Science & Technology

Moon ambitions get a reality check — plus a boost from Apollo moonshot memories

Update for 10:54 a.m. PT Jan. 23: The managers of the Google Lunar X Prize competition acknowledge that the prize will go unwon.

Previously: Who’s going to the moon? The prospects are looking dimmer for any commercial lunar landings in the short term — but Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture today used a milestone in space history to spotlight its longer-term lunar aspirations.

The bad news is that none of the remaining five contenders for the Google Lunar X Prize is likely to get to the moon in time to win a $20 million award in March.

Google has repeatedly extended the deadline for doing a lunar landing, but CNBC quoted the company as saying there’d be no more extensions beyond March 31.

The competition was established in 2007 as a follow-up to the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private-sector spaceflight, with the aim of encouraging commercial lunar exploration. More than 30 teams registered for the competition, but the field has been winnowed down to five finalists.

Three of those teams — Israel’s Team SpaceIL, India’s TeamIndus and Japan’s Team Hakuto — acknowledge they won’t be able to launch by March due to issues relating to funding and launch logistics.

Two U.S.-based teams — Moon Express and Synergy Moon — haven’t issued statements about their launch timeline, but the window for testing and launching their spacecraft by March 31 has all but closed.

This weekend’s successful orbital launch of Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron rocket gave a lift to Moon Express’ longer-term prospects, considering that Moon Express has a contract with Rocket Lab for up to five launches. But since then, neither Rocket Lab nor Moon Express has said anything about lunar launches in the near term.

In recent interviews, Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards has been talking up the company’s long-term plans to ship cargo to and from the moon, while downplaying the prize.

In a CBC interview that aired on Saturday, Richards said the competition served as “an important bootstrap” for investment, but was merely “icing on the cake” rather than an essential ingredient of Moon Express’ business model. He took a similar stance with GeekWire last July when he stressed that “nobody invested in Moon Express to win a prize.”

Over the past decade, Moon Express and other competitors have benefited from $6 million in incentive payments provided as part of the Google Lunar X Prize process. The contest also spurred NASA to create a cooperative program known as Lunar CATALYST, aimed at encouraging the development of landing capabilities for the moon.

Even if Google withdraws from the prize program, there’s still a chance some sort of lunar competition could continue with alternative funding. Eric Desatnik, head of public relations for the California-based XPRIZE foundation, told GeekWire in an email that a statement about the program’s status would be issued later this week.

In the longer term, the outlook for commercial moon missions is far brighter, primarily due to the Trump administration’s heightened emphasis on lunar exploration and settlement.

The five X Prize finalists all say they’ll keep working on moonshots even if they miss the March deadline. Several teams that dropped out of the competition, including Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic and Germany’s PTScientists, are continuing work on their lunar landers as well.

More established companies are also targeting the moon: United Launch Alliance says it’s working with Bigelow Aerospace to put an outpost in lunar orbit. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will be capable of sending payloads to the moon, and its BFR super-rocket is being designed to handle lunar landings.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, has proposed a landing system code-named “Blue Moon” to deliver tons of cargo to the lunar surface. The lander could be sent to the moon on any of a range of rockets, including NASA’s yet-to-be-tested Space Launch System.

Brett Alexander, Blue Origin’s director of business development and strategy, told Capitol Hill lawmakers last September that the company has already made “significant investments” in Blue Moon.

“As part of a public-private partnership with NASA, we are willing to invest further in developing this capability,” he said at the time.

Today, Blue Origin took advantage of a historical milestone — the 50th anniversary of the first uncrewed test launch of an Apolto lunar module — to tweet about its plans:

50 years ago today, @NASA launched Apollo 5, the first uncrewed Lunar Module test flight. This mission proved out the Lunar Module propulsion systems, staging, and in-space operations before carrying astronauts. #BlueMoon #Apollo50th

Blue Origin (@blueorigin) January 22, 2018

Blue Moon is designed to fly on any launch vehicle, including SLS, Atlas V, Vulcan and New Glenn. Delivering large payloads to the lunar surface, Blue Moon can help put astronauts on the moon – this time to stay. #BlueMoon #Apollo50th

Blue Origin (@blueorigin) January 22, 2018

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