In 2007, when Robert “Bob” Richards formed Odyssey Moon Ltd., the first entrant in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, financial markets were strong, investors were confident and NASA was committed to sending astronauts back to the Moon. All that changed, however, with the 2008 recession and subsequent election of U.S. President Barack Obama, who offered a new blueprint for space exploration. In spite of those dramatic shifts, the Odyssey Moon team led by Richards and based on the Isle of Man continues to persevere.
Richards, a native of Canada, has been enamored with the idea of space travel since watching the Apollo Moon landing as a child. “The vision of moving from Apollo to ‘Star Trek’ dominated my childhood,” he said.
Richards studied engineering, astronomy and space science at Canada’s Ryerson University, the University of Toronto and Cornell University, where he served as a special assistant to Carl Sagan. Along with fellow students Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, and Todd Hawley, Richards formed Students for the Exploration and Development of Space and later, the International Space University of Strasbourg, France.
Richards was the director of the Space Division at Optech Inc. of Toronto, where he led efforts to send the first light detection and ranging (lidar) to Mars on the Phoenix Mars Lander. Richards was also a founder of Singularity University, an interdisciplinary school based at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., that seeks to marshal advanced technology to meet the world’s great challenges.
Richards spoke recently with Space News correspondent Debra Werner.
How would you describe the current environment for space entrepreneurs?
It’s a hard climb. You are climbing a mountain in a torrential thunderstorm. The rocks are slippery. If you try to run up the face of the mountain, it’s likely that you are going to fall, but consistent, persistent, dedicated, committed, rational plans are still attracting risk money.
How are companies surviving?
They are very focused on their paths. Every couple of months, they prove something new — something to excite their investors a little bit more.
If you win the Google Lunar X Prize, would the prize money even cover a fraction of the cost of your effort?
The Google Lunar X Prize is a $30 million competition. It’s a $20 million first-place prize with some bonus prizes. The most you could possibly hope to win would be the $20 million plus perhaps an additional $5 million. That is a fraction of the cost. Some people would argue the cost of the mission is two times greater; some would argue it’s four times more.
X Prizes are designed to catalyze an industry, not pay for one. For each prize, the real challenge is to come up with an economic model that makes such a thing worthwhile. You need to find the economic rationale for attracting investment to close the gap between the prize and what you are trying to do.
Do you feel you are making progress in closing that gap?
Yes. We are still here. It’s been three years now. The design of the company itself is very important as you enter a high-risk early stage venture. The staying power to weather storms is part of the strategic architecture of any company. We’ve been able to weather the storm so far, and we are hopeful that there are some boosts coming up for the prize. We are still moving towards the day when we can launch that first mission to the Moon and engage the public.
NASA itself is taking the effort very seriously and has certainly been a great partner with Odyssey Moon. I can see the agents of change within NASA working very hard to try to create the grappling hooks for private industry to take hold.
What is your reaction to NASA’s recently announced plans to buy data obtained from commercial lunar landing missions?
It’s like having trudged through a hot desert with no water and seeing an oasis. It’s not everything you need to survive, but it helps. It gives us the tools to help convince investors that a very important customer is putting its confidence in us.
Some Google Lunar X Prize team officials have expressed concern that NASA was competing instead of cooperating with them. Do you share that concern?
In my experience, NASA has been great. The large agency faces incredible constraints on their activities that make it largely impossible to make large, inertial changes. But we were able to establish a public-private partnership with NASA for the development of a small lunar landing vehicle which is very innovative. Both sides are hopeful that it’s going to work but it requires both Odyssey Moon and NASA to do things.
Was that public-private partnership formed in 2008 under a Space Act Agreement?
We reached an agreement to partner on the development of a small lunar lander system. The Space Act Agreement allowed us to hire NASA to help us, but it’s not a one-way street. The value to a private company to take advantage of the research and development that has been done selectively at NASA is a tremendous opportunity, but it’s the commercialization of that research that offers a return to NASA. They have the opportunity to purchase goods and services based on the technology they developed at a cost that would be much cheaper than what they would pay to conduct the work themselves on a repetitive basis.
It’s turning the usual relationship upside-down. Usually NASA invents a mission, puts out a request for commercial companies to support it and all the requirements are driven down to the companies. In this case, we are able to define requirements according to our business needs and then selectively choose what technical resources we need from NASA to accomplish those, and NASA responds.
Is that lunar lander the model for your X Prize entry?
Correct. If all goes well, it will be utilized in a family of lunar landing systems. These are micro-landers designed to carry a single instrument and weigh from 10 or 15 kilograms up to maybe 50 kilograms, maybe 100, but small in comparison to the lunar landers you would expect NASA to fly themselves. We believe there is a real niche for rapid development of landing systems and space technologies that can deliver pinpoint science and exploration data measurements to NASA and others.
Has NASA’s plan to turn its near-term focus away from sending astronauts back to the Moon had an impact on Odyssey Moon?
Being the eternal optimist, I think it’s the break we’ve been waiting for. NASA recognizes that the private sector has a role to play. The idea that there is more money for lunar robotic precursor flights is fantastic because the private sector can fulfill some of those activities. Although NASA is a very important stakeholder and customer, it’s not the only one. As a matter of fact, our company has announced six payload customers to date and none of those is NASA yet. The day that NASA has a payload that is available to fly on a commercial mission, all the mechanisms are in place to make that happen. And that’s the direction we’re thankfully going in. We haven’t reached it yet.
Who are Odyssey Moon’s customers?
The International Space School Education Trust plans to send a British science instrument to the Moon. Paragon Space Development Corp. plans to send a biological greenhouse to the Moon. Celestis [an affiliate of Space Services Inc. of Houston] is hiring Odyssey Moon to carry a memorial capsule with cremated remains to the Moon or into lunar orbit. The International Lunar Observatory Association and Space Age Publishing plan to send a scientific instrument. The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research plans to launch a miniature version of a spectrometer designed originally for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover. Luna Resort AB, a Swedish corporation, plans to put an inflatable Swedish cottage on the Moon.
It sounds like an international customer base.
We have customers from Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. We are speaking with people on every continent and in every emerging space power. The market is arguably bigger with those countries and companies and academic organizations that don’t have access to a national space agency. They are desperate to join the league of spacefaring countries, or companies or universities.
Can they do that with a single instrument?
Yes. It is the condominium model where the overhead of the mission is shared by many residents. There is not only a market for people who come up with new instruments but there is a tremendous market of orphan instruments, instruments that have already been identified for flight missions, or backups to instruments that flew, or instruments from missions that were canceled. All of this sunken investment can be liberated.