It’s hard to believe, but the Google Lunar X PRIZE was launched five years ago today. The anniversary crept up on me, and frankly caught me off guard. Still, it’s been a good occasion to look back on a fun period of my life and to smile.
Today’s also as good a time as any to jot down my thoughts on the competition, its first five years, and its potential future. It’s probably worth starting by listing what we thought the competition might look like in 2012 back when we first launched it. As we stood up on stage at the Wired NextFest in Los Angeles in 2007, we thought that there was a remote possibility that—if everything went right—someone might be only months away from a launch attempt as of September 2012. That was the best case scenario, timeline-wise.
So, while some people might be frustrated that the teams aren’t further along than they are, it’s important to take that calibrating datum into account. Of course, in the interim, we’ve suffered through a massive, global financial recession, while NASA—a very likely future customer for many Google Lunar X PRIZE teams, and a thought leader that could easily inspire other space agencies to become customers as well—has dramatically reduced the priority it had placed on lunar exploration as of 2007.
Despite those facts, the number of teams that enrolled in the competition was about triple our most optimistic guess. While the quality of the best teams is roughly similar to what were hoping for, there are (in my personal estimation) more teams that plausibly either have that level of quality or could quickly reach it. As a direct function of the preceding two points, the diversity of ideas that the Google Lunar X PRIZE teams are pursuing is correspondingly much broader than anticipated. That is a very, very good thing; incentive prizes work best when a broad range of concepts are put to the test.
People ask me from time to time if I think the prize will be won. Actually, many of them don’t ask: they tell me that it will not be won. I don’t let this bother me: I was told many times that the Ansari X PRIZE wouldn’t be won, or some portions of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X CHALLENGE. Hell, at various points in time, I myself said the same thing about the Ansari X PRIZE and the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE. Of course, the fact that all of those prizes subsequently were won does not mean that the Google Lunar X PRIZE will definitely be won; however, it does give one a sense of how much faith to put in others’ assertions about the guaranteed failure of this or other prizes.
Personally, my take is that the Google Lunar X PRIZE is winnable, but that victory is far from a sure thing. Even with only a few years remaining and the prize’s half-way mark receding into the distance behind us, this thing is winnable. Two teams have publicly announced signed launch contracts, which is a really big deal (I am surprised that the more recent of these, Barcelona Moon Team signing up to fly on a Chinese Long March, has not gotten more attention). Others contracts are rumored to be signed already or at least in the works. Multiple teams have won contracts from NASA, which stepped up to be an early customer—and therefore an early enabler—of the commercial lunar exploration industry (a move I am disappointed, but not surprised, that other agencies have not yet taken). Between them, the teams have an incredible amount of talent.
But there’s the question of money. And launch vehicles. And time. And the economy. And luck. Lots of factors stack up against these teams. Thankfully, they are for the most part indefatigable personalities with very strong forces of will—a world class, self-selecting group of eccentric geniuses, if ever there was one. I miss them all (even the ones who could be a real pain in the ass!).
So we’ll see if it’s won. If you hope it will be won—and if you are still reading this, you probably do—don’t give up hope. We’re not that far behind the most optimistic schedule ever imagined (indeed, in some respects, we’re ahead of the game), even with a crushing recession and some other negative externalities.
Also, don’t forget that as a fan, you can help raise the odds of the prize being won. It may seem like a cliché, but I can confirm from a (former) insider’s perspective that you really do tangibly increase the chance of winning when you spread the word, when you retweet, upvote, like, and +1. Don’t forget that the prize is run on a corporate sponsorship model, and that almost every team is dependent on sponsors, donors, and/or volunteers. Even for those teams that aren’t, this is generally a labor of love, and kind word or even just confirmation that someone out there is listening and is interested can go a very long way towards helping justify more long hours and out-of-pocket expenses.
I’m not saying you need to blindly support everything about the prize. You can be frustrated, as I am, that people don’t do a better job of telling the story of the prize and the teams (a dramatically harder job than one might think, but still…); or that public data about the teams focuses almost exclusively on the lunar surface elements, and not on the cruise and decent stage; or that Google hasn’t done more (or, really, anything) to promote the prize (beyond that whole $30 million prize purse thing!); or that the teams have used minor disagreements about the team agreement as a bludgeon and a distraction; or that for some reason none of the teams can get any love on Kickstarter or Reddit. Call people on their BS; but also cheer them on. Recognize passion and creativity. Admit to yourself and to them that even the teams you value the least are in all likelihood doing more to further the cause of exploration than you have ever done, and go out and start your own project or start helping them along.
I hope that when the 10 year anniversary of the Google Lunar X PRIZE rolls around, I can celebrate it while looking at a framed photo of some newspaper clippings and a champagne-soaked commemorative t-shirt. I definitely hope I’ll while away a few hours looking at some high definition footage of the lunar surface; maybe it’ll even be live footage from some subscription-based website a Google Lunar X PRIZE winner has put up to fund their third or fourth mission. Maybe it’ll be a video of a launch narrated by someone who was in middle school back when we first dreamed up this competition.
But even if it isn’t, I’ll look back on the prize fondly. I’ll know that it gave me several awesome years of challenges, thrills, and moments of joy. I’ll know that through it, I met and got to work with some truly amazing and inspiring people. I’ll know that even those teams that fell short contributed something to the industry, to the world, and to me as a person.
So, good luck, you teams. I am cheering for you all.