This past week, the XPrize acknowledged the obvious: after 10 years and multiple deadline extensions, none of the five remaining teams was going to claim the Google Lunar X Prize by landing a privately-built vehicle on the moon that would travel 500 meters across the surface while sending back high-definition video.
The first team to accomplish that goal would have claimed $20 million; the second, $5 million. But, unlike the moon race of the 1960’s, Google’s much hyped moon shot ended not with the deafening roar of a launch but the deadening silence of a dream deferred.
The disappointing outcome had been foreseen some time ago. In December 2016 op-ed in SpaceNews, Astrobotic CEO John Thorton explained why his team had dropped out and predicted no one would win the prize by the end of 2017, which was the deadline at the time. [Emphasis mine]
Six years ago, Astrobotic made a bold move. We were the first Google Lunar X Prize team to announce a contract with a launch service provider to compete for the $20 million prize in a bid to become the first private company to land on the moon. We believed then that a launch contract would convince customers and investors to book our lunar lander’s remaining payload capacity and invest in our company to finance the rest of the launch payments – but it didn’t work. We lost our launch opportunity and had to rebuild our mission.
As I survey the field of Google Lunar X Prize teams that have announced launch contracts over the last few months, I see many repeating the same mistake. X Prize has announced that any team that does not secure by the end of this year a launch contract to fly in 2017 will no longer be eligible to compete. For many teams, signing a launch contract now is an act of self-preservation. Unfortunately, the premature schedule is forcing teams to take perilous risks. Some teams are promising to launch next year without having cut an ounce of metal. Some have pledged to fly on brand new launch vehicles that haven’t even flown yet. Others are hanging their hat on headline-grabbing policy announcements to suggest big progress is being made toward a mission. Still others are hastily assembling their spacecraft and hoping for the best.
We have learned from our mistake. This time around, we will not be signing a hasty launch contract for a launch in 2017 to satisfy the X Prize requirements. As such, Astrobotic must announce its separation from the Google Lunar X Prize.
In other words, none of the five finalists was remotely close to being able to launch in time. And it would be a crap shoot if anyone actually did fly. As 2017 wore on, his assessment proved prescient.
SpaceIL dropped out because it couldn’t launch by the deadline; by the end of the year it was desperately trying to raise $30 million to stay in business. Moon Express officials began to say that winning the prize was not important to its long-range business plan. Team Synergy Moon had a launch contract but no rocket capable of getting its payload into orbit, much less the moon.
That left TeamIndus as the prize’s last, best hope. The Indian competitor had a launch booked on the PSLV booster, a large team of about 100 people that included retired ISRO engineers, and the best social media outreach of any of the teams. If any group could get to the moon on enthusiasm alone, TeamIndus could.
The mission would have carried a rover from a competitor, Team HAKUTO of Japan. There was a possibility that the decade-long prize would end with a genuine race on the moon to see which rover would travel 500 meters across the surface first to claim the $20 million grand prize.
Alas, it was not to be. TeamIndus ran out of time and money. Having raised more than $30 million, they were unable to come up with the rest of the funds needed to conduct the $60 million mission. The team had test hardware but no spacecraft capable of being launched to the moon.
Deadlines & Commitments
The last, best chance for TeamIndus and Team HAKUTO was yet another extension of the prize deadline. They asked, but the sponsor, Google, seems to have had enough.
In making that decision, Google had to answer two questions. One was the likelihood of any of the teams actually winning the prize if the deadline was extended for another 9 months, a year or whatever it might take for someone to conduct a mission. The other question was what it would cost to pay the X Prize to continue running the competition that much longer.
When Google originally pledged $30 million in prize money in September 2007, the prize had a tiered schedule. If no one won by the end of 2012, the grand prize would be reduced from $20 million to $15 million. The teams would be given two more years to complete their missions before the prize ended on Dec. 31, 2014.
Then the Great Recession hit in 2008 and none of the teams could raise money. So, the first prize was kept at $20 million and the deadline extended repeatedly. Five finalists with signed launch contracts at the end of 2016 were given a drop dead date of March 31, 2018 to complete their missions.
Along the way, Google awarded $6.25 million to various teams for achieving milestones and diversity in their efforts. The milestone awards were not part of the original plan, but they helped to keep teams going as they tried to raise enough money to launch their payloads to the moon.
So, what did Google pay XPrize to run the competition? The total has not been released, but a general rule of thumb that the cost of running a XPRIZE competition often equals the amount of the prize purse.
We do have the X Prize’s tax returns, which provide a partial accounting of what the organization reported that it spent on the competition since 2007. The table below shows those amounts and the awards that Google made.
|GOOGLE LUNAR X PRIZE EXPENDITURES|
|Subtotal, X Prize Expenditures:||$19,651,894|
|Incentive Milestone Prizes (2014)||$5,250,000|
|Diversity Prize (2017)||$1,000,000|
|Subtotal, Prize Awards:||$6,250,000|
For the years 2007 and 2011, the tax returns do not specify exactly what was spent on Google’s moon shot; the competition is lumped in with several other prizes with a combined dollar amount. Tax returns for the years 2016 through 2018 are not available.
Even these partial figures show the amount spent on the prize in overhead and awards likely equaled, if not exceeded, the $30 million prize purse originally offered by Google.
This amount of money is trivial for a company as wealthy as Google. However, Google is a very metrics based company that places a heavy emphasis on monetizing everything it does. After 10 years, the prize was continuing to cost money with no guarantee anyone would claim it.
Meanwhile, Google has scaled back on funding for its own internal moon shots, i.e., high-risk technology projects with large payoffs if they work. The company is being a lot more selective about the R&D projects it funds.
So, what do you do when you have spent 10 years promoting a prize that no one has claimed? Declare victory, of course. That’s exactly what X Prize Chairman Peter Diamandis and CEO Marcus Shingles did in an update issued last week announcing the end of the prize. Declaring victory at this point, however, required moving the goal posts a bit.
During a Reddit Ask Me Anything session in October 2013, Diamandis’ expectations about what the prize would achieve were sky high. Higher than that, actually.
“We can have a winner of the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP),” he wrote. “Ultimately the purpose for GLXP is to help create a space economy beyond low- and geo-earth orbit. On the moon we have access to water (H2 & O2), i.e. fuel, and very useful materials. My friend and mentor Gerard K. O’Neill taught me how useful the moon is as jumping point for humanity to become a multiplanetary species.”
Bold goals, indeed. Perhaps too bold for a moon mission that organizers hoped could be accomplished for the low tens of millions of dollars. Expecting that level of payoff made Google’s moon shot into a moon slot –equivalent to hoping you’ll hit the big jackpot with only a small investment of quarters.
You can read last week’s final update here, but here’s a brief summary of what Diamandis and Shingles say the prize accomplished:
- served to “catalyze the commercial space industry”;
- “sparked the conversation and changed expectations with regard to who can land on the Moon”;
- allowed the teams to raise $300+ million in funding, sponsorship and government support;
- created hundreds of jobs were created worldwide;
- engaged hundreds of thousands of people in STEM activities; and,
- spurred the U.S. government to license the first private moon mission by Moon Express to launch.
Diamandis and Shingles held out the possibility of finding another company to sponsor the prize or continuing it as a “non-cash competition where we will follow and promote the teams and help celebrate their achievements.”
“We are thankful to the teams for their decade of hard work, and acknowledge that a number of our teams are now, finally building flight ready hardware, contracting with launch providers and are close to being able to make their attempt to land on the Moon,” they wrote.
In the wake of the prize’s end, the remaining five teams said they remained committed to launching missions to the moon. So is Astrobotic, which is planning to a lunar flight in 2019, and another prize drop out, Part-time Scientists.
There’s plenty of room for skepticism about these claims. First of all, we’ve heard all this before. Bold promises made and broken, deadlines set and extended, all without seeing much in the way of actual flight hardware. It’s easy to imagine these teams fading away like the others that dropped out of the race earlier.
However, there are some positive signs. iSpace, which is the company that sponsored Team HAKUTO, recently raised $90.2 million in a Series A round to fund lunar flights. That should be enough money to launch at least one mission.
Astrobotic and Moon Express (along with Masten Space Systems) are working with NASA on a program called Lunar CATALYST. NASA is not providing any money to the companies, but the space agency is providing valuable expertise that will help these companies conduct lunar missions. The goal is to create a commercial market for sending payloads to the moon that NASA can use to lower exploration costs.
So, perhaps the Google Lunar X Prize will have a substantial and lasting legacy down the road. Time will tell.