If all goes well, a private space company will land on the moon in 2015. Eighteen teams are competing to win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which is offering up $40 million for the first teams to reach the moon and achieve other milestones.
I recently caught up with XPRIZE president Robert Weiss, who explained why he believes private space travel can be more sustainable than the current government-sponsored norm. As a veteran of the TV and film industries, he’s also particularly excited about “Back to the Moon for Good,” a planetarium show chronicling the competition that launched last week.
What is the purpose of the Lunar XPRIZE?
Our mission is to make the impossible possible. We want to transform how people think about the grand challenges of our time. When we dream these things up, we’re never sure exactly of the number of teams that will compete, is it really possible. We design them so they’re audacious but attainable.
How do you hope it influences space exploration?
There is a high failure rate (associated with current space travel) and it costs a lot of money, and primarily it costs taxpayer money. We’re looking to see if we can drive this kind of thing through the forces of the market. There was a third driver behind doing the Lunar XPRIZE itself, which was to extend the commercial sphere in space, which is currently at geosynchronous orbit, to extend it to the moon. In an optimal situation on the heels of the competition being won, we have demonstrated there is a real market there and activity continues there.
How are the teams progressing?
We’re midstream. People are still working. The missions are still a couple years off. At this point in the competition, and this is pretty normal for our X Prizes, they go themselves through somewhat of a darwinian evolution: teams fall out, teams combine. All of the selection pressures of cost, time and technical achievement come into play. What we’ve learned so far is people are going to to go to the moon. They’re going to pull this off. This isn’t just a dream. They are going to send robotic spacecraft to the moon.
Why did you choose to create a planetarium film?
Our primary audience there are families and lots of young minds.That ties into another goal of the competition, which is to stimulate young minds interested in science, technology, engineering and math. The fact that we can work on your brain, your heart and your gut all simultaneously is what makes this such a great opportunity. In the end, the audience only knows what they’re seeing. and that’s all that matters. It’s meant to be a communal experience. Certainly one day people will see this on video by themselves on a big screen at home or on their computer, but initially this is meant to be consumed in a big dome theater where that shared feeling is palpable. When it’s working and working well, it’s magical.