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A First Look at the Google Lunar Prize September 26, 2007

Posted by Thomas Olson in Uncategorized.

“It has been a damned serious business – Blücher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life…By God! I don’t think it would have done if I had not been there. “

— The Duke of Wellington, upon defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, 1815

When Burt Rutan and the team at Scaled Composites won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in October of 2004, they were mere weeks away from not having anything to win at all – the 10-year X-Prize time limit was due to expire in January, 2005. No other declared team was even close to Scaled in terms of development or operational readiness. Like Wellington’s feat, Rutan’s achievement was a near run thing.

One of the strangest statements made in the Aldridge Commission’s final report, in 2004, in reference to the X-Prize stated that at the time of publication, $400 million had been spent in pursuit of a $10 million prize – “a 40-to-1 return on technology”. I laugh just as hard at that, today, in retrospect, as I did when writing the original column for The Space Review. Nope, $400 million, was spent, collectively, for a $10 million payout. As the winning team did the deed with Paul Allen’s money – $25 million – that means the other $375 million was risked for naught. If new innovations have indeed trickled into the marketplace as a result, then perhaps some investors, at least, may stand a chance of recouping their risk capital. But to date, the big winner has been Rutan and Allen, with the large capital infusion from Richard Branson, and the final buyout of Scaled by Northrup. After all that development work by so many teams, burning all that capital, the return on investment, to date, has been small.

So, I have to admit to a bit of skepticism when Google and X-Prize announced their new Lunar X-Prize venture. I suppose on the plus side, we know definitely that Google is underwriting it. My concern – and hence my skepticism – lies in the relatively short time limit to produce results – only 5 years, 3 months for the full Prize of $20 million, dropping to $15 million at the end of seven years, three months. After that, time’s up, and I would submit that this time limit is unreasonably short, from concept to completion, for contestants to have any hope of winning. Why do I say this?

The difficulty of soft-landing anything on the surface of the moon is far, far greater than putting a few hundred pounds of human payload up 100 km. Still, that took nearly a decade. Now add in the increased Delta-V requirements, instrumentation complexity, radiation hardening requirements, operations of the rover in a dusty, hostile environment, and developing and testing the soft-landing system, just for starters. And then, we ask, what launcher shall we use? It’s possible that the only reasonable cost launcher may be the SpaceX Falcon-1 or 1-e, which is still technically under development.

Nevertheless, Elon Musk has been the first to step up to the plate. Reportedly, Musk is fielding 2 teams from SpaceX, and is offering a 10% discount for Falcons used by other teams According to their brochure distributed at the 2007 SmallSat meeting in Logan, Utah, List price for the Falcon-1 is $7.1 million for a payload capacity of 475 kg to LEO. (A 10% discount drops the price to $6.4 million). List price for the Falcon-1e is $8.5 million for a payload capacity of 723 kg to LEO. (A 10% discount drops the price to $7.7 million).

According to the 6th Edition of Sutton’s Rocket Propulsion Elements (Table 5-4), the payload for a soft landing on the Moon is 10-20% of that inserted into LEO. The rest is propulsion for the transfer orbit, propulsion for the landing, etc. Assuming my math is correct, the best that Falcon-1 could send on its way to a soft lunar landing is a payload of 47-95 Kg, and the best that Falcon-1e could send on its way to a soft lunar landing is a payload of 72-145 Kg. However, it will not be available until 2009 – and that is assuming all goes well in the test and demonstration program.

To date, the Falcon-1 launch record to orbit stands at zero for two. The next launch attempt is hopefully going to occur during the first quarter of 2008. That eats up roughly 10% of the launch window to December 2012 if a team were to be organized today, and that flight is spoken for.

My question is: If you’re a ragtag band of rogue space engineers working in somebody’s kitchen with a sketch pad, a laptop and a dream, is there any hope of winning this thing? My answer: not much. However, if you are already have an engineering-design firm with a lunar probe in the pipeline, this prize could raise the ante for those firms completing next phase funding rounds, and add some very needed encouragement. But, I repeat, these technologies would already have to be reasonably far along in their design/test cycle, to be able to meet the target date.

And, as with the Scaled experience, it always comes down to money. Who are you, what have you done, and what kind of team you can build will determine how much capital you can attract. More established, small scale operations, like a Scaled, Space-X or SpaceDev (among others, please don’t flame me), with an infrastructure and a team, can attract a deep-pocket underwriter far more easily than a startup.

Not that a startup couldn’t get the job done – eventually. A small firm, adequately staffed and capitalized could do everything from concept to working drawings much faster than an Old School firm like LockMart. But the hurdle for the small firm would be funding and manpower for the detailed design/build/test and launch. Unless they can field a team that’s head and shoulders above what’s already out there, and attract sufficient capital, the timing windows for the Prize itself are so short as to make describing the competition as a crash program look generous. (On the plus side, the Big Boys won’t compete because they’re too institutionally hidebound – no work without a cost-plus contract.)

But in short, given the additional technical challenges and the much shorter timeline, the odds of paying off the Lunar X-Prize as presently constituted are miniscule.

(Much thanks to the OldSpaceCadet and my friend Bill at LMC for their valued input for this post)


A Video Worth Watching September 22, 2007

Posted by shubber in Uncategorized.


Professor Randy Pausch gives an amazing speech. And not just because he’s a mac convert.

I think alt.spacers can take a lot from this.


Carnival of Space – Post ’em if you Got ’em September 17, 2007

Posted by shubber in public service announcement.
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For those of you who are regular readers (or even accidental readers) of the Space Cynic blog, and have your own space-related blog or commentary on the web, I encourage you to submit your musings to the weekly Carnival of Space.

Entries should be sent to:


by Wednesday evening, 6:00 PM PST.

Here are more details for sending a post:

Submissions for Carnival of Space

Anyone can TAKE a reservation September 17, 2007

Posted by shubber in Uncategorized.


Jerry: I made a reservation for a mid-size, and she’s a small. I’m kidding around, of course.

Agent: I’m sorry, we have no mid-size available at the moment.

Jerry: I don’t understand, I made a reservation, do you have my reservation?

Agent: Yes, we do, unfortunately we ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have the reservation.

Agent: I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don’t think you do. If you did, I’d have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to *hold* the reservation and that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.

Now many of you may be wondering at this point, why would the Cynic be taking this nostalgic trip down Seinfeld memory lane? Yeah, sure, it was a pretty good episode – not, granted, as good as the one featuring Mr. Bookman, the Library Cop…. but still, pretty darn good.

That’s not it, though.

Over the past few months, a number of program “announcements” have been made, referring to grandiose events to occur at some date in the future, and they have been greeted with a disturbing lack of criticality that often seems to be the case whenever another bull**it space program gets some PR. Of course the alt.space.tragic masses may find them inspiring, but COME ON people, try to be a little skeptical on occasion. I know this is a big ask, but when you see a headline such as:

Russians Plan Manned Moon Mission By 2025

Followed by an opening sentence that reads: ‘Russia plans to send a manned mission to the Moon by 2025 and wants to build a permanent base there shortly after, the head of Russian space agency Roskosmos said Friday.’

Don’t you think the easily duped might be the least bit skeptical this time around….? I know that the Russians are attempting to re-assert themselves on the global stage and reclaim their position as a superpower (hence the recent restart of long-range bomber flights, amongst other things…) but this? It’s like the Space Race 2.0, but in slow motion…  forgive me if I just can’t take it seriously.

Or, as Mr. Bookman would say:  While you’re thinking about that, think about this: The Library closes at five o’clock, no exceptions.  This is your final warning.

Space Cynics Announce $100 million prize! September 13, 2007

Posted by shubber in Uncategorized.

For the first team to land a human safely on Europe Europa.

No need to return him or her safely, either. Although they’ll probably want to come back to collect their prize money…

And in other news, Google announced something about a moon prize.  More on that soon.

Because one does not simply walk into Space. September 10, 2007

Posted by shubber in Uncategorized.


So it appears that the masses have been polled in order to find a more popular and accessible slogan for our beleaguered NASA. Wired, in search of yet another way to stay “relevant” has put together a little voting tool for the online world to express their views as to what NASA’s slogan should be….

Granted, I concur that the one NASA has come up with: “NASA explores for answers that power our future” is pretty lame. Some of the ones that were suggested are, unfortunately, equally lame. But some are downright brilliant, including the one I chose for the subject heading of this post.

The deeper issue, of course, is that NASA is having a hard time with a slogan because they don’t actually have a clear mission. NASA is many organisations living under one badge, often with very different agendas, goals, and skills. This is the result of 40+ years of organic growth, the building of a number of programs that probably should never have been started (ISS/STS being the biggest budget hogs in that category) and the slow destruction of the first “A” in NASA. I remember 8 years ago being involved in discussions with HQ about their trying to simplify their strategic plans, which were a nightmare amalgamation of different Codes, field centers, programs, and resulted in a deck of powerpoint slides that could only be described using the Aussie description: a dog’s breakfast.

One other point of note: perhaps it should be telling to the folks at NASA (and the alt.space.booster community) that the nature of many of the comments or suggested slogans at the Wired website which have high positive rankings are cynical, snarky, or just generally make fun of NASA. Perhaps the public really is speaking its mind….

The NASA PR Conundrum September 1, 2007

Posted by shubber in Manned Space, NASA, Wasting Money.

A recent commenter (thanks Eric!) on our post regarding the Star Wars toy being flown to ISS in a lame NASA stunt suggested that NASA’s problem is with PR, and that they should engage in a national PR campaign to sell Americans on the NASA mission in order to build support.

NASA really needs to spend a sizable chunk of our tax dollars and hire a good, no…GREAT PR company.

No, they don’t. That’s not their job.

Lame references to fantasy Sci-Fi such as Star Trek and Star Wars don’t appeal to most Americans.

Sci-fi is more mainstream than it was in the past, however a real issue is that NASA shouldn’t try to compare themselves or link themselves to that silliness. They simply can’t make real space nearly as exciting or “cool” as the folks at Industrial Light & Magic.

To quote the Red Hot Chili Peppers:

“Space may be the Final Frontier,
but it’s made in a Hollywood basement.”

Present (and that’s what NASA needs to do) the Space Program in a way that makes it understandable and interesting to the average person

ok, we’re agreeing a bit more now…. but judging from Miss South Carolina, the average person has a hard time as it is…

The first thing I’d do? I’d have commercials shown around the country explaining why we’re going back to the moon.

That’s a tough one, since they deep down know they don’t have a legitimate reason FOR going to the Moon. In fact, the more this particularly stupid program is exposed to the light of day, the more likely it is to be canceled, and that terrifies some people (as it rightly should).

The military hires decent enough folks to make those neat commercials, why can’t NASA?

Four reasons:

1) Military budget MUCH MUCH larger than NASA’s.

2) Military is actually attempting to recruit people, and can promise them the ability to shoot guns, drive tanks, or even fly a fighter jet. And money for college. What can NASA promise? A chance to make powerpoint slides for yet another project in Code (fill in the blank)? Hardly awe-inspiring. And you don’t need 10 years of engineering school to be in the infantry.

3) Our entire culture is built around guns and shooting. look at the success of video games – what are they primarily about (ignore Donkey Kong and Mario Bros for the moment)? Shooting and blowing things up. How many space-based games (that aren’t actually about shooting things up, such as Doom3) are there…? Even John Carmack, who is a space tragic like many of us, made his money with a software company selling games that are about ultra-violence (Doom, Quake).

4) The MIC (military industrial complex) knows where their real paychecks come from – DoD, not NASA. So when they do advertising and PR (TV and print) what do you think they tend to promote? Cool military stuff. Which is FREE advertising for the DoD, since their contractors are paying for it. (of course, they get the money for those ads FROM DoD contracts, but that’s another issue…).