June 25, 2012
Pow! Straight To The Moon!
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com
At this year´s SETIcon II, space experts with varying degrees of expertise and goals gathered together to discuss a far-out plan: Traveling to the moon.
Alex Hall, Senior Director of the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, (GLXP) a private competition to drive commercial exploration of space, started an early morning panel discussing Google´s foray into space exploration. She said her organization will be one of the first to sell tickets to land on the moon.
As it stands, those with very large wallets are able to buy tickets to orbit the moon, a feat which Ms. Hall wishes to go far beyond. These experts are already looking past simply landing on the moon to understanding and utilizing its resources. Here is where many of the challenges lay, according to Ms. Hall.
“In order for us to use the resources on the moon, there are a lot of knowledge gaps. The Google Lunar X Prize is one of the first steps to put robots on the moon.” As such, the X Prize team wishes to jump ahead in this area of space travel and kickstart the lunar economy in any way they can. Ms. Hall is aiming to make this entire effort a global one, with 26 teams competing from all over the world. The GLXP teams are currently funding, planning and building out their lunar robots. The first team to reach the moon and meet the specified objectives win the prize.
These teams have a sundry of motivations for wanting to make their way onto the moon. Each of the 26 GLXP teams, says Ms. Hall, have different motivations for looking skyward. Some teams are looking for signs of an early visitation, while other teams are looking for ways to build out architecture on the moon´s surface. Some of these teams are including the arts and music into their plans, a theme which has been common at this year´s SETIcon.
In addition to varying motivations for traveling to space, each country involved in GLXP has their own flavor and personality represented.
Ms. Hall emphasized the human element of the GLXP, saying the desire to compete is built into all of us. As such, anyone with the desire to work hard to succeed can solve the challenges surrounding a lunar landing.
Aside from understanding and taking advantage of lunar resources, Ms. Hall and her team wish to build a sustainable base on the moon, allowing science to continue to progress in outer space. As we learn and study this new territory on the ground, Ms. Hall hopes the technological and scientific advances will also progress us as a species. For now, the robots will have to go first, teaching us how to reach the moon safely and what kind of challenges to expect.
Author, planetary scientist and space program executive Alan Stern joined Ms. Hall on stage. When asked if such commercial space flight was possible, he had a very simple answer.
Mr. Stern is a strong supporter of commercial space flight, once working with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos´ Blue Origin team as well as other private sectors. Currently, Mr. Stern keeps himself busy with the Pluto/Kuiper Belt mission, as well as teaming with Ms. Hall´s GLXP effort.
Luckily, the private sector won´t have to face these challenges alone. According to Mr. Stern, NASA (his former employer) has already fronted $30 million to help the teams compete for contracts.
One of these teams already selected for a NASA contract is Bob Richards´ GLXP team Moon Express, Inc. In fact, Mr. Richards´ team is the first to receive a $500,000 delivery order from NASA. This kind of partnership, according to Mr. Stern, is crucial to the progress of space exploration. The private companies are able to use NASA data and trust the experts. In return, NASA is able to purchase spots on these new expeditions, helping to fund the cost of flights. As Mr. Stern put it during the conference, “Hosted payload is the way to go.”
In closing, Ms. Hall discussed the effects 40 years of being in space could have on the American flag and landing module currently on the surface of the moon. She also wondered aloud about the trash. “They tossed their bags of poo before they left the moon,” she said. “I wonder if those microbes survived?”