A First Look at the Google Lunar Prize

“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)

15 thoughts on “A First Look at the Google Lunar Prize

  1. Tom,
    That’s a pretty good summary of the odds and obstacles. With such a short deadline, it’ll be interesting to see if any team is even really ready in time. It’s not infeasible, but challenging. It’ll also be interesting to see if more than one team raises enough money to really have even a fighting chance.

    PS do you have a citation for your statement that SpaceX is going to be doing two internal teams for the competition? I hadn’t heard that yet.

  2. Why Falcon 1 only ? To the best of my knowledge, the competition is international. Worldwide, there are enough launchers to fit in the price bracket. Dnepr, Rockot, Strela, Stihl and so on.

    And when you say:
    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.

    That depends on where you start counting from. LEO to lunar surface is not necessarily all that much more difficult.

  3. As to the payload sizes. I wouldnt know about LEO to lunar landing part, thats the difficult thing in this competition, but a few tens of pounds for robot hardware is definitely enough to accomplish the primary goals of the competition.
    Look up iRobot PackBot for a suitable platform.

  4. Thomas Olsen wrote: “$400 million, was spent, collectively, for a $10 million payout.”

    John Carmack wrote (May ’07 update): “Despite some incorrectly reported figures in the media, there wasn’t very broad development expenditure for the X-Prize. Rutan reportedly spent over $20 million, and I spend about $1.5 million, but I doubt all the other teams put together actually spent more than $1 million in cold cash.”

    Is there any evidence for the $400M figure? It seems very unlikely to me. There were 26 teams, but the only groups that seem likely to have spent serious money (besides Scaled and Armadillo) were Blue Origin (which wasn’t an X-Prize contestant) and RocketPlane. RpK knows how to lose money, but I doubt they spent $350M+.

  5. Ya know, Steve, I really don’t give a shit whether that number is true or not.

    What IS significant is that number WAS encoded into the much ballyhooed “Aldridge Commission Report” in June, 2004. Where they got it, I have no idea. My whole point in quoting it was to underscore the absurdity of their claim that it was a “40-to-1 return on technology.” THAT was the important part. I wrote about this back then, in an article for the Space Review.

    But I don’t have time to link to it now…I’m sure you can use “The Google” as well as I.

  6. I Googled for, and found, the “Aldridge Commission Report” before writing my comment, but it didn’t cite any reference. In any case, I wasn’t criticizing the original post, I just wanted to know.

  7. OKOKOK, Jesus Christ….

    In the Aldridge Report, Section III, the first paragraph of the “Prizes” section ends with:

    “It is estimated that over $400 million has been invested in developing technology by the X-Prize competitors that will vie for a $10 million prize – a 40 to 1 payoff for technology.”

  8. Sorry Tom, I didn’t get your point about the 400 million either. At the risk of sounding completely stupid was 400 million (or anywhere near that amount) really spent or was the Adridge Commission Report inaccurate? From my perspective it seems as though it really wasn’t a race (therefore not that much being spent) at all. Then, at the last moment a super rich software giant funded Rutan to “win” said prize. I still say Rutan and Allen didn’t win because they never flew it with 2 passengers like originally intended but I’ve said enough!

  9. Quote: “I really don’t give a shit..” and “OKOKOK, Jesus Christ….”
    Tom, please forgive Steve H and I for trying to be civil.

  10. My apologies for my impatient comments earlier. It was late at night, and I was desperately in need of rest, as there are too many things on my plate of late. I was getting a LITTLE frustrated at the non-sequitur tangents taken with this thing.

    The point of the article, and the ONLY point I wanted to generate discussion about, is whether or not 5-7 years lead time is sufficient for the Lunar X-Prize, given the greater challenges involved – I gave a qualified “no”.

    Frankly, I don’t know about the veracity of the “estimated $400 million” quoted in the Aldridge Commission report. But they spent a lot of taxpayer dollars doing that report, and if their estimates are indeed way off, then as disgruntled taxpayers we should demand our money back.

    Good luck with that.

    But they went from that number to claim a “40-to-1” return on technology, which is utter nonsense. I said it then, in the Space Review, I said it a couple of posts ago, and I’ll say it now.

    Where does this leave us? As I said earlier, the only reasonable chance anyone has of actually winning this thing is if they already have a project of this nature in the pipeline, with a team, a design, a facility, a launcher commitment, and financing. But no one is going to start out of the gate with a blank sheet of paper, unless that paper is not “blank” after all, i.e., it’s in the form of a large check written by a deep-pocket patron. I just don’t think there’s enough time to get it done.

    So…either this is just a PR stunt by Google, knowing the odds of them actually having to pay out are microscopic…OR the “fix” is already in, as several groups of players already have projects on the table, and have been lobbying for the additional “impetus” of a public prize to get their final financing deals done. I honestly don’t know.

    The original X-Prize captured our imagination, as it was a reasonably large prize and a reasonable (but not open-ended) length of time – risk and reward were in relative balance. Are the underwriters for the current venture actually rooting for a winner? Are they looking forward to writing the check?

  11. The take that I get is that the prize can act as an accelerator for projects that may have had fits and starts but are sort of in limbo. I wouldn’t entirely rule out wildcards either. I can look around the D/FW metroplex and see a lander solution (Armadillo Aerospace), an HD broadcast solution (Mark Cuban, HDNet), some creative roboticists (DPRG), a huge pool of talent (UTA, UTD, UNT, TCU, UD, &c.), and I can’t help but wonder how those pieces might fit together.

    The ISDC did finally get a mention in the local daily, about four months after the fact, in an article in the Business section, under the headline ‘Texas space ventures rocket into reality’. The prize itself is of less import than the development of economic opportunity. That’s what people are interested in. When Rusty Schweickart was interviewed on the local PBS show ‘Think’, the interviewer, Krys Boyd, started to get excited as the conversation turned to economics and the development of jobs. The interest and excitement were evident in her body language. Sadly, the interview turned to NASA issues and ended up fizzling out at the end. But it was a telling moment.

    There was a reason I pushed hard to have the kind of pre-conferences that we did. I was pushing Paul Eckart to do another Commerce Roundtable in Dallas (they’d done one at SMU the prior June), which evolved into Burton Lee’s Space Venture Finance Forum. Business is my focus, and it is the space message that is going to get through to ‘the People’. I’m with John Marburger on this one – we’re expanding our realm of economic opportunity from GEO out to the Moon.

    If the Google Moon prize serves to accelerate efforts already underway, great! If it creates wildcards, great! If it gets people excited about going back to the Moon, great!

    And if it’s won? Phenomenal!

  12. My mild skepticism in this regard derives from the fact that the original X-Prize was such a near run thing. Had no one won the prize, or had there been a catastrophic failure in trying for it, the whole concept of “prizes” as an accelerator would have fallen into total disrepute for years, perhaps decades, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    But the original point I’ve been trying to make here is that there has to be a balance of reasonable reward and time frame to achieve it in order to accelerate that development – and I’m still not at all convinced that 5-7 years is enough time.

    Another side question – and probably a topic for a separate debate – is: Will the Lunar X-Prize actually BE as inspirational as the original, given that the original involved human flight, and the Google prize involves “mere” robots?

  13. It definitely seems unlikely that it will be as inspirational to financers given that the potential markets that the technology would open up is unlikely to be seen (rightfully) as potentially lucrative as space tourism is seen. It does indeed seem overly challenging and designed to be just incentivizing enough to inspire and get publicity with a vanishingly small chance of Google actually having to pay out money.
    another interesting side question – does anybody know if Google has taken out a hole-in-one insurance policy like was done for the original X-prize or if Google is underwriting it themselves?

  14. I have outlined how to win the Google lunar prize.

    Buy a rocket ride. Note: contestants could split this cost for joint launch of multiple entrants. Gets you to earth orbit.

    Use low energy transfer to go from earth orbit to lunar orbit.
    The Hiten spacecraft that made it from earth orbit to lunar orbit
    Hiten weighed about 197kg fully fueled. It only had about 30kg of fuel. The earth orbit to lunar transfer module would not be more difficult than making a space worthy satellite. Plenty of companies have this expertise.

    Use a scaled up version of the new lunar landers being built by companies like Armidillo Aerospace (they almost succeeded in meeting the requirements for a lunar lander last year and seem likely to succeed this year.)

    then release sojourner style rover on the moon.

    Collect money.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s