Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Suddenly Moon Express has become the team to beat. On the rocks, with a twist.

25 Comments

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.

Armed with a billionaire backer, deep connections in the space and tech industries, and a sudden barrage of press, Moon Express has leaped to the top of the mountain in just a few weeks.

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.

Awesome stuff.

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.

Yup.

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.

Author: Michael Doornbos

Michael is the founder of Evadot.com and Product Designer at Simply-Home.com and as such can often be found cavorting with penguins or eating herring. Michael can be reached at mike@evadot.com and at michaeldoornbos.com and on twitter as @mrdoornbos

25 comments

  1. I may get impressed when I actually see any of that flight ready hardware but up to now I have only seen that NASA-built lander frame tested on tether with compressed air – and we have already seen that 3 years ago. Maybe I missed something lately?

    And to those who really think 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 – where is that damn moon base??? Surely there is enough money on this planet ;-)

    • Will Baird

      Was it only with compressed air?

      • Will Baird

        Hey Alex,

        I’ll take a look here.  I’ve some experience with rocket engines.  :)

        I’ve always wondered who ought to own the lander that ME has now.  OM made the deal first, right? Soooo…  the recent article on OM I saw stated they still had the same deal in place.  So what is it?

      • Thanks for the info.
        As I understand it, anybody can buy one of these from NASA (within the limits of ITAR, of course). I can imagine that both OM and ME purchased one but only they can answer that for sure. I hope for their sake that the $500k price covers a complete lander with avionics and real rocket engines.

      • Will Baird

        I think there is only one in existence as I understand it.

      • The prototype is propelled by compressed air cylinders: http://lunarscience.arc.nasa.gov/articles/common-spacecraft-bus-for-lunar-explorer-missions
        I doubt ME or OM have already purchased one. Ames’ first application of the Common Spacecraft Bus is expected to be for its own Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, which is set for launch in 2011 (source: http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/jsp_includes/articlePrint.jsp?storyID=news/HOVER11128.xml&headLine=Tests%20Running%20On%20Common%20Spacecraft%20Bus)

      • Hehe, if they have to wait for that and, as Will says there is only one of them, then other GLXP competitors can relax. According to NASA website LADEE is scheduled for launch in 2013, which I translate to “might launch in 2014″ ;-)
        http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/LADEE/main/

      • That’s why ME (The Moon is Bob?) said, every “serious” team is launching after 2014, muahahaha :)
        We are launching the first rocket at end of 2011…

      • Will Baird

        This is only compressed air from what I have found.  Its a long way from that to a functional lander: rocket engines are meaner than that. 

      • While rocket engines are meaner, they are pretty well known. The cold gas testing was to validate the control software and _that_ is the real rocket science. Changing the cold gas system for real motors is necessary, certainly, but the reducing the risk on th econtrol system is a far more significant achievementthan not yet running th ething with real motors.

      • In that case they have failed! Control systems and theory are far better known topics than rocket propulsion and engines. We are surrounded by things driven by control systems more complex than what you find in spacecrafts. I would make an exception for the cases where the software has to manage redundancy in a spacecraft and perform autonomous landing, but neither of these are validated by jumping up and down in a tether using compressed air coming from and external source. Once the vehicle flies up a few miles autonomously and lands safely, we can put “validated” and “flight ready” stickers on it (after replacing the engines with something that works in vacuum ;-)

      • Well, I happen to disagree. There is a serious difference between “well known” control system theory and it’s actual application in a real system (ask me how I know…) , however, that’s not the point. In this case the lander is using off-the-shelf motors for the RCS system, but is developing much of the code for the autonomous landing system for the lander, even though a fair amount does come from another existing system (can’t remember which one). One of the key points of this lander design is that almost everything except the physical structure itself, is off the rack hardware, all flight qualified. I do agree that more extensive testing is needed and that a tethered test is not enough to flight qualify it. Still, this is not NASA and Bob may, indeed plan to go with whatever the system is currently capable, and eat the risk.

        I wouldn’t but it is his (er, the investor’s) money.

        Paul

  2. I’m not sure that being in bed with the x-prize foundation has any impact on his ability to get a robot to the moon. 

    • The concern is that other teams are held up more strictly to rules of the competition than the one with a xpf sugar daddy. There are far more back breaking rules in this thing than just “get to the moon”. 

  3. It’s a reasonable concern, but having formerly worked at X PRIZE Foundation, I’m 100% confident in the Foundation’s ability to manage this appropriately.  It’s worth keeping in mind that judging will be conducted by an impartial, external panel.

    • Anonymous

      The question is not about the post-moon-landing. It is about the legal framework that is drowning competitors beforehand. Moon Express does not care about media rights, because they got their funding in other ways. So they could influence the XPF into making the MTA as media unfriendly as possible. But you can also see it the other way around, how is it that moon express is still in the competition even after violating the quarterly media requirement? (This applies to other teams as well)

      • Moon Express has not blogged between April 6 and August 4 2011, a clear violation against the media requirements of the MTA. Odyssey Moon is obviously using a blog robot, team Frednet has not blogged in a time frame of December 3, 2010 to May 3, 2011. Team Indus has not published any video till now. And so on…Teams who try to keep the weekly blog and 45 min video/quarter requirement seem to be just stupid.

  4. Linda Bourgeois

    Do you remember my question to the GLXP panel in Huntsville, AL?

  5. Linda Bourgeois

    Do you remember my question to the GLXP panel in Huntsville, AL?

  6. Thanks, Michael, that you finally made it a story. 

  7. Quote MTA 3.0:

    3.2.5 X PRIZE Foundation Employees
    X PRIZE Foundation employees and their families may neither participate in, nor
    have a financial interest in the Google Lunar X PRIZE TEAMs or CRAFTs.
    Officers and Trustees of the X PRIZE Foundation must comply with the
    Foundation’s Conflict of Interest policy, which requires that they disclose
    possible conflicts and recuse themselves from any relevant deliberations or
    decisions regarding the development of PRIZEs under development or offered by
    the Foundation in which they may have a direct or indirect financial interest.

  8. If they’ve got all the money they need and a plan to buy proven technologies, why haven’t they won yet?  Because it’s not only about the money.  It’s not only about the parts.  There’s serious engineering to be done and the lack of money, time, and resources often fosters serious engineering innovation.

    • Agree completely with you, Wes. It isn’t about the money. To buy all the hardware from NASA and go back to the Moon will kick off neither a new space industry nor public interests in my opinion. Imagine, instead of building SpaceShipOne with all its innovations and its unique design they would have been able to purchase a North American X-15. There would have been no or no big public interest or enthusiasm. Folks like the Copenhagen suborbitals or Sugar Shot to Space will kick off new dreams. People do not identify with billionaires, the identify with people like you and me.

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