Former Google Lunar X Prize teams focused on new commercial and government opportunities

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PASADENA, Calif. — Companies that one competed for the Google Lunar X Prize now expect to fly their first lunar landers in the next two years to serve the needs of commercial and government customers, including NASA.

In presentations at the Space Tech Expo here May 24, four companies that, at one time, were vying for a $20 million grand prize for landing a commercial spacecraft on the moon now say they’re motivated by what they see is a growing interest in lunar exploration and commercialization.

“It’s really exciting to see that the moon’s time has come,” said Dan Hendrickson, vice president of business development for Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based company developing lunar landers. “We’ve been waiting for a moment like this one for some time and we’re really excited and thrilled to be serving this new re-posture to the moon that the United States and many other countries around the world have engaged in.”

That enthusiasm is bolstered by a shift in national space policy in the United States that has put a return to the moon on the path to eventual human missions to Mars. NASA has since unveiled plans for its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where the agency will buy payload space on small commercial lunar landers for carrying scientific instruments and other experiments.

“We hope to be selected and be part of that program,” he said. While Astrobotic has 12 customers for its first lunar lander mission in 2020, ranging from the Mexican Space Agency to Arch Mission Foundation, which announced plans May 15 to fly a copy of Wikipedia on the lander, NASA is not yet a customer. “It’s really a good news story for the industry and for the program.”

Moon Express is also pressing ahead with its lunar lander missions, planning for its first mission in 2019, said Alain Berinstain, vice president of global development at the Florida-based company. Like Hendrickson, he praised NASA’s lunar initiatives like CLPS. “It helps companies like ours move forward in a stable environment and really thrive,” he said.

The company became a finalist for the Google Lunar X Prize after signing a contract in 2015 for several launches on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. Berinstain said that contract is still in place, but he left the door open to using a different vehicle on the company’s first mission.

“If our manifest requires a performance for the spacecraft that is beyond the Electron’s, then we may need to use a different launch vehicle,” he said. He did not specify any alternative vehicles under consideration. “We are committed to using the Electron for those missions where it makes sense.”

Germany company PTScientists is hiring staff in preparation for its first lunar lander mission, scheduled to launch in late 2019. “We started 10 years ago as a group of scientists and engineers, six people,” said Robert Boehme, founder and chief executive of PTScientists. The company is now up to 46 people, he said. “We’ve become quite a big team.”

That mission is scheduled to go to the Taurus-Littrow region of the moon, near the Apollo 17 landing site. That mission is the first of several PTScientists has planned, including one in cooperation with the European Space agency later in the 2020s to test the ability to access and use water ice resources at the lunar poles.

PTScientists has been working in partnership with a number of major companies outside the space industry on its mission, from Audi to Vodaphone. The company, he said, is relying heavily on technologies developed elsewhere for the lander. “We basically just see ourselves as a system integrator,” he said.

India’s TeamIndus is working on a series of lunar lander missions as well for sending payloads to the moon inexpensively. “The key to creating this market is to bring the cost down by an order of magnitude. You have to think about exponential reductions in cost for this market to really come online,” said Rahul Narayan, founder and chief executive of TeamIndus.

TeamIndus is planning an annual series of lunar lander missions, starting in mid-2019. The company has completed a set of tests on a qualification model of the lander, and Narayan said they were ready to develop flight hardware for the lander.

Those effort continue even though the Google Lunar X Prize has expired, with Google deciding not to renew its title sponsorship of the competition. The X Prize Foundation has continued the competition, but without a prize purse as it has not found a new sponsor to provide the prize purse.

Moon Express’ Berinstain, though, argued that the competition’s legacy lives on in the form of companies like his that are pursuing various customers for commercial landers. “It really helped get people’s heads around the challenge of doing what we and others are trying to do,” he said. “It helped get people thinking and moving and moving fast.”