Op-ed | Applauding the Google Lunar X Prize
This op-ed originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
The creation of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition in 2007 was a masterstroke to incentivize bold new dreams of commercial space ventures beyond Earth orbit. The competition was built on the legacy of the $10 million Ansari X Prize that was announced in 1996 and won in 2004 with the successful suborbital flights of SpaceShipOne.
The winning of the Ansari X Prize was one of the biggest stories of the decade, shattering broadcast and online media records and demonstrating that incentive prizes work in our modern world. But what would X Prize do next? How do you top the world’s first private spaceship redefining the possible in accomplishing something only superpowers had done before?
Well, you can top it with a bigger and bolder challenge, something at the raggedy edge of the possible. In Silicon Valley such things are called “moonshots.” And what better moonshot than a literal moonshot? X Prize pitched a lunar competition concept to Google in early 2007, and the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize was born and announced Sept. 13, 2007, challenging private teams to reach for the moon.
It’s difficult to put a deadline on a future that has such massive and unprecedented dependencies, particularly when it’s calling on a privately funded group to do something that only three super-powers have accomplished to date. When the competition was announced, it was envisioned that the prize could be won by 2012.
Well, perhaps not too surprisingly, it’s taking a little longer. Here we are in 2018 with X Prize and its prize sponsor Google still hanging in there after more than 10 years. I think they should be applauded for that. The winning of the Google Lunar X Prize would, of course, be triumphant to X Prize, Google and any competitor who wins it. The $20 million grand prize remains to this day the largest incentive prize in history, but the competition has in many ways already achieved a significant amount of its original purpose. A number of aspirational and serious efforts to reach the moon have been inspired by the competition; youth have been motivated to enter science and technical careers; some efforts are still in existence outside of the competition; and some are still contenders. Like all incentive prizes, the value is not just in the winning of them, but in the reaching for them. From the prize sponsor’s perspective, achievements in inspiration, education, diversity, public and market awareness, and out-of-the-box thinking are all of significant value. But there have been tangible and credible advances as well by some of the contenders among the colorful assortment of, at one time, over 30 competing teams.
The Google Lunar X Prize competition has inspirational roots and legacies dating back to Blastoff! and other heroic efforts at commercial lunar business ventures. In turn, the competition has inspired a number of aspects of today’s emerging commercial lunar industry, which is finding its way and gaining momentum (but we’re not there yet). Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the competition, a huge bow of appreciation should go to X Prize, Google and everyone who has taken enormous personal and financial risks on this incredibly hard challenge of expanding commercial space activities beyond Earth orbit.
Understandably, I get asked about the Google Lunar X Prize by people following Moon Express through the lens of the competition. The competition has certainly been an important element in the landscape of the re-emerging global focus on the moon, and personally I’ve been involved in the competition since it’s onset through two team registrations and three team acquisitions. With Moon Express, we have always been supportive of the competition and have continued to include plans for one or more prize attempts in our maiden mission operations.
I was proud to be at the Google Lunar X Prize’s 2007 launch event, joining in the enthusiasm and optimism of the unveiling of this incredible new challenge. At that time it was the first and only prize competition announced by X Prize beyond the Ansari X Prize. I was also there when that original “X Prize ” was boldly launched on May 18, 1996, beneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch; and I was there when it was won and made history on Oct. 4, 2004. I’ll never forget the thrill of that day, captured brilliantly in Julian Guthrie’s “How to Make a Spaceship.” The profoundly transformational experience of the Ansari X Prize influenced my motivation in 2007 to become the first registrant in the Google Lunar X Prize with my first commercial lunar venture, Odyssey Moon and in 2010 to enter Moon Express into the competition.
In addition to the positive impact the Google Lunar X Prize has had on the world, and its important history, for me, and for Moon Express, the competition has always been a sweetener in the landscape of the business case, but it’s never been the business case itself (because it can’t be). Our commercial lunar business model is based on lowering the cost of access to the moon and other solar system destinations, elevated by but not dependent on governments, and fundable within the reach of private investment capital.
It seems to take about 10 years for really important commercial space developments to mature and take hold. The creation of the Google Lunar X Prize in 2007 was a bold move that helped rekindle public interest in the moon and bolster awareness at NASA and other space agencies of an emerging commercial interest and potential of private investments into lunar exploration and development.
As it stands today, a little over 10 years since the launch of the Google Lunar X Prize, the landscape for commercial lunar activity and opportunity couldn’t be more positive. There is a global rise in lunar mission planning among space agencies; the U.S. has declared a return to the moon as a cornerstone of new space policy; and entrepreneurial efforts for commercial space activity focused on the moon and other cis-lunar and deep space destinations are everywhere.
At Moon Express, we continue to focus on our core business plans of collapsing the cost of access to the moon and our long-term vision of unlocking lunar resources for the benefit of life on Earth and our future in space. The recent change in U.S. space policy focused on a return to the moon is a thrilling development, and we look forward to our continued partnership with NASA developing commercial lunar landing systems that will support a new paradigm of public-private commercial lunar activity.
Moon Express continues to work toward our maiden lunar expedition as we cheer on Rocket Lab and other launch providers who will become our rides to orbit. Our maiden lunar expedition is just the beginning of a continuing series of expeditions using our MX family of flexible, scalable robotic explorers. We are very appreciative of the results we achieved with the U.S. government in 2016 gaining our mission approval for the first private venture beyond Earth orbit and to the moon; and are very excited about the rising national and global tide back toward the moon.
Throughout all of this, the Google Lunar X Prize has been a clear and present opportunity that has inspired and incentivized new investments, customer commitments, entrepreneurial efforts and public engagement around the world toward a new era of lunar exploration and discovery. And the story is not over yet.
I applaud X Prize and Google for issuing a bold challenge with a big prize attached and sticking with it all these years. The existence of the prize has been and will continue to be an important part of the history of humanity’s permanent return to the moon. If X Prize continues to offer lunar incentive prizes, we’ll continue to pursue them.
The Google Lunar X Prize has in many ways become a legacy itself, while continuing to motivate and inspire. And the final chapters of the legacy are yet to be written.
Bob Richards is a founder of the International Space University, Singularity University, SEDS, Space Generation & Moon Express, where he has served as CEO since founding the company in 2010 with Naveen Jain and Barney Pell.