As a child, Alexandra Hall dreamed of becoming an astronaut. When her initial plan to earn a commercial pilot’s license was foiled by a minimum height requirement, she channeled her love of space into an astrophysics degree from the United Kingdom’s University of Leicester and an early career using astronomy to promote math, science, technology and engineering education.
Still, Hall’s dream of space exploration remained so vivid that when the X Prize Foundation needed someone to oversee its $30 million race to the Moon, she realized it might offer a new path to space exploration.
“When I was little, I dreamed of being the first woman on the Moon,” Hall said. “Maybe that’s unrealistic now. But I can use this amazing story of individuals who are passionate about space to have a big impact on education and public outreach. And from a purely selfish point of view, I’ll get to be in mission control when the rocket is launched and travel vicariously through it.”
The X Prize Foundation of Playa Vista, Calif., established the Google Lunar X Prize in 2007 to award $20 million to the first privately funded team to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon by the end of 2015, send a vehicle 500 meters over the lunar surface and return high-definition video and imagery to Earth. The foundation plans to award $5 million to the second team to accomplish those feats and another $5 million in bonus prizes to teams that complete various tasks such as operating at night, detecting water and making a precision landing near an Apollo site. The $20 million grand prize is scheduled to decrease to $15 million if a government-funded mission beats competitors to the lunar surface.
Hall joined the X Prize Foundation in July 2011 after serving as executive director of the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, Calif., and co-founder and chief executive of Airship Ventures, a company that provided sightseeing tours in a 75-meter-long German Zeppelin NT from Moffett Federal Airfield next door to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
Hall recently spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.
What is the goal of the Google Lunar X Prize?
There is the obvious goal of having a privately funded spacecraft land on the Moon, send a robot 500 meters and send back video and images. But the broader goals are to move our economic sphere beyond Earth orbit and to create that Apollo moment for this generation; to inspire public imagination and get people interested in science, technology, engineering and math education.
Google did not want to simply encourage someone to land on the Moon. The goal was to spearhead a new space economy that considers the Moon part of the commercial sphere; to move this entrepreneurial economy beyond suborbit, beyond orbit and further out into space. Google also wanted to encourage discussion about the infrastructure we are going to need to start considering the Moon part of our economic sphere and to start building it.
Why doesn’t the competition get much attention?
We have been waiting for the right moment to let the broader public know about it. In space exploration you spend a long time in the early stages, so you don’t want to get a general audience excited and then say, “It will be three years before anything happens.” Once we have launch attempts scheduled, we can roll out the story with the knowledge that we will be able to maintain that momentum and excitement through the launch attempts and hopefully the landing.
NASA is supporting some of the U.S. teams by purchasing technical data through the Innovative Lunar Data Demonstration program. Are other nations establishing similar programs?
Teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize have to be 90 percent privately funded. They can raise the other 10 percent by competing for contracts. They can’t simply be given money by a government agency. So what NASA ended up doing a couple of years ago was to look at the potential for the teams to develop innovative ways to move on the lunar surface. NASA decided to award contracts to gain access to that data. At the time, NASA was planning a mission to the moon.
Since NASA awarded those contracts, I have acted like a lunar chamber of commerce, trying to find potential customers for other teams. I have been talking to folks in Europe who could assist teams that are not eligible to compete for the NASA contracts.
One competitor said the primary challenge was financial, not technical. Is that true?
There is an element of truth to that. In 2007 when this prize was launched, the economy was at a peak and people were spending a lot of money on all kinds of interesting things. Of course the recession put a ding in all the teams’ plans, but it forced its own kind of innovation. We’ve seen teams fairly dramatically downsize what they were planning to send to the Moon. We’ve also seen teams partner, where one team is building the lander and a second team is hitching a ride on that lander.
There is definitely a significant element of fundraising here and that has become more of a focus than it was intended to be. On the other hand, the requirements for video and imagery are pretty tough to meet. So teams do need some technical innovation to succeed, particularly in the camera systems.
What impact have high launch costs had on teams?
We have a large number of teams that I believe would be technically capable of delivering a vehicle. Their problem is getting that vehicle to the Moon.
It takes a lot of money to get off the Earth’s surface right now. In 2007 when the prize was launched, there was a hope that the trajectory of bringing launch costs down might happen a little sooner than it has. Teams have to find big chunks of change for their launch payments.
If they are planning to hitch a ride with another payload, they’ve got to make sure their mission is robust enough to make the primary payload customer happy. One of the challenges we are coming up against is that we can glibly say, “Competitors can get a ride on somebody else’s launch,” but the reality is that government or commercial satellite launch providers are not willing to carry a spacecraft that has not tested every single element to the nth degree.
They don’t want to jeopardize the main mission. On paper the concept of piggybacking on someone else’s launch looks good. The reality is that even though people want space to become more entrepreneurial and they want missions to accept more risk, they want someone else to lead the way.
You mentioned that 2013 is an important year for the competition? Why?
We are a couple of years away from the competition’s end, so teams that are not significantly down the path of raising money, building, testing and figuring out a ride are probably not going to be in a position to launch before the end of 2015. If they are hoping to piggyback or hoping to be integrated in another spacecraft all of these discussions need to be happening now.
We’ve got three to four teams emerging as front-runners. We’ve got another half a dozen that have made significant progress. We are expecting more mergers, acquisitions and withdrawals before the end of the year.
Who are the leading contenders?
The X Prize Foundation does not comment on the likelihood of success of specific teams. However, I suspect everybody reading SpaceNews has the background to look at the team websites, read the weekly news roundup and determine where teams are in the process. At the foundation, we are looking at the possibility of coming up with an independently assessed leader board.
It’s a competition, so the first thing people are going to ask is, “Who is in the lead?” The challenge is to capture that spirit of competition in a fair manner. It is a challenge but we would like to figure out how to do it.
Do you think anyone will win the prize?
I believe we will see attempts. The dreamer in me is absolutely sure we will see a first place and a second place. The realist in me believes that we are going to get attempts. I don’t know if anybody will complete the entire mission. There are many things that stand between getting a spacecraft off the ground and landing it successfully and moving on the Moon. We shouldn’t be surprised to see scenarios where someone launches, lands and then is unable to move or communicate. But even having attempts would be significant.