Google Moon 2.0 X-Prizes Draw Diverse Teams

Google Moon 2.0 X-Prizes Draw Diverse Teams

While funding for the U.S. space program remains an open question with budget talks at a standstill, Google is luring private firms and non-profits to the Moon with $30 million in prizes.

For companies investing upwards of $100 million in their entries, the prize money may not be much of a draw. Yet the prospect of taking the lead in what some expect to be the start of a new wave of lunar exploration – termed Moon 2.0 – may prove to be compelling nonetheless.

A primary driver for many of those involved in the Google Lunar X Prize is not prestige or science, but profit, with companies staking their claims based on a variety of business cases. Moon Express, which was awarded one of three $500,000 NASA contracts as part of the agency’s Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data project late last year, “is positioning itself as a future FedEx for Moon deliveries,” according to the New York Times. Moon Express, which also plans to sell broadcasting rights and sponsorships to finance its lunar trips, has certainly been making waves. At the recent 2011 Lunar Science Forum, it announced that former NASA Associate Administrator for Science, Dr. Alan Stern, would join as its Chief Scientist and mission architect.

Not every one of the 28 teams in the running is hunting for profit, though. The Juxtopia Urban Robotics Brilliant Application National (JURBAN) team, for example, is made up of professional and student engineers and was formed by Juxtopia, a U.S. non-profit research organization. According to their Google X-Prize profile, the JURBAN team wants to show under-served and disadvantaged populations “that innovatively applying [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] STEM skills can be achieved not only to create something ‘cool’ and exciting, but to complete a product with world humanity impact and pride.”

Another team, the German-Chinese Selene, seeks to promote cooperation between the two countries and to “dispel the myth that China’s design and engineering prowess is merely the product of reverse engineering,” according to their website. They add that their success may contribute to the broader space science community and “provide support to the ongoing humanitarian efforts to achieve better living conditions here on Earth.”

Whether one of these or any of the active teams will make it to the finish line is anyone’s guess. Five teams have pulled out of the race in the last couple of years, often pointing out challenges of a non-technical nature, such as bureaucratic and organizational obstacles. A lot may change as the December 2015 deadline nears, but policy shifts in Washington are drawing attention to private ventures as a plausible alternative to government missions. Soon enough robotic spacecraft sporting company logos as they touch down on the lunar surface may be common….with billions of people around the world watching.

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