GLXP Updates: Aldrin & Pickens Leave Moon Express, Lunar Lion Withdraws

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By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Two high profile executives — President Andrew Aldrin and Propulsion Vice Pesident Tim Pickens — have left Bob Richard’s Moon Express, the commercial exploration company that has been one of the favorites to win the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for landing and operating a rover on the surface.

Meanwhile, the only student-led team in the race, Penn State Lunar Lion, has withdrawn from the prize after an independent review found it could not achieve that goal within the competition’s tight deadline of Dec. 31, 2017.

Moon Express announced Aldrin’s appointment as president in March 2014. Aldrin had previously served as Director of business development and advanced programs at United Launch Alliance (ULA). Before ULA, Dr. Aldrin headed business development and advanced programs for Boeing’s NASA Systems, and Launch Services business units.

As previously reported, Pickens has left his position as vice president of propulsion at Moon Express to become propulsion department manager at Bigelow Aerospace. He is leading the development of Bigelow’s propulsion systems in Huntsville, Ala.

Pickens joined Moon Express in February 2013 from Dynetics. He had founded Orion Propulsion in 2004, selling it to Dynetics five years later.

Pickens had also heading the Rocket City Space Pioneers, a Google Lunar X Prize contender supported by Dynetics. The team was acquired by Moon Express in December 2012 through a teaming agreement with Dynetics.

Penn State’s Lunar Lion’s decision to withdraw from the competition comes after a review by outside experts that showed it could not meet the requirements in time.

“We knew the timing was tight from the beginning, but we wanted to give it our all and we definitely want to continue on our path to the Moon. The most important aspect of our original mission — student opportunities in space exploration — remains the same as we continue the Lunar Lion program,” said Michael V. Paul, team lead and director of space systems initiatives at Penn State’s Applied Research Lab. “It was great to see our students present their designs to the review panel. They did a great job, eliciting reviewer comments like ‘I wish I had a program like this when I was in college.’ ”

The competition has repeatedly moved back the deadline to win the prize, which is now set for Dec. 31, 2017. At least one of the 16 remaining teams much announced a launch contract by the end of this year for the competition to continue. The rest of the teams would then have until the end of 2016 to announce launch contracts to stay in the race.

The Penn State reviewers recommended the program be continued outside the constraints of the Google Lunar X Prize.

“This panel of experts in planetary landing systems, program formulation and space exploration recognized the vision and successes of the team,” the team stated in a press release. “The reviewers were particularly pleased with the innovative approach the students have taken on landing system design, and the agile program development methods employed by the project. The panel praised the team’s hands-on experience in areas such as propulsion, safety procedures and media relations, noting in particular the students’ obvious motivation and passion for space exploration.”