize.org. We’re also very active on a variety of other online channels; social networks — we have a Twitter accout: @GLXP. We use Facebook quite a lot. We blog heavily. We also require that our competing teams both blog at an absolute minimum of once per week, and at twenty-nine teams that ends up to a fair amount of blogs per day. We also require that each competing team post essentially 15 minutes of video to You Tube per month, so there are plenty of ways for fans and for students to keep abreast of the competition. And I can tell you that teams love getting feedback, so if you are watching and you’re enjoying what a particular team has to say or if you have questions about it, please leave them comments and send them messages. I think without exception they love to hear from people.
Nancy. Great. And Will, as we are speaking on February 18th, this is actually your last day with the X PRIZE Foundation.
Will: It is. It is a sad milestone. I have been here at X PRIZE for almost six years. I was a volunteer in the day the Ansari X PRIZE and had the great honor coming in after that and figuring out what came next and helping to run the Northrup Grumman Lunar Lander X Challenge in this prize. I have loved every minute of it, but i got an opportunity to sort of continue the X PRIZE vision in another way by going and joing Virgin Galactic, the company that licensed the technology that won our very first competition. That was an opportunity just too good to pass up and I’m extremely excited about and about joining that team even on though I’m sad to be leaving X PRIZE.
Nancy: Well, best of luck in your new and exciting position and endeavours with Virgin Galactic and thanks very much, Will, for talking to us today.
Will: Thanks for having me.
Voice: To find out more about this topic, visit our website at www.lunarscience.nasa.gov. Any opinions expressed are the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of NASA or the NASA Lunar Science Institute. This podcast is produced for educational purposes only. On behalf of the NASA Lunar Science Institute, thanks for listening.
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365 Days of Astronomy
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