A decade ago, there was a great deal of buzz about the $20 million Google Lunar X-prize conceived to inspire primarily university students and contributors to design, build and land a commercial robotic probe on the Moon. Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of the X-Prize Foundation, hoped to follow up the successful award given to Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites for achieving the first commercial (read: private) suborbital spaceflight with a test pilot aboard.
Diamandis then looked for another inspirational prize to offer, and with the assistance of Google, conceived the Google Lunar X-prize. That was in 2007. Initially, 29 teams entered the competition. The teams had to raise the necessary funds, design a spacecraft within certain parameters, obtain FAA and other agency approvals, secure a launch vehicle, ensure mission control, land the probe on the Moon, and have the lander perform a brief exploratory mission and send high-definition video and images back to Earth. The challenges to achieve all this proved daunting.
As the years rolled by, one by one the teams dropped away in the face of the difficulties. As the original deadline in 2014 approached with no comfortable lead by any time to achieve needed milestones, the deadline was extended. Ultimately, there were five teams left in the running. They were Moon Express, based in Florida; Team Indus from India; Team Hakuto from Japan; a team from Israel, and Synergy Moon which was an international combine. Another and final deadline was granted of March 31, 2018.
As billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin has confessed, “Spaceflight is hard,” or words to that effect. Bezos has the hundred of millions to pour into his suborbital spaceflight company, but college teams were totally out of their element. It certainly stretched all their capabilities, but they hit a ceiling of complexity and funding that stopped them in their tracks.
This month, the Google Lunar X-Prize committee announced no team would achieve the goal of landing their probe on the Moon. Diamandis and others on the committee were as disappointed as the teams themselves.
“If every X-Prize competition we launch had a winner, we are not be audacious enough,” the committee said in a released statement, “and we will continue to launch competitions that are literal or figurative moonshots, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We are inspired by the progress of the Google Lunar X-Prize teams, and will continue to support their journey, one way or another, and will be there to help shine the spotlight on them when they achieve that momentous goal.
“As a result of this competition,” the statement went on, “we have sparked the conversation and changed the expectations with regard to who can land on the moon. Many now believe it’s no longer the sole purview of a few government agencies, but now may be achieved by small teams of entrepreneurs, engineers, and innovators from around the world.”
Anthony Young ©Personal Spaceflight Advisors LLC
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