Tuesday, September 18, 2007

To The Moon, Alice!

The new X-Prize has been announced, and as speculated it involves a robotic mission to the moon. What's really surprising to me is that the challenge is not simply to hit the moon, or even make a soft landing.
To win the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a team must successfully land a privately funded craft on the lunar surface and survive long enough to complete the mission goals of roaming about the lunar surface for at least 500 meters and sending a defined data package, called a “Mooncast”, back to Earth.

Maybe Armadillo Aerospace will have a chance to apply the technology they've developed as the leading condenders for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge to be held at the Wirefly X-Prize Cup in October.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) also has the Moon on its mind, with their recent launch of the lunar orbiter KAGUYA (SELENE) on the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket pictured above. They claim it is is the highest performing lunar probe since the Apollo program.

India plans to launch their lunar probe Chandrayaan-1, consising of an impactor and an orbiter, in April of next year. And don't be surprised to find China in lunar orbit soon. In fact, NASA Administrator Mike Griffen recently said

I personally believe that China will be back on the Moon before we are. I think when that happens, Americans will not like it, but they will just have to not like it.
He's right. I don't like it, but perhaps it will have the same effect on us that Sputnik did almost 50 years ago. Or maybe we'll just collectively shrug, take a Prozak and turn on American Idol.


Wirefly X Prize blogger said...

I know, that would be such a shame! Our space program is losing its lead and no one will notice until someone else lands on the moon. So what are we going to do about it?? Sulk? These civilian contests are great because we're actively encouraging our brightest minds to do something about it.

astroroach said...

Even if NASA were given the same percentage of the budget they had during Apollo, they would not be able to return to the Moon much faster than their current plan calls for. In part this is due to the blossoming federal bureaucracy which makes it impossible to move quickly and decisively, and in part due to our risk adverse culture.

Only the new space entreupeners are daring enough and flexible enough for this new space race. I think these guys are going to drain a lot of talent that might have gone to NASA too. If I were a young engineer, would I want to join a huge government bureaucracy that spends most of its time doing endless paper studies for things that will never get built, or would I want to join a small dynamic team of True Believers? I know what I'd choose.