Something has been bugging me for a while and I've got to air it out... Moon Express has become the team to beat in the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. They are turning up the heat and this is a great thing.
I've long said that this isn't a technical competition. Exploration of space is often pigeon holed into being called a technical problem, but it's really a money and connections competition.
We've had the technical capability to explore the moon for 40 years. Few people doubt, that given the right amount of money, we have the ability to build a base on the moon and explore the rest of the solar system from there.
Moon Express is primarily backed by billionaire Naveen Jain, an sharp minded internet entrepreneur with a golden touch. This gives Moon Express the pockets and credibility to pull off the space mission in the very near future. They've taken a different approach to the competition than many of the teams by electing to buy much of their technology rather than build it themselves. Since much of the technology they are purchasing is near flight ready, they are already ahead of the everyone else.
They have announced participatory contests, been endorsed by at least one mega rock star, and have a pretty compelling new marketing campaign.
As a result, they've gone from a quiet entry into the competition last year to the top competitor.
So why would I be bothered by this?
Moon Express doesn't come without contraversy in the form of potential conflict of interest.
It's not a secret that the team's founder, Bob Richards, is a life long friend of the CEO of the X PRIZE foundation's Peter Diamandis. On podcast 72 I asked Bob about it and he said "well to win, I still have to get to the moon." Funny and true, but it still doesn't feel right.
And there's more.
At NewSpace 2011 last week I met Bob in person for the first time. As I approached, he had his arm around Alexandra Hall, who is the new Director of Space Prizes at the X PRIZE Foundation. Alexandra is one of the founders of Airship Ventures, a company that flies actual Zepplin Airships (which is pretty fricking cool). As we were standing there, they talked about how they had a long relationship and that Moon Express purchases services from Airship Ventures. They joked that now that Alexandra was administering the Google Lunar X PRIZE, they'd need to make sure that everything was "set at standard pricing" to "avoid looking incestuous".
I tried very hard to control my discomfort during that conversation. Maybe they are able to keep everything clean, but it just doesn't sound right.
Just like the Ansari X PRIZE, there is one billionaire who suddenly casts a shadow on everything else. In the Ansari X PRIZE, the winning team was backed by Microsoft Co-founder Paul Allen.
In the Google Lunar X PRIZE, there is a twist. The billionaire backer, Naveen Jain also serves on the Board of the X PRIZE foundation.
He's a board member of the organization who's running a competition that he's a competitor in.
Will they be able to keep everything fair given all of this cross involvment? I don't know.
When I ask those involved, everyone seems to stiffen up about it. I got a formal response from the X PRIZE foundation about it a few weeks ago that does little to satisfy my curiosity. [click for the response]
If it was just some companies doing business with each other I'd think nothing of it. But this isn't that situation. This is a prize competition with millions of dollars on the line.
I struggled with writing this for the last week because I don't want this to be the story. I want this competition to be above the board, inspiring, and the cataylist for a new industry we can barely even imagine.
Will someone be able pull off a Charles Lindbergh with this long shadow now on the scene? Charles was never the favorite to win, but he did.