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A New Player in the Return to the Moon

A New Player in the Return to the Moon

Alexandra Hall is the Senior Director of the Google Lunar XPRIZE

If all goes according to plan, the moon will soon have its first surface visitor after a three-decade lull. In August 1976, the Soviet unmanned spacecraft, Luna 24, touched down softly on a mission to retrieve some lunar rocks and soil. Since then, humans have only sent spacecraft to orbit or crash into the moon. This is set to change in December 2013, with the anticipated launch of Chang’e 3, China’s first lunar lander. Because of this latest development, those very familiar with the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE have started to ask about an original clause in the competition – the “government landing penalty.”

Some background: When the Google Lunar XPRIZE was announced in 2007, it had been informed by a study that suggested that private lunar exploration could be incentivized by a prize and would attract perhaps a dozen teams and take five years. In order to incentivize early investment in the teams and get the competition moving on a rapid timescale, a “government landing penalty” was incorporated into the Google Lunar XPRIZE rules, which would reduce the Grand Prize by $5 million if a government landing occurred prior to a Google Lunar XPRIZE landing.

For this fledgling private lunar exploration industry to become a reality and attract investors, a motivator was deemed necessary for teams to address some of the technology, efficiency, and cost issues on an aggressive timeline. This would allow for adoption of some of their innovations in future government projects that were, at the time, being explored by many different nations. Such early governmental customers would help the financial stability of teams and accelerate the pace of private space exploration.

Indeed, NASA subsequently created a program to purchase data related to such technology innovations from teams in order to use it to inform U.S. lunar mission development.

It was further recognized that for the Google Lunar XPRIZE to have the public inspirational impact that was desired and attract the media and sponsor interest needed to help teams raise funds, it should be a privately funded Google Lunar XPRIZE team that would be landing first on the moon after more than three decades. So there were good reasons to include this penalty clause.

But circumstances change. The U.S. is no longer pursuing the moon as a primary goal, and the space agency budgets for other countries have been affected by the global economic downturn. The deadline for the prize was extended to accommodate the financial and commercial realities that teams were facing as a result of these changes.

Recently, we had the opportunity to address the original government landing clause as part of the adoption of a new Master Team Agreement that was necessitated by the new Milestone Prizes. The decision was made that the government landing penalty no longer served any useful purpose and it was removed.

Our teams have managed to keep their dreams alive, build partnerships, raise funds and see successes in a much more challenging global, economic, and political environment than was originally foreseen. In the same way, a government landing is still a key piece of the Google Lunar XPRIZE story, but also no longer as originally envisioned.

It now looks likely that our teams will no longer be the first to land on the surface of the moon in this century, but they will all be watching intently at China’s attempt. Regardless of whether it is successful or not, Chang’e 3 will actually raise the profile of the moon again in both the public consciousness and among governments, addressing – albeit in a completely different way – the same factors as that original penalty. It is possible that this increasing interest the moon will have positive financial impact on the teams.

At the end of the day, the Google Lunar XPRIZE views China’s attempt to reach the lunar surface as a complementary effort as our teams approach the final two years of the competition. So whoever reaches the moon first, more eyes will be looking up at a story still unfolding.

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