Congress may have put the kibosh on NASA's plan to return astronauts to the moon, but that doesn't mean the agency is giving up its lunar ambitious. The new plan? Pay others to go.
There's a rich pool of partners to choose from, thanks to a Google-sponsored competition offering $30 million in prizes for landing and operating rovers on the moon. So far, the contest, which is based on the 2004 $10 million Ansari X Prize competition for privately funded human spaceflights, has drawn 22 contenders.
Last week NASA picked six Google Lunar X Prize teams to work with, hoping to glean technological shortcuts for building, flying and operating robotic probes.
"We hope this will inform NASA's internal efforts to develop landers, not only for the moon, but also for asteroids and other missions," Nantel Suzuki, a manager in the agency's Exploration division, told Discovery News.
It's a low-risk venture for the government, which only pays if and when the contractors deliver. Initially, NASA will buy information about the companies' spacecraft designs and their testing processes.
As the firms launch, fly, land and operate their probes, the scope of NASA's interest -- and the amount of money it's willing to pay -- expands.
In this first round of lunar commercial initiatives, NASA is offering between $10,000 and $10 million for technical information, such as precision landing systems. But in follow-on programs, the agency will likely buy science data on a commercially available basis as well.
"We're not funding the missions themselves," said Suzuki. "These teams had to, as part of the proposal, not only explain their technical capabilities, but also their business potential. They had to demonstrate they had viable end-to-end lunar missions … and some kind of business strategy. It's the combination of those things that make this unique, I think."
"We did discover that there are some very exciting missions being planned and some impressive capabilities. There are cost challenges and there's the hope that the government can leverage investments that are being brought to bear from private sources, and that's indeed what we found."
The goal of the Google Lunar X Prize is to land a rover on the moon, move it at least 500 meters (1,650 feet) and transmit images back to Earth. The first team to succeed before Dec. 31, 2012, wins a $20 million grand prize. Finishing second is worth $10 million. Bonus money is available for special tasks, such as locating a relic from the Apollo or Soviet moon programs, or finding water ice in a lunar crater.
NASA's partners in the commercial lunar initiative, called the Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data, are:
-Astrobotic Technology Inc., of Pittsburgh
-The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc., of Cambridge, Mass.
-Dynetics Inc., of Huntsville, Ala.
-Earthrise Space Inc.., of Orlando
-Moon Express Inc., of San Francisco
-Team FREDNET, The Open Space Society Inc., of Huntsville
"As someone who worked on the original Apollo propulsion for the lunar lander, I look forward to returning to the moon," said Astrobotic team member Carl Stechman, a lead propulsion engineer with Aerojet.
"If these companies are able to sustain themselves, they may eventually be in the position to provide cargo delivery services or to sell science data to us," added Suzuki.