Monday, February 8, 2010

Moon 2.0 and the New Era of Space Exploration

By William Pomerantz

Today would have been the 182nd birthday of one of the greatest dreamers of all time: Jules Verne. In one of his best and most famous novels, De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), Verne imagined a fantastical expedition to our celestial neighbor aboard a bullet-shaped capsule called the Colombiad. Like in so many other things, Verne proved prescient, and his foresight was honored just over a century after the publication of that book by the crew of the Apollo 11 mission, who chose to name the roughly-bullet-shaped Command / Service Module that carried the first real-life human explorers to the Moon the Colombia.

To Verne's eager audiences in the mid 1800s, the idea of any Moon mission must have seemed like the remotest of possibilities; after all, rocket pioneers like Goddard, Von Braun, Tsiolkovsky, and Korelev wouldn't be born for several more decades. By the time Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins were blasting off for that historic mission, scientists and engineers had proven some of Verne's technical ideas wrong, even as they were verifying the core concept. But the social and financial aspects of Verne's dream went largely untested during the Apollo era.

Fast forward another forty years, and it seems that another part of Verne's vision is coming true; for in the Verne's story, the Colombiad was not built by taxpayer dollars like the Apollo program. instead, it was the result of a privately funded effort.

In these early days of the 21st century, we are now beginning a new era of lunar exploration. "Moon 2.0" certainly owes an enormous debt to the heroes and the technical accomplishments of the American and Soviet missions of the 1960s and 1970s, but it also carries its own new twist. Whereas the first era of lunar exploration was dominated by two state-funded, nationalistic civil programs, Moon 2.0 is instead based a new standard of sustained participatory exploration and the fundamental contributions of new players, new goals, and even new economic markets.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE is our contribution to this new era of lunar exploration. Announced in late 2007, the Google Lunar X PRIZE is designed to jump-start Moon 2.0 by providing an undeniable incentive for a new generation of engineers and spacecraft. This $30 million dollar competition has already inspired 20 teams to try to become the first private organization to land a rover on the Moon, move safely around the lunar surface, and return high definition video and photographs to eager audiences here on Earth. These teams are the definition of diversity: they are headquartered in 11 nations, have team members actively working in nearly 70 countries on 6 continents, and they rely on the ingenuity of inventors and leaders of all ages, races, and creeds. It is proving that the heroes of Verne's novel have no shortage of modern day counter parts.

Last week was an exciting one for fans of Moon 2.0. On Monday and Tuesday, the Google Lunar X PRIZE Team Summit brought in groups from Canada, Romania, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Russia, and the Isle of Man to discuss each group's on-going efforts. The event was generously hosted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the joint NASA / CalTech research facility that is home to some of the most impressive planetary exploration missions in history, from America's first satellite through the rovers currently exploring the surface of Mars. A quick highlight reel of the Team Summit can be found here:



While the Google Lunar X PRIZE Teams were meeting in Pasadena, some major developments were afoot for NASA's Moon plans. The release of the President's budget request for fiscal year 2011 showed some major changes are in store for civil space exploration in the USA. Although the changes are still pending Congressional action, the President's request made clear the fact that commercial industry has a big role to play in ensuring that space exploration continues. This is certainly true for suborbital spaceflight, such as the capabilities being developed by the veterans of the Ansari X PRIZE and the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge, and is becoming more and more true for travel to Low Earth Orbit, thanks to the efforts of companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. In an era of tightening government budgets, increasing private capacity, a competing national priorities, the full involvement of privately funded players in space exploration will continue to expand whenever private industry can provide a necessary or unique capability--something that the X PRIZE Foundation and our Google Lunar X PRIZE teams fundamentally believes extends to exploration of the surface of the Moon. You can read more about this in post our fearless leader, X PRIZE Founder Dr. Peter Diamandis, contributed to the Huffington Post.

Although throughout the Team Summit, a key fact was continually underscored: unlike the first era of lunar exploration, Moon 2.0 is not an "us versus them" proposition. The private companies, non-profits, and universities competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE understand that they live in symbiosis with civil space agencies and government funded efforts not only in the USA, but across the world. NASA leaders and engineers in turn recognize that NASA's own missions are made more powerful and more affordable by a robust private industry. When private partners and government programs around the world work together in a viable space exploration ecosystem, the result is not just a few solitary missions, but a sustainable program that allows us to achieve the best science and the best material returns.

We hope you'll join us in supporting this new era of space exploration. If you live in a nation that has active or planned government-funded lunar exploration--a list that currently includes the USA, the member nations of the European Space Agency, Russia, India, China, and Japan--lend your voice in support of those programs. Regardless of your nationality, take the time to support the privately funded teams competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE, or start your own team. We're in for quite a ride; and we hope you'll stick with us as we get this new era of lunar exploration off the ground!

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