The creation of the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE competition in 2007 was a masterstroke to incentivize bold new dreams of commercial space ventures beyond Earth orbit. The competition was built on the legacy of the $10M Ansari XPRIZE that was announced by XPRIZE in 1996 and won in 2004 with the successful suborbital flights of SpaceShipOne.
The winning of the Ansari XPRIZE was one of the biggest stories of the decade, shattering broadcast and online media records and demonstrating that incentive prizes work in our modern world. But what would XPRIZE do next? How do you top the world’s first private spaceship redefining the possible in accomplishing something only superpowers had done before?
Well, you can top it with a bigger and bolder challenge, something at the raggedy edge of the possible. In Silicon Valley such things are called “moonshots.” And what better moonshot than a literal Moonshot? XPRIZE pitched a lunar competition concept to Google in early 2007, and the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE was born and announced on September 13, 2007, challenging private teams to reach for the Moon.
It’s difficult to put a deadline on a future that has such massive and unprecedented dependencies, particularly when it’s calling on a privately funded group to do something that only three super-powers have accomplished to date. When the competition was announced, it was envisioned that the prize could be won by 2012.
Well, perhaps not too surprisingly, it’s taking a little longer. Here we are in 2018 with XPRIZE and its prize sponsor Google still hanging in there after more than 10 years. I think they should be applauded for that. The winning of the Google Lunar XPRIZE would, of course, be triumphant to XPRIZE, Google and any competitor who wins it. The $20M grand prize remains to this day the largest incentive prize in history, but the competition has in many ways already achieved a significant amount of its original purpose. A number of aspirational and serious efforts to reach the Moon have been inspired by the competition; youth have been motivated to enter science and technical careers; some efforts are still in existence outside of the competition; and some are still contenders. Like all incentive prizes, the value is not just in the winning of them, but in the reaching for them. From the prize sponsor’s perspective, achievements in inspiration, education, diversity, public and market awareness, and out of the box thinking are all of significant value. But there have been tangible and credible advances as well by some of the contenders among the colorful assortment of, at one time, over 30 competing teams.
The Google Lunar XPRIZE competition has inspirational roots and legacies dating back to Blastoff! and other heroic efforts at commercial lunar business ventures. In turn, the competition has inspired a number of aspects of today’s emerging commercial lunar industry, which is finding its way and gaining momentum (but we’re not there yet). Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the competition, a huge bow of appreciation should go to XPRIZE, Google and everyone who has taken enormous personal and financial risks on this incredibly hard challenge of expanding commercial space activities beyond Earth orbit.
… This Op-Ed was originally published by SpaceNews. For the full version on SpaceNews click here.