Sunday, June 2, 2008
In the category of audacious goals, a team of Triangle business leaders and N.C. State University faculty members has entered a worldwide contest to launch the first private rocket to the moon.
Houston, you have competition.
Sponsored by Google and the X Prize Foundation of California, the contest offers $30 million in prize money to teams that can meet the following challenge:
* Land an unmanned rover on the lunar surface.
* Travel at least 500 meters.
* Transmit video back to Earth.
But ultimately, this contest is about making the moon a permanent celestial outpost.
"The space race is on again," said Dick Dell Sr., director of Raleigh-based Advanced Vehicle Research Center and a key member of the moon launch team. "There is going to be a huge rush toward commercialization this time."
Almost four decades after man first landed on the moon, some will no doubt question the need for such a contest.
But the rules of the game are different this time. The X Prize Foundation, which offers huge sums of money to spur innovation in a variety of fields, envisions a day when large solar panels built on the moon are used to power entire cities on Earth.
It sees the moon as an extension of our reach, a launchpad for further exploration, a place where humans keep a permanent presence.
But first, you need to get there without government help.
Earth comes first
Dell was involved in supporting another futuristic endeavor -- building cars that compete in driverless races -- when he learned of the lunar competition.
The leader of the Grand Challenge driving team, Grayson Randall of Insight Technologies in Morrisville, was interested.
So was Andre Mazzoleni, a professor at NCSU who teaches orbital mechanics and space system design. William Edmonson, who teaches electrical and computer engineering at N.C. State, also wanted in. So did others.
By late 2007, TeamSTELLAR filed its application to launch a rocket to the moon. Its entry was accepted May 23, making it one of 14 teams cleared to compete.
Like Team Stellar, some of the groups have universities as partners.
The group known as Astrobotic Technology, for example, is a combined effort led by Carnegie Mellon University, The University of Arizona and Raytheon, a defense company.
But many of the teams are coalitions of private firms that want to pioneer private space travel. To underscore that point, 90 percent of a team's money must come from private sources, a rule intended to drive cost efficiencies.
The rules allow teams to hire a private launch company to take them into Earth orbit -- and there are many now, thanks to the needs of weather satellites and Global Positioning System satellites and a host of Earth-imaging products.
But it will take another set of rockets to launch from Earth orbit to lunar orbit, and still another set of rockets to drop out of the lunar orbit and land a rover.
Travel, video and just creating a craft that can survive extreme lunar climates -- temperatures can swing 450 degrees in a day -- keep the challenges coming.
But of all the tasks in front of Team Stellar, it is not the science that most worries Randall.
"We understand the technology," Randall said. "The first question is, where are we going to get the money we need?"
Investment and return
The answer brings the contest back to its entrepreneurial roots.
Any team that launches a rocket will spend far more than the $20 million set aside for the first-place winner. Dell predicts a final tab of $50 million to $100 million for the Team Stellar design. Raising that kind of money will depend on old-school marketing.
Small teams of NCSU students will handle some parts of the project, but the team still has holes to fill that will require private companies with specific technical expertise.Those companies could be asked to provide money as well as a specific skill, Dell said.
Others will be asked to sponsor the launch in return for publicity.
And potential investors will be told that $1 million plowed into the first private moon launch could return tens of millions.
Team Stellar members are convinced of that, pointing to the Ansari X Prize competition as proof.
In 2004, aerospace designer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen won $10 million by becoming the first private group to carry three people into a low-space orbit.
Allen spent far more than $10 million, but within months the team signed a multimillion-dollar contract with a space tourism company.
Of course, that meant 25 other teams in the race got no immediate payback. And that's what will happen in the lunar competition for those who flop.
But space travel in general will push forward at a fraction of what it would cost a government agency -- a big goal of the contest.
Experiments and prizes
The idea of reaching air and space travel milestones with the lure of a prize is hardly new.
The idea was fairly common in the early 1900s, echoing a theme explored by author Jules Verne when the fictional Phileas Fogg bet he could travel around the world in 80 days.
When Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927, he was spurred on by a $25,000 prize offered by French businessman Raymond Ortieg.
His efforts and others caused a huge increase in air travel that is seen as the catalyst for today's airline industry.
Aviation experts aren't sure what will happen once the first private moon launch succeeds.
But they are sure it will change the calculus of space travel.
The United States and other countries plan to return to the moon, but that could be more than a decade from now.
The deadline for the private competition is 2012. Those who compete will be first in line when the government needs subcontractors for its efforts.
"The only thing that has been profitable in space so far is some transportation and communications," said Bob Dickman, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Reston, Va.
"What this prize will do is send a message that NASA is not the only way to reach the moon," Dickman added. "Who knows where that will lead us?"
NCSU's Mazzoleni looks backward to answer the same question.
"When European explorers set out for the Americas, did they know what they would find?" he asked. "Was it important that they try?"