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Revolution, Not Evolution: A generation of space science can only be saved by radical change.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (87)
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

A couple months have passed since I announced Team Cringely, my plan to win the Google Lunar X Prize by landing a rover on the Moon and driving it around. This week the first of the GLX contestants formally registered with more to follow, including Team Cringely, so it would seem that an update is in order. Mostly, though, I want to cover what has emerged as the primary motivation behind Team Cringely, which is literally preserving the entire idea of going to space, an idea that -- at least for America -- is near death.

When this adventure began it was a lark, a no-brainer (who wouldn't want to send a rover to the Moon and make a lot of money?), but I could hardly call myself a space expert in any regard. And two months of research isn't enough to make me a space expert today. But as a guy who has been evaluating technologies and technology programs for 30 years, the nature of the space culture is beginning to emerge.

On the government level, which is to say NASA, the space culture is one of risk aversion and budget preservation: all budgets are spent but most projects are cancelled. Space technology is moving forward at a very slow rate, with propulsion systems, for example, little changed from 40 years ago. Moore's Law has described many things, but serious space advancements aren't among them. The result is that hard-won knowledge has retired with the men and women who developed it and we are substantially LESS able to go to the Moon today as a nation than we were 30 years ago.

There may be other nations doing great work in space, I simply don't know.

Private space exploration has become a great hobby for Silicon Valley tycoons who bring to it fresh money, some fresh ideas, and by their sheer number compared to NASA a greater pace of change through accelerated natural selection. Yet I worry that this is a fad, that it will fade over time as space enthusiasts lose the 10 percent of their fortunes their wives will allow them to risk, then go back to building big boats or big houses, or whatever they would otherwise have done with that money.

Against this the Google Lunar X Prize is refreshingly different yet also sadly the same. Each of the teams I know about (there are many others I don't know about, so this generalization may be weak) is building a little Apollo Program, spending a LOT of money to launch an ambitious lander and rover with the promise of cracking open space, starting whole new industries, getting in on the bottom floor for a whole new economy. Only it won't, for the most part, work out that way.

The Google Lunar X Prize is $20 million. I haven't heard of a team other than Team Cringely planning to spend less than $50 million and many are in the $100 million range. This is both laudable and dangerous. It is laudable that there is so much capital available yet dangerous if that capital doesn't result in some truly significant advance in both space science AND space industry. If $1 billion is spent on Google Lunar X Prize entries, most of which can't win (there is only one first prize) and many of which will never even fly, does it help space exploration or hurt it? I suspect that it will hurt space exploration as mad money that could have been put to better use gets burned in little or no use at all.

You won't find, for example, any traditional space companies lining up to compete for this prize. Lockheed Martin and Boeing will gladly work for any team, but they "know better" than to vie for the prize themselves, because they are profit-making enterprises and they could never win the prize at a profit despite all the knowledge they would have coming into the contest.

But this doesn't at all mean I am down on the Google Lunar X Prize. Just the opposite. I think it is a fabulous gesture that will ultimately have positive results IF somebody actually wins.

Whether Google realizes it or not, they have taken a revolutionary step with this prize, because the only way to win it -- the ONLY way to win it -- is by taking a completely new approach. The safer route would have been for Google to offer a $100 million prize rather than $20 million. That would have made practical the efforts of these other teams and would have pulled one or more traditional space contractors into the race. There would be a winner and that winner would look like any one of these teams.

But for whatever reason Google decided to offer only $20 million for the first prize, giving us what will emerge over the next few months as half a dozen or more America's Cup-sized teams with America's Cup-sized budgets, each pinning its hopes on a single rover and arguing that there is a business case for investment here, somewhere, if only you squint just right.

Then there is Team Cringely. Our budget to win the Google Lunar X Prize has grown from $3 million to $5 million, where it will stop. That's because (controversial statement coming) I am firmly convinced that we can win the prize with $5 million, but if we spent $10 million we probably couldn't.

So far we have raised $500,000, with the biggest single investment being $100,000 from a guy whose motivation is to share an adventure with his nine-year-old son. It's a lot of money, sure, but this is money that will never be regretted by those who invested it because it isn't enough to have any impact on their lives -- that is unless we win the prize. It's true mad money. One Team Cringely investor is also bankrolling the iPhone Dev Team hackers group simply to pull Steve Jobs' chain.

We'll raise more money over time from similar folks and add to that some corporate sponsorships that will eventually reach our $5 million goal, I am sure. The goal is modest and within reach.

And the pitch is simple: win the prize, make money, save the future of space exploration.

The method is simple, too: build smaller, cheaper rovers and send a bunch of them to the Moon.

If you have 20 shots at hitting the Moon for $5 million versus one shot for $100 million, it changes your whole day.

And the idea is appealing to more than just giddy amateurs. Without making any effort to recruit them, Team Cringely has begun attracting real rocket scientists who are drawn by the simple idea that winning this prize at a profit could change completely the way entrepreneurs and governments look at space. The symbolism of what we are doing is as important as the work, itself.

So Team Cringely now has a Program Manager, a role I gladly hand over so I can go back to evangelizing and raising money. Our Program Manager is Tomas Svitek, who has a PhD from Caltech, was a systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the NASA Mars Scout, Mars Surveyor, Mars Sample Return and various Discovery Missions. He was the Principal Scientist for Orbital Sciences Corp., Project Leader for the BlastOff Lunar Lander project and AeroAstro's miniature spacecraft project. He has managed and completed projects for NASA, the U.S. Air Force Research Lab, Microcosm Inc., and SpaceX Corp.. He was lead engineer for Jeff Bezos' Blue Origins crew capsule and has long run his own space consulting company in California.

With the help of Tomas and the rest of Team Cringely we will within 18 months land on the Moon and claim the Google Lunar X Prize. Doing so -- and doing it at a profit -- will show the world there is another way to explore space, drawing new players with new rules into this exciting future.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (87)

Spending money can solve a problem. Spending lot of money to solve the problem becomes the problem. In the 1960s one of the islands in the marriannas island group had a Bell&Howell movie projecter it broke. The island was poor so they sumitted a grand request to the federal goverment(the island was a procterate of the US) total asked about $250 including shipping. Rejected
However the Feds would be happy to approve $250K grant for an AV suite for the school. Which was unuseable, unneeded, and a waste in the islands.
but they could get it approved.
Throwing money at problems can work provide you throwing at the problem and not the pencial pushers who are building job security. Working the problem not the system is the key

Robert Callaway | Dec 21, 2007 | 1:32PM

As John McEnroe used to say: "You can't be serious" about all this stuff, Bob.
Anyone who has ever worked in the aerospace biz knows there is no way to do what you want to do for the kind of small change funding you're proposing.
I'd recommend to you that you rethink and redirect your blog mission to a better purpose rather than evengelizing such a "mission impossible". Why not use your deep experience and knowledge to spread more info to the masses about areas of more general interest? Oh yes, and more realistic ideas and less arcanery, to coin a word.

Irv Halland | Dec 23, 2007 | 3:59PM

Why the pessimism, Irv? Either this is going to be spectacularly successful, or a spectacular embarasment. In either case it will be entertaining to watch. And if it's the latter, I'm sure Bob's take on it will be honest.

aaronp808 | Dec 25, 2007 | 11:51PM