Google the Moon
Famed roboticist Red Whittaker may have the inside track to win the next moon race.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- AirSpaceMag.com, January 01, 2008
Courtesy of www.tartanracing.org
(Page 2 of 3)
Whittaker: It was love at first sight. There was no deliberation whatever. The challenge was so aligned with who we are and what we do that it was like meeting the perfect mate. We’re veterans of robotics adventures, and we have experience and aspiration for space robots—and that includes a commitment to lunar exploration before the moon was popular. Challenges suit us.
Any of these challenges are as much the victory of the alliance [with] sponsors and investors as they are the success of the team that is creating the machines and the software. Technical challenges will always be around. The classics are things like Lindbergh crossing the ocean—that was the Orteig Prize. It’s never really about the money. And the very good challenges really do change the world. It’s not just a technical curiosity; they all open up vistas in business.
A&S: Especially with this particular prize. If they’re going to stream back live video, then everyone who is watching can participate, vicariously.
Whittaker: Something I’ve loved about robotics is not just the technical enchantment, but also what the machines do, where they go, the wonder of the remote experience. That’s true whether you’re going into a live volcano or to the bottom of the ocean.
A&S: One of the objectives of the prize is that the foundation would like to find stuff that’s left over from previous missions, and stream images of that back. That would really be exciting for people watching at home.
Whittaker: Robots can be mobile TV stations, and part of their appeal is the content—where does the robot start, where does it go, what does it encounter along the way, what does it experience—we’re now getting into how does the story, for example, connect with the historical sites. How does that touch the world? It’s a pretty wonderful thing to have something like the moon all to yourself with a robot for a while.
A&S: The X Prize Foundation says that teams from at least 40 countries have indicated interest in participating.
Whittaker: It would be so easy to underestimate what it would mean for a team from the Middle East, say—I’m just making this up—that maybe never had a space program, to plant their flag on the moon, or be there in a remote presence. The fact that they’re not spacefaring nations, or hadn’t been on the surface elsewhere, doesn’t matter. When you start talking about connections with the moon, those are so deep, they are pre-historical, they vary from spiritualism to the tides of the oceans, to the time of the month. It’s an aside, but in these challenge competitions the Web sites always have a map with pushpins in them to show where the teams come from. And I so loved this most recent one [the Urban Challenge], where there was a cluster of teams out of Utah. Some of these things are world opportunities, the ability to reach out and thread together so many parts of the world.