Nearly 40 years after Americans first set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, with NASA's historic Apollo 11 flight, a host of private rocketeers are hoping to follow to win a multimillion-dollar prize.
Seventeen teams are vying in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition, and if there's one name that's on the lips of many of those competitors, it's Astrobotic. The team boasts a name that readily conveys its ambitious aspirations for reaching the moon and beyond.
"Astrobotic Technology is going to do a series of missions for scouting, prospecting, mining, and all sorts of things that robots can do to get ready for the human return to the moon," said David Gump, the team's president.
Winning the Google Lunar X Prize requires teams to land a robot on the moon, move at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) and beam high-definition views back to Earth.
The team plans for a pinpoint landing just over a mile from the Apollo 11 site, where Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Astrobotic's "Red Rover" would then beam back high-definition images of the dusty footprints left by Armstrong and fellow Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, all while taking care not to disturb the historical site.
"Red Rover" takes its name from team member Red Whittaker, a famed Carnegie Mellon University roboticist who led his team to victory in the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge.
Founding a frontier
Astrobotic also gained serious financial muscle by partnering with Raytheon Co. — a leading aerospace and defense corporation — to help establish itself as a long-term player in the race back to the moon and beyond. Carnegie Mellon University and Arizona State's Lunar and Planetary Institute have similarly signed on.
"Unlike during the Apollo era, it's clear to many people that the future of the lunar frontier will be a mixed colony of humans and robots simultaneously," Gump explained. "Our goal is to be a company to which you can outsource things. You want to scout a landing site ahead of time, you hire us. You want to get a soil sample before sending your mining machines, you hire us. You need some electrical power supply, we'd have a service."
Potential clients could include nations that would hire one or more Astrobotic rovers to gather rocks and soil, as part of a prestige sample return mission. The team has already lined up at least one private client in Celestis, which announced plans to hire both Astrobotic and fellow competitor Odyssey Moon to fly cremated human remains to the moon.
Multiple moon shots
The series of robotic expeditions to the moon would also collect information to help build a lunar data library, Astrobotic announced last fall.
A vision for Astrobotic grew out of long-time collaborations between Gump and Whittaker, starting back in 1989 when Gump headed the now-defunct Lunacorp and had plans to place a rover on the moon.
"At that time we didn't have the credibility of Google dust sprinkled on us," Gump said, noting a "sea change" in people's perceptions of the private space industry after aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites firm's SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for reusable suborbital spacecraft
Now Raytheon and the other partner institutions have already poured over $3 million into the new endeavor, and the team looks forward to additional funding from wealthy sponsors and eventually venture capital investors.
In contrast to teams that aim to take the X Prize with a budget equivalent to the first prize purse of $20 million, Astrobotic expects to spend several times that amount. Gump noted that a smaller budget could place mission constraints by forcing the team to hitch a ride with another private launch, or reduce the rover's capabilities to a short-term effort — not exactly in line with the team's future plans to operate as an independent player in the space industry.
Gump has said that smaller entrepreneurial teams may yet capture the prize, but the team would continue with its larger-scale effort.