Saturday, September 15, 2007

Skepticism on Google Lunar X PRIZE

The Space Cynics have fired a warning salvo on the Google Lunar X PRIZE. If you think this is going to be an easy prize to win, or, even more, to win while making money or starting a business, you'd better keep checking there for a dose or 2 of skepticism.

In earlier posts on this prize (see the tag below) I've pointed you to some blog discussions debating whether or not the prize is winnable by a business. There are varying opinions so far, but in keeping with the tone of this post, I'll present an excerpt from one of the informed but skeptical ones from comments at RLV News; see the link for the full comment:

"It will be interesting to look at. One thing that is clear, unless the team is very well funded this is going to be extremely difficult to make work ... It really has to be done for less than [the prize amount if you want to make money at it]. Therefore there will really only be two classes of people who go for this.

1. High net worth individuals who are true believers ...
2. Corporate sponsor for the marketing boost.

This is barely possible but not to be discounted.

No one is going to fund a business plan based on this although you will probably hear much hoopla that some people claim this. Stay far far away from anyone who does make these claims."

I've also been thinking in similar terms. A prize tends to be easier to win if there's an identifiable market that can also be addressed if you win (or are close to winning) the prize. This would be the case where there's some kind of technical barrier to a market that noone has invested the needed energy, money, time, or imagination to overcome before the prize. For example, for the Ansari X PRIZE, there's the prospect of suborbital tourism, remote sensing, reconaissance, and other markets. These aren't certain markets, but an argument can be made for them. I'm having a more difficult time imagining the lunar rover market that this prize would open up. Perhaps it's a failure of imagination on my part, but perhaps not. There could be government business, but NASA, for one, is concentrating on huge rockets, so that market might not appear. There could be private markets for the rovers (people or even corporations wanting to buy pictures from the Moon, science organizations wanting data, etc) but will there be enough interest to justify the investment? A rover that carries sophisticated science instruments, or lasts and roves long and far enough to continue to bring new data to buy will tend to be even more expensive. So, how can we make sure this becomes a good deal for investors?

I think more pieces need to fall into place, or possibly need to be deliberately put into place by people interested in helping the model work ... that model being that investors, sponsors, and teams are attracted in sufficient numbers, the prize is won, and the efforts continue after the prize win as a new industry.

I don't know what those pieces are, though.

Does NASA Centennial Challenges need to add more "bonus prizes" to any rover that achieves goals that NASA is interested in inspiring? Do space groups like the Planetary Society, Mars Society, or National Space Society need to do the same, or organize themselves to tackle a piece of the technical problem? Does a movie-maker like James Cameron need to raise the profile of the challenge by making a film of the team efforts, or of the resulting Moon photos and videos? Can science museums or other educational institutions help? What are the potential sponsors? LEGO, Hot Wheels, or Matchbox? Will part of it have to be solved with cheap grad student or hobbyist labor?

Fortunately it strikes me as a problem that can be broken into multiple components that could be solved by different groups. I could imagine teams with different interests combining to solve it: maybe some hoping to make a business on Earth out of solving some piece of the challenge, others who are "true-believers" hoping to help the space effort, others hoping for public relations or advertising, and others hoping for graduate thesis material. However, the contributions of each team would all have to work together, and the contribution of each would have to be thoroughly tested. That's not easy!