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Weekly Column

To the Moon, Alyce!: Team Cringely will win the Google Lunar X Prize.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (161)
By Robert X. Cringely

In the upper left corner of this page, you'll find the PBS logo, which for reasons known only to antiquity is uniformly referred to at PBS intergalactic HQ as "the P-head." Well I intend to put the P-head on the Moon.

Two weeks ago, when Google and the X Prize Foundation announced the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize contest for the first private group to land a remote-controlled rover on the moon and complete a set of mission goals, I knew I had to try to win. There was no choice: this was my destiny. Heck, I have space flight in my genes (my big brother helped design the Skylab toilet). I have an unquenchable sense of adventure. I need the money.

This is the big announcement I alluded to last week, the one I said even my 83-year-old mother would pay attention to. Not wanting to shock Mom when the news came out, I contacted her a few days ago and explained my plan.

"You are going to the Moon?" she asked.

"Not personally," I replied. "I'm sending a remote-controlled car."

"Well that's okay," she said with a certain sense of relief.

She knows me, that woman, and she knows I am capable of such extraordinary acts of boneheaded courage and poor judgment that I just might fly to the Moon myself. I'll take that as a compliment.

Sending a rover to the Moon is not an easy job, of course, especially if it is going to be done in something of a traffic jam. The X Prize Foundation tells me they have so far received requests for information from more than 100 groups. A group from Carnegie Mellon University, for example, this week announced its intention to compete by issuing a press release. If only I had thought of that.

What I loved about the Carnegie Mellon announcement, which came from its robotics lab where the university has long built robots and rovers for clients including NASA, is that it was all about robots and never mentioned how they intended to get the little bugger up there in the first place.

In my view (in poker they would call this a "tell" -- a signal of my honest intent). GETTING to the Moon and landing the sucker there intact are the hard parts. Yes, you still need a radiation-hardened rover, but that part is fairly well understood.

I am 100 percent sure that Carnegie Mellon will build a better rover than Team Cringely (like the name?), but I am just as certain that my team will beat their team to the Moon.

How can I be so certain? Well, I have a few advantages, among which are irrational optimism and the ability to suspend my own disbelief, if not that of others. And then I have my REAL advantages -- other members of Team Cringely who actually know what they are doing. I'll be revealing these team members as the effort progresses, but among my partners in crime are several senior space scientists from Russia who have already landed and driven rovers on the Moon.

It helps to have done this before.

There's still the problem, of course, that while I may have Russian buddies who are experienced, we don't have Russian space resources, by which I mean big booster rockets that might have been lying around or even free access to a launch facility. My friends may know what they are doing but we still have to build everything pretty much from scratch like everyone else.

Many Google Lunar X contestants are expected to rely on PayPal veteran and X Prize Foundation trustee Elon Musk's offer of discounted launch prices on SpaceX Falcon rockets, but Team Cringely will build its own rocket, thanks, and being too poor to afford real estate, we'll launch ours from an airplane.

Without revealing too much of my hand, Team Cringely has at least two other advantages. For one, we're willing to push the pace. The Google Lunar X Prize gives until 2012 for contestants to get to the Moon and drive around, but I intend to win or fail in 18 months. I would actually prefer to get it over with in a couple weeks, but that darned reality thing keeps getting in the way, so 18 months is what I'm told it will take. This eagerness for a short contest is probably because I get bored easily and because I now live in the former Confederacy, which was never well suited to wars of attrition. Team Cringely prefers cavalry charges.

And what a charge it will be! Team Cringely's third advantage that I can reveal is our gleeful willingness to fail over and over again on our way to succeeding. We plan to build and launch as many as 20 spacecraft in order to be sure that one succeeds. I'm sure no other team will waste so much iron.

But seriously, folks, this is one of the grand adventures of our century and I feel like I am in exactly the right place to achieve this milestone in private space flight. I hope it will be an inspiration to my kids and to kids like them around the world.

But I can't do it without your help. I'm not looking for money (actually I AM, but that would be unseemly here). What I need more than money are clever playmates with relevant experience or at least a lot of enthusiasm. Please get in touch if you think you can help. We'll build and launch a bunch of rockets and rovers, document every moment of it on a huge educational website, in blogs, and ultimately on PBS, probably with an episode of NOVA. And at some point there's a fair chance that we'll split a huge jackpot, taking Google's money.

I will reveal more details about Team Cringely in the weeks to come, but all other competitors should understand these three things: 1) we're coming to learn; 2) we're coming to have fun, and; 3) we're coming to win.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (161)

I think air launch vehicle speeds have already been determined by experimental aircraft builders payload, accent, etc... However if you seek a right slower vehickie, this one just might do.

Ed | Oct 10, 2007 | 1:35PM

You did say 'air lunch' in a slow vehicle didn't you? Granny is holding it.

Ed | Oct 10, 2007 | 3:29PM

Is the goal to inhabit the Moon? Is all this space travel ultimate purpose is to find inhabitable planets. Let's do it!

From what I have read in the past the inside core or density of the moon is that of a soaked cork. So the only way to live there is to live in bubble homes with self supporting Eco systems. That's why I'm proposing the creation of a new housing organization for the colonization Moon.

BBBBBBBBBBBBARF - Bringing Bread & Butter Buyers Big Brick & Beam Big Bubble Buildings Bed & Breakfast Amenities Really Far

Ed | Oct 11, 2007 | 1:57PM