“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)