Huntsville Team Enters Lunar X Prize Competition

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Spurred on by the possibility of a $10 million contract from NASA, a team of Huntsville, Ala.-based organizations recently entered an international competition to develop and launch a commercial mission to the Moon.

The Rocket City Space Pioneers team plans to take an innovative approach to the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition, buying a Falcon 9 launch from Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and reselling the majority of the medium-lift rocket’s capacity to finance the Moon mission. The team believes if all the pieces fall into place, the companies will turn a profit from the mission and have a lot of fun doing it.

“I can’t tell you how excited our employees are to be taking this on,” said Tom Baumbach, president of Dynetics Corp., the 1,300-employee space and defense contractor leading the team. “We want to do the hard problems. We don’t want to do the average problems.”

The Google Lunar X Prize competition announced in September 2007 challenges teams to land a rover on the Moon, travel 500 meters and send back high-definition imagery. With the addition of the Rocket City Space Pioneers, there are 22 active teams competing for $30 million in prize money. They range from an open-source collaboration of engineers and software developers to highly structured partnerships featuring prominent aerospace firms, universities and investment banks. The rules of the competition call for the missions to be at least 90 percent privately funded.

The first team to complete the Moon mission will win the $20 million grand prize, furnished by the nonprofit X Prize Foundation. The second team to complete the mission will receive a $5 million purse, and there are also $5 million in bonus prizes available for accomplishing additional feats such as traveling more than 5 kilometers or surviving a long, cold night on the Moon.

Contest organizers originally gave the teams until the end of 2012 to win the grand prize, after which it would be reduced to $15 million. Contestants say they expect the deadline to be extended to the end of 2015, but the change is not yet official.

The Rocket City Space Pioneers team also includes Teledyne Brown Engineering, Andrews Aerospace, Draper Laboratory, the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and the nonprofit Von Braun Center for Science & Innovation. Because of the specialized nature of the competition, Dynetics and some teammates also are aligned with competing teams, said Tim Pickens, team leader and Dynetics’ chief propulsion engineer. Pickens was previously the lead propulsion engineer for the Scaled Composites team that won the first X Prize in 2004 by flying the privately built SpaceShipOne craft to the edge of space twice within two weeks.

The Huntsville team is basing its mission around a custom-built secondary payload adapter ring that will fit between the Falcon 9’s upper stage and its to-be-determined main payload. The ring, which is being designed by Seattle-based Andrews Aerospace, will provide space for six secondary payloads, one of which will be the Huntsville team’s 200-kilogram lunar lander, Pickens said in a Sept. 8 interview.

The Falcon 9 launch, which SpaceX advertises for between $50 million and $56 million depending on orbital destination, has not yet been booked. The Huntsville team must offset this cost by reselling the main payload spot and the other five spots on the secondary payload ring. Andrews Aerospace — which formed Spaceflight Services in April to market secondary payload opportunities — is brokering these spots but has no firm deals in place, Pickens said. The Huntsville team is targeting late 2012 or 2013 for the launch, but that is dependent on the availability of the to-be-determined payloads.

Mission plans call for the main payload and three of the secondary payloads to be placed into geostationary transfer orbits. The payload adapter ring will then separate from the rocket and head for the Moon powered by a Dynetics-built propulsion system housed inside the ring. Two remaining secondary payloads will be placed into low lunar orbit, and the lunar lander will be released and conduct a series of braking maneuvers before touching down on the Moon’s surface, Pickens said. The payload adapter ring may stay in orbit to serve as a communications relay.

Once on the surface, the lander’s 10-kilogram rover will be deployed. The rover will stay connected to the lander by a tether that carries most of its power for the mission.

A troubled global economy has made it difficult for Google Lunar X Prize teams to raise the necessary private funding. Luckily, NASA announced in August it would like to purchase data from commercial lunar landers that could be used to reduce risk for future human space exploration missions. Proposals for the agency’s Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data are due Sept. 15.

NASA intends to award up to three $10 million contracts under the program. Some $1.1 million will be awarded up front, with $8.9 million payable once the lunar data are delivered, Pickens said.

“Our business model requires a lot of things [to] happen right, and we’ve got some really integral partners here,” he said. “The government’s a key piece of that, too. They recently have been very supportive in getting the X Prize movement going a little more with these incentives.”