Penn State Lunar X Prize team plans to crowdfund its way to the moon


Credit: Corbis

What did you accomplish in college? Did you lead a club? Did you even turn in your homework?

At Pennsylvania State University, more than 80 students are pursuing a slightly more noble goal: landing a spacecraft on the moon, and hopefully earning $30 million in the process. The Lunar Lion team is competing in the Google Lunar X Prize, which challenges private teams to land on the moon and then move their craft to a second location at least 500 meters away by the end of 2015.

The Lunar Lions' plan to reach the moon. Graphic courtesy of the Lunar Lions.

The Lunar Lions’ plan to reach the moon. Graphic courtesy of the Lunar Lions.

Lunar Lion director Michael Paul, a former NASA spacecraft systems engineer, said the university asked him to look into opportunities to become more involved in space exploration. Three years ago, he was OK’d to pursue the X Prize.

“I’ve really fallen in love with the idea of building these robots and using them as our eyes and ears around the solar system,” Paul said. “The X Prize stood out as the best way to make a mark on the industry.”

But when you are a student oriented team competing against 33 (now 18) private and national teams, unique challenges emerge. Money is tighter, and turnover is high.

The team began by investigating the most realistic, affordable option to get a lander to the moon.

“One aspect of space systems engineering that is perhaps a little foreign to the average person is the frugality of the engineering,” Paul said. “You don’t send anything up on a launch vehicle that you don’t need to send. You can’t afford it. As you go through the design for any spacecraft for any mission, you repeatedly ask yourself, ‘Do we really need to do this?'”

The Penn State Lunar Lions lander. Photo courtesy of the Lunar Lions.

The Penn State Lunar Lions lander. Photo courtesy of the Lunar Lions.

One of the major places that mindset came into play for the Lunar Lions was determining how their lander would move 500 meters once it reached the moon. Instead of wheels, they settled on a “hop” system where the lander takes off and lands again. It’s less expensive and doesn’t require a rover or totally new mode of transit to be built into the lander.

As far as turnover goes, Paul said the team is organizing itself to ensure there is continuity as underclassmen replace graduating upperclassmen. In the process, they are hoping to spread that STEM careers can be exciting.

“We want it to be what it was after Apollo,” director of development Steve Blake said. “People went to school so that they could build rocket ships. People went to school so that they could put something on the moon.”

The team launched a crowdfunding campaign today meant to pay for an essential next step in their quest for the moon. They want to raise $400,000 before February 24 to finalize and build their engine, test that the lander can execute its hop, pay for test site fees and materials and compensate students, faculty and engineers for their time. More crowdfunding campaigns are planned.

“The last space X Prize was fantastic in its own way, but they really put the bar high on this one. It requires a whole lot more infrastructure, complexity,” Paul said. “This is hard. This is rocket science.”



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