SAN FRANCISCO — Competition for the Google Lunar X Prize is heating up with the May 30 announcement of the first major acquisition of one team by another and widespread discussion among team leaders of additional mergers.
“We expect further partnerships and mergers as this year progresses and teams determine that joining forces may be one way to get ahead,” Alexandra Hall, Google Lunar X Prize senior director, said in a June 1 email.
Moon Express Inc., a Google Lunar X Prize team backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and space industry veterans, announced May 30 its acquisition of Next Giant Leap LLC of Boulder Colo., one of its leading competitors in the race to send the first commercial robotic spacecraft to the Moon. By acquiring Next Giant Leap, Moon Express will gain access to valuable technology and expertise that is directly applicable to its own lunar mission, Bob Richards, Moon Express co-founder and chief executive, said.
While Moon Express team leaders look forward to forging relationships with all the organizations that make up the Next Giant Leap team, they are particularly eager to work with the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Space Systems Laboratory, two members of the team that have developed a robotic vehicle equipped with guidance, navigation and control systems to enable it to hop rather than roll across the lunar surface, Richards said May 31. The Next Giant Leap Team also includes Sierra Nevada Corp., Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., Jolted Media Group, the Center for Space Entrepreneurship and the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.
Through the Google Lunar X Prize, the X Prize Foundation of Playa Vista, Calif., plans to award $20 million to the first commercial team to succeed by the end of 2015 in landing a robotic spacecraft on the Moon, sending a vehicle at least 500 meters over the lunar surface and returning high-definition images to Earth. The X Prize Foundation has earmarked $5 million for the second team to accomplish those feats and bonus prize money for teams that complete additional tasks including operating at night, finding water and landing near Apollo mission sites.
Since the Google Lunar X Prize was announced in 2007, teams have been chipping away at the enormous number of tasks required to win the competition: designing lunar landers, building robots to traverse the Moon, finding space transportation, devising ways to relay images to Earth, and developing guidance, navigation and control systems. For many, the most challenging part has been financing these ambitious projects. Team leaders said the global financial crisis has made it more difficult to attract sponsors and investors than they originally anticipated. The White House decision announced in 2010 to cancel NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program also diminished prospects for some teams.
Tim Pickens, leader of the Rocket City Space Pioneers, said his team’s business plan called for purchasing a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket and selling excess capacity. The plan made sense when the U.S. space program was focused on sending astronauts back to the Moon because the NASA mission would heighten demand for lunar transportation. Without a NASA-led lunar campaign, the Rocket City Space Pioneers’ business model does not work. “We can’t raise enough money to get us to the Moon within the window we have,” Pickens said.
Still, the Huntsville, Ala.-based team has developed a mature lunar lander, an aggressive public outreach campaign and expertise that could benefit other Google Lunar X Prize teams. During the Google Lunar X Prize summit held in Washington May 28-31, Pickens discussed possible mergers with other team leaders. “There is the possibility of taking what we did very well and applying it to another project,” Pickens said May 31. “It might make sense to build some systems and support other teams.”
The Rocket City Space Pioneers team, led by Dynetics Inc., includes: Teledyne Brown Engineering, Andrews Space, Draper Laboratory, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Moog Inc., the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the Von Braun Center for Science & Innovation.
Ruben Nunez, project director for the Earthrise Space Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Orlando, Fla., that manages the Omega Envoy team, said he anticipates multiple mergers and acquisitions among Google Lunar X Prize teams within a year. “Many teams are looking to launch their payloads on flight hardware that is reliable and has been tested rigorously,” he said in a June 1 email.
Even Moon Express may make additional acquisitions. “We will certainly be looking to other teams that possess key technologies,” Richards said, adding that it is nearly impossible for a single team to build all the elements of a successful lunar mission. “Teams are looking for other teams that complement them.”
Moon Express also is offering space on its lunar lander for competitors. Because Moon Express is seeking to establish a space transportation and data services company “we will carry anyone,” Richards said.
In 2010, NASA selected six of the firms competing for the Google Lunar X Prize to participate in the Innovative Lander Demonstration Data program, a five-year, $30.1 million initiative to give the space agency access to the technical data produced during development of the robotic lunar missions. The contracts, which were viewed by many X Prize participants and observers as a clue to the leaders in the race to the Moon, were awarded to: Astrobotic Technology Inc. of Pittsburgh; the Draper Laboratory Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.; Huntsville-based Dynetics Inc.; Earthrise Space Inc.; Moon Express Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.; and Team FredNet of Huntsville.