Astrobotic CEO Skeptical Anyone Will Win Google Lunar X Prize

Peregrine lunar lander (Credit: Astrobotic)
Peregrine lunar lander (Credit: Astrobotic)

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton, whose company announced its withdrawal for the Google Lunar X Prize, doesn’t have a lot of hope that anyone will win the $30 million competition next year.

In a SpaceNews Magazine op-ed titled, “Graduating from the Google Lunar X Prize,” Thorton wrote: (emphasis mine)

Six years ago, Astrobotic made a bold move. We were the first Google Lunar X Prize team to announce a contract with a launch service provider to compete for the $20 million prize in a bid to become the first private company to land on the moon. We believed then that a launch contract would convince customers and investors to book our lunar lander’s remaining payload capacity and invest in our company to finance the rest of the launch payments – but it didn’t work. We lost our launch opportunity and had to rebuild our mission.

As I survey the field of Google Lunar X Prize teams that have announced launch contracts over the last few months, I see many repeating the same mistake. X Prize has announced that any team that does not secure by the end of this year a launch contract to fly in 2017 will no longer be eligible to compete. For many teams, signing a launch contract now is an act of self-preservation. Unfortunately, the premature schedule is forcing teams to take perilous risks. Some teams are promising to launch next year without having cut an ounce of metal. Some have pledged to fly on brand new launch vehicles that haven’t even flown yet. Others are hanging their hat on headline-grabbing policy announcements to suggest big progress is being made toward a mission. Still others are hastily assembling their spacecraft and hoping for the best.

In other words, the teams have a long way to go and a short time to get there. And few of them appear even close to being ready to launch a rover to the lunar surface before the prize expires at the end of 2017.

Google Lunar X Prize has verified the launch contracts for five out of the 16 teams left in the competition. A sixth team has submitted a contract for verification by the end of this year. The table below shows the current state of launch contracts and the boosters the spacecraft will fly on.

IndusIndiaISRO PSLV YYLander will carry Team Indus & Team Hakuto rovers; PSLV highly reliable, has launched spacecraft to moon & Mars; launch schedule in late December 2017 leaves little room for delays
Hakuto JapanISRO PSLVYY Rover will fly aboard Team Indus lander
Moon Express USARocket Labs ElectronN YRocket Lab has qualified 1st & second stages; flight tests to begin in 2017; company has never launched anything to space
SpaceILIsraelSpaceX Falcon 9 YYSecondary payload; Falcon 9 currently grounded & experienced reliability problems; SpaceX has had difficulty meeting schedules
Synergy MoonInternationalInterorbital Systems Neptune N YInterorbital Systems has never launched anything to space
 PT Scientists GermanyUnidentifiedUnknownNContract with Spaceflight Industries, an American company that brokers launches; launch vehicle not identified

Aside from the concerns about the launch vehicles, Thorton brings up another important question: how ready are these teams to attempt a lunar landing? Space is hard. Landing on the moon is even harder. It’s difficult to throw together a successful mission at the last minute. There’s a real probability that teams will launch hardware that’s not ready for prime time.

There is the possibility that one team (or perhaps several) could succeed through hard work and no small amount of luck. But, how valuable would that actually be?

We’ve been to the moon before. A number of landers and rovers litter the surface. Twelve American astronauts walked on the moon and returned hundreds of pounds of rocks to Earth.

To take lunar exploration to the next level, we need to deploy sophisticated surface systems capable of categorizing what is there and how to use it.  These small rovers built by private teams will likely not advance this cause on a technological level.

Getting a private rover to the surface on a shoestring budget would be a great success. But, would the teams be able to really follow up on it?

The Ansari X Prize offers a cautionary tale. Only one company field a vehicle capable of winning the prize. Scaled Composites then spent a decade in partnership with Virgin Galactic trying to commercialize the technology. The result was a wrecked spaceship and four fatalities without a single flight anywhere near space. More than a dozen years in, we’re still waiting.

There’s another question that looms large: Is there enough of a commercial market at the moon for companies to succeed carrying payloads?

Thorton believes there is a market. He has framed Astrobotic’s withdrawal from the Google Lunar X Prize not as a failure to nail down a launch contract in time, but as a strategic decision to focus on a long-range business strategy.  The company now plans to launch a private lunar mission in 2019.

Although we’re separating from the X Prize, we acknowledge the important role they’ve played in our development to date. The X Prize, like any technology prize, was meant to be a catalyst for a new market. And to its credit, it did exactly that. It was because of the X Prize that Astrobotic was founded and won $1.75 million in milestone prizes in 2015. For that, we remain forever grateful.

But from the beginning, we built Astrobotic as a business first, with the X Prize as a potential bonus. This approach has led to 10 signed payload deals with more than 100 lunar payload customers in our pipeline, and a team of world-class partners including Airbus Defence and Space, NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Our reputation as a space company of technical rigor and credibility has enabled us to attract these top-quality partners. Our combined technical excellence maintains those partnerships through numerous technical reviews, including a recent three-day intensive design review of the Peregrine Lunar Lander.

We will see which approach works. We’ll know in just over a year whether anyone is capable of winning the prize. It will be a couple of years after that before we see what Astrobotic can do at the moon.