Lunar X Prize Competitors Seek Edge Through NASA Data Deals

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SAN FRANCISCO — Leaders of U.S. teams competing for $30 million in awards as part of the Google Lunar X Prize are hoping that NASA contracts to buy data obtained during robotic Moon landings will bolster their bank accounts and help them attract additional financing.

As part of NASA’s Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program, an effort led by the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the space agency plans to spend as much as $30.1 million for Moon imagery and data gathered by the small, robotic lunar landers. To participate, firms had to submit proposals by Sept. 15 describing their technical approach, business plan and financing strategy.

Obtaining financing for multimillion-dollar lunar missions has been the most challenging task for Google Lunar X Prize competitors. “Reaching the Moon is a difficult task technically, but the biggest challenge is the financial one,” said Richard Speck, team leader for Micro-Space Inc. of Denver.

Google Lunar X Prize rules have not yet been finalized due in part to the difficulty of crafting rules for teams headquartered in a dozen countries, said Will Pomerantz, senior director of space prizes for the X Prize Foundation of Playa Vista, Calif. A draft copy of the final rules, known as the Master Team Agreement, was distributed this summer to X Prize competitors, he added.

That agreement calls for a $20 million grand prize to be awarded to the first team to reach the lunar surface, travel 500 meters and send video, images and data to Earth by the end of December 2015. The grand prize will remain at the $20 million level until another vehicle, including a government-owned spacecraft, lands on the Moon and sends back imagery. Once that happens, the top prize will decrease to $15 million, Pomerantz said.

Initial rules unveiled when the competition began in September 2007 called for the grand prize of $20 million to be available until the end of 2012. If no team succeeded in meeting that deadline, a grand prize of $15 million was going to be available for competitors who reached the Moon by the end of 2014.

Senior executives from Google Lunar X Prize teams are scheduled to meet Oct. 4-5 on the Isle of Man to discuss the competition and “hash out a final version of the rules,” Pomerantz said. The master team agreement is expected to be signed by all participants by the end of the year, he said.

In addition to designing and testing components for their X Prize missions, many of the teams have been preparing detailed proposals to submit to NASA as part of the ILDD competition. While the NASA program offers teams a maximum of $1.1 million for prelaunch activities such as component demonstration, ground testing and simulation, any award will provide teams with an important advantage in the Google Lunar X Prize race.

“NASA will take a hard look at each team’s technical capability and financial capability,” said Mike Joyce, founder of the Next Giant Leap team based in Deadwood, S.D. “Those contracts will separate the wheat from the chaff.”

David Gump, president of the Astrobotic Technology Inc. team, added that teams receiving NASA awards will be able to attract sponsors because they will have “a seal of approval from the nation’s space agency.”

Astrobotic Technology, a spinoff of Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University, announced Aug. 23 that Caterpillar Inc. of Peoria, Ill., will sponsor its first robotic lunar expedition. While terms of the deal were not disclosed, Gump said Caterpillar will provide needed financing as well as expertise in moving and shaping the lunar regolith. “Raising money is a very large challenge,” he said. “Having Caterpillar on board will make it possible for other companies to follow.”

As part of a comprehensive business plan, Astrobotic is seeking to attract eight additional sponsors by offering companies or groups the opportunity to name the team’s lunar lander, provide the title for the overall expedition and sponsor the team’s education program. The Astrobotic team also plans to sell media rights to the high-definition, 3-D video images it aims to send to Earth from the Moon.

Similarly, the Next Giant Leap team is pursuing several corporate sponsorships. “We feel corporate sponsorships are the best strategy for capturing the Google Lunar X Prize,” Joyce said. “We believe we can make the case to a sponsor that the media coverage of the vehicle liftoff and landing on the Moon will have a value equivalent to millions of dollars in advertising.”

The race for corporate sponsorship will be much easier to win for teams that win NASA data contracts, Joyce said. “We hope the NASA ILDD program will shed favorable light on our team,” he added.

The ILDD program will not offer funding for foreign research efforts, according to the program announcement published Aug. 7. If a non-U.S. team or a U.S. team with international participants is selected, however, NASA’s Office of International and Interagency Relations will work with foreign space agencies or sponsoring institutions on an agreement to cover the cost of specific tasks conducted by international partners, according to the announcement.

While Pomerantz said the ILDD program is likely to give U.S. teams “a little more of a head start” on the race to the Moon, he expects other space agencies to create similar programs. “NASA, the European Space Agency and other space agencies are the primary beneficiaries of this type of work,” he said. “I hope and expect they will step up to the plate and support these efforts. NASA was the first to do so. I suspect they are not the last.”

Another team eyeing the ILDD competition is Odyssey Moon Ltd. of the Isle of Man. That team attracted attention in late August when founder and chief executive Robert “Bob” Richards announced plans to leave Odyssey Moon and form a new space company. Ramin Khadem, Odyssey Moon chairman, said the team is continuing to pursue the Google Lunar X Prize and “is also evaluating other commercial opportunities including the NASA lunar program with the support of its prime contractor, MDA Corp. [of Canada], and its interim chief executive Michael Potter.” Potter is a filmmaker who directed and produced the documentary “Orphans of Apollo: the Battle of the Mir and the New Space Revolution.”