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Friday, September 14, 2007

Google Offers $20 Million X Prize to Put Robot on Moon

Google Offers $20 Million X Prize to Put Robot on Moon

Illustration: Wired magazine. Photos: Lunar surface, NASA; flag, Shutterstock

Google Offers $20 Million X Prize to Put Robot on Moon
By Spencer Reiss Email 09.13.07 | 2:00 PM

Editor's Note: Google will award $20 million to the first private team to put a robot on the moon, the company and the X Prize Foundation announced at Wired NextFest in Los Angeles Thursday. Members of the public will also get the chance to send digital mementos to the moon. In this advance from the October issue of Wired magazine, contributing editor Spencer Reiss explains what's behind the Google Lunar X Prize, and what it will take to win it.

Maybe it was the edible wafer-paper-and-soy-ink menus or the "sustainable" blue-cheese mousse whipped up by Google's chefs. Maybe it was the full-size replica of the indie commercial spacecraft SpaceShipOne suspended overhead. Or Robin Williams' jokes. Whatever the reason, the hundreds of Silicon Valley grandees who packed the Googleplex one Saturday evening last March were in an expansive mood. They had dropped $1,250 or more a head to benefit the X Prize Foundation, the nonprofit dedicated to spurring innovation through public competitions that promise big payouts to the winners. Supersize possibilities hung in the air.

A morning brainstorm featuring Google's Larry Page and Virgin's Richard Branson had already turned up scores of possible new X Prize targets, from early cancer detection to ultracheap solar energy. During a break for lunch, Page dropped one more on X Prize chief Peter Diamandis: He and Google cofounder Sergey Brin had been "kicking around" the idea of sending low-cost robotic landers to the moon.

Diamandis, who has been launching extraterrestrial enterprises since he was an MIT undergrad in the 1980s, grabbed his laptop and disappeared, returning half an hour later with a freshly minted PowerPoint deck. Page looked it over, then said, "Talk to Sergey." That evening, as the guests sipped cocktails in the shadow of the little white spaceplane, Diamandis cornered the Google technology chief and pitched. Brin loved it. "Some endeavors are too speculative, even for venture capital," he says. "If they're really worth doing, you try to find some other way."

Thus was born the Google Lunar X Prize, the latest and, well, farthest-out of the foundation's efforts to bolt competitive afterburners onto some of mankind's signature quests. Three years ago, SpaceShipOne won the first X Prize — officially the Ansari X Prize, named for the family of software entrepreneurs that underwrote it. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and serial aeronaut Burt Rutan collected $10 million for building the world's first privately funded reusable manned spacecraft. Since then, Diamandis has announced competitions for ultra-rapid gene sequencing and hyper fuel efficient vehicles. This latest challenge: Put a robotic lander on the moon, take a spin across the lunar landscape, and beam back visuals — with minimal or no government assistance. Pull that off before anyone else and the galaxy's richest, most audacious Internet company will hand over $20 million. You can win up to $5 million more for extras like traversing greater distances, visiting historic landing sites, and surviving the lunar night. There's a $5 million consolation prize if you come in second or land safely but fail to complete the rest of the mission. (No prize for guessing the name of the competition's official Web video service.)

The challenge goes beyond merely reaching the lunar surface. Pound for pound, putting anything on the moon — let alone sending back panoramic photos and YouTube clips — makes even manned suborbital flight look like a walk on the Mojave runway. Winning will require the biz-dev skills to muster funding and the technical savvy to manage squirrelly orbital mechanics, remote-control robotics, and bring-your-own bandwidth. Sure, the Russians made the first soft lunar landing more than 40 years ago, using Cold War era hardware. And yes, today you can fire up an iPhone and check the view from NASA's rovers on the Red Planet, another 90 million or so miles farther out in the cosmos. What you can't do — at least for now — is go off-planet without the kind of boondoggle budget that only governments can cough up. "How cool would it be," Diamandis says, "to do what NASA does at a tenth the cost? Or a hundredth? The technologies are there. What we need is a competitive model that can make it happen."

In fact, X Prize-style competitions tend to be less about the technological bleeding edge than busting down cost barriers. Charles Lindbergh's famous Spirit of St. Louis, the gold standard for prize-driven innovation, was adapted from a stock production plane, after all. The Ansari X Prize required a tremendous feat of aeronautics, but its real accomplishment was making it cheaper to get into space — and thus opening a flight path to space tourism. The Google Lunar X Prize aims to do the same for Earth's nearest neighbor, transforming what has been a combination celestial junkyard and stone-dead nature preserve into a viable human frontier. "Today, Earth's economic sphere extends out to geosynchronous orbit — 22,000 miles," Diamandis says. "We want to increase that by an order of magnitude."

Two dozen registered teams took a crack at the original X Prize, though few of them made it off the ground. Will the higher stakes of the lunar challenge pull a bigger, wealthier crowd? One likely participant, Paul Allen, won't comment. Neither will Idealab chair Bill Gross, whose bubble-era startup, Blastoff, had a strikingly similar lunar mission — and a CEO named Peter Diamandis. Google, in particular, hopes to see a global pool of challengers; China, India, Japan, Russia, and plenty of European countries boast the requisite technical skills, pride, and billionaires. (An international judging committee will watch for under-the-table government aid.) Launch costs alone could burn up tens of millions of dollars, so the foundation is hoping to lure high-profile corporate sponsors.

Of course, it took almost a decade to award the Ansari X Prize; the winner emerged only after a midcourse adjustment dropped the altitude requirement from 100 miles to 100 kilometers. ("Thank god we did," Diamandis says. "Or we'd still be waiting.") Aiming to bring the lunar showdown to a conclusion by 2012, Diamandis and company spent last summer debating how high to set the bar. "It's audacity versus achievability," says Will Pomerantz, the foundation's space prize director. "Too hard, and you won't have a winner. Too easy, and you don't drive breakthroughs." Then there's the question of affordability: The $20 million grand prize probably won't cover the cost of getting something up there, and losers will likely spend at least that amount with no return on investment.

Which raises the question: What's in it for Google? Lunar data centers? Google Maps Street View for Tranquility Base? For the record, Mountain View's corporate feet are planted squarely on terra firma. "Companies today spend more on stadiums and sailboat races than we will spend on this," says Brin, who was barely out of diapers back in Moscow when the last — Soviet, as it happens — moon lander, itself a robot craft, sent a scoop of soil back to Earth three decades ago. "Expanding science and technology is a far better way to reflect Google's values," he says. Plus there's the possibility of putting a Google logo on the moon.

Contributing editor Spencer Reiss ( wrote about pollution and the 2008 Olympics in issue 15.08.

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