Google Lunar X Prize Update: Funding Remains an Issue

MTV-1X vehicle in full tether mode. (Credit: Moon Express)
MTV-1X vehicle in full tether mode. (Credit: Moon Express)

The IEEE Spectrum has an interesting update on the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, which recently slipped its deadline for landing a rover on the moon from the end of 2015 to Dec. 31, 2016.

The story confirms what I’ve suspected for quite some time now: it’s much easier to build and test hardware on Earth than it is to get it to the lunar surface. With two years, not one of the 18 remaining teams has locked down a firm launch date. If none of them does by the end of 2015, the competition will end without a winner.

Raising the necessary funds is a significant challenge. Some were counting on SpaceX’s (relatively) low-cost Falcon 9 launch vehicle. However, the rocket has a full manifest of missions, and the company’s launch schedule keeps slipping. The article also reports that secondary payload opportunities on launch vehicles have proven to be difficult to arrange.

I could be wrong, but I’ve thought for some time this has been a two-horse race between Astrobotic and Moon Express. Both teams appear to have the technical capability to land a vehicle on the moon, and they have progressed significantly in developing and testing the hardware.

The advantage Moon Express has is it was co-founded by Naveen Jain, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded InfoSpace. This might give Moon Express a leg up in finding money for a launch.

Here we have shades of the Ansari X Prize, where billionaire Paul Allen’s funding allowed Burt Rutan to build and test SpaceShipOne. The venture won the prize, and Allen was able to recoup his $25 million investment. No other team even came close.

If no one can confirm a launch reservation by the end of 2015, the prize will come to an end after 8 years — the same amount of time it took NASA to land men on the moon — without anyone claiming it.

Astrobotic has promised to continue on with its moon mission even if it can’t fly in time to claim the Google Lunar X Prize. However, that might be a more difficult task without the $20 million first prize money there for the taking.

It would be great if someone actually claims the prize. However, what happens next has always been unclear. Proponents believe it will help spur a commercial market for sending instruments and experiments to the moon. But, what if it’s just optimistic talk? What if there is no market? What if commercialization attempts fail?

The Ansari X Prize promised a new era of commercial spaceflight. Ten years later, we’re still waiting for that to arrive. The demand seems to be there, but companies have thus far failed to deliver.

It’s not like this a commercial lunar mission hasn’t been tried before. X Prize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis’s BlastOff! Corporation failed at that goal in 2000-2001 before folding.

Inspired by this failure, the Google Lunar X Prize was predicated on the idea that conditions had changed sufficiently. But, it could be that getting to the moon is still cost prohibitive.