Teams Angered Over Proposed Changes in Google Lunar X Prize

Peter J. Brown writes that proposed changes in the Google Lunar X Prize are not going over very well with teams competing in the $30 million competition:

The not so good news is that as the result of a proposed GLXP rule change, the $20 million GLXP grand prize could be reduced by $5 million if a government-backed lunar mission successfully lands and deploys a rover in advance of any of the 21 GLXP teams accomplishing the same feat. All GLXP teams must be 90% privately funded.

According to the original set of GLXP rules, the grand prize would be awarded to the GLXP team that first landed a rover on the Moon and which was able to travel at least 500 meters while simultaneously transmitting data and video – a live high-definition TV signal – back to Earth. The deadline was December 31, 2012. If that objective was not achieved, a GLXP team could still win a reduced grand prize of $15 million if it fulfilled all requirements by December 2014.

Now, under the proposed so-called GLXP “Master Team Agreement” (MTA), revised rules, including the $5 million cut described above, are taking shape. All remaining prizes, including a $5 million second prize and several bonus prizes, will be unaffected. The 2012 deadline is gone, with the competition now ending on December 31, 2015. However, this deadline may be extended by the California-based X Prize Foundation (XPF)….

Team FREDNET CEO Fred Bourgeois is among several prize competitors who are not amused:

“In particular, changing the amount of the prize as a consequence of a government reaching the Moon first is completely unacceptable. The point of the GLXP is to incentivize private investment in lunar and space development,” said Bourgeois. “Asking teams to compete with governments with their virtually limitless ability to print and spend money is clearly not a fair competition, and absolutely dis-incentivizes private innovation and competition.”

Will Pomerantz, senior director of space prizes at the X PRIZE Foundation, said that the changes are not that major because the grand prize amount was set to drop anyway after a certain date.

“Rather than pegging that change to an arbitrary date on a calendar, we have tied it to the milestone of a government-funded mission exploring the surface,” said Pomerantz. “Hopefully, this will be fun for the public following the prize, but the real reason we did this is that timelines of government-funded missions are likely to be at least somewhat impacted by the same global economic trends that will affect our teams.”

The Google Lunar X Prize has experienced some tough sledding since it was announced in September 2007. The global economic downturn has made it difficult to raise funding for many of the teams, making a slip in the prize competition’s deadlines highly likely.

Another key problem has been the delay in finalizing the GLXP’s “Master Team Agreement”, which sets forth the definitive rules under which the competition will be conducted. Three years on, these are still in draft form, at least partly due to the complexity of formulating one set of rules that could apply to all the international competitors.

The uncertainties have made raising money difficult for the teams, which have already paid $10,000 to $50,000 in registration fees to the X PRIZE Foundation depending upon when they signed up for the competition. Paying money to a group and then waiting for years for a definitive set of rules must be quite irritating.

Sources have told me that the division of media rights has been a particular point of uncertainty. The X Prize Foundation and Google want to control the lion’s share of them. So, imagine yourself as a X Prize competitor trying to raise millions of dollars to send your rover to the moon. Your sponsors will want their names plastered all over the vehicle; however, because of uncertainties over media rights, you can’t guarantee them anything. Nobody is going to give you money under those conditions.

I can’t say I’m really surprised that this is an issue. Google is a company dedicated to controlling access to all information in the world. (It has a program to scan every book in the world, whether the copyright holder agrees or not.) It’s not surprising that Google would want to squeeze every bit of monetization it possibly could out of its investment.

Since the GLXP was announced, the moon is all the rage among the space agencies of the world, which are planning an aggressive effort of both orbital and surface exploration. For example, a joint Indian-Russian program aims to land a rover on the moon in 2012. Given the wage and cost advantages of both countries, the mission will be relatively cheap.

The flood of planned missions has not rendered GLXP moot, but it has raised some essential questions about where precisely it fit in.