Red and The Robots
Red Whittaker’s rovers have already gone where no robot has gone before. Will one of them make it to the moon?
- By Geoffrey Little
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
(Page 2 of 5)
For a team to claim the Google prize, its robot has to land on the lunar surface, travel at least 500 meters (about a third of a mile), and send high-definition images and data back to Earth within 24 hours. The first team to do so will win $20 million; bonus awards totaling $5 million are offered for extras such as photographing an artifact of previous lunar exploration, travelling more than 5,000 meters, and operating for a second (two-week) lunar day. To win the full award, the mission must be completed by the end of 2012, and 90 percent of the funding has to come from private sources. So far, 14 teams have announced their intention to compete for the prize.
Originally, Whittaker and crew targeted a landing at one of the moon’s poles; the reserves of water ice believed to exist there would be useful to future lunar explorers. But ultimately “cultural interest” drove the decision: Astrobotic now intends to touch down near the Apollo 11 landing site in the Sea of Tranquillity and head off on a “Tranquillity Trek”—visiting the site of the first moonwalks, an area about the size of a soccer field, and sending back photos and video in near-real time.
In order for the rover to photograph itself on the moon (another Google requirement), the camera team is positioning a large parabolic mirror on the robot’s side, much like a bus mirror. This should also yield a “money shot” showing sponsor logos, the rover, and (perhaps) Earth. (There’s also talk of having the rover’s bulldozer-like treads imprint a sponsor’s logo or other design in the lunar dust.)
Red Rover will roll up as close to the Apollo lander as possible without trampling any footprints, and with its zoom lens try to photograph the famous “We Came in Peace For All Mankind” plaque on the lander base.
Whittaker has no doubt that his rover will be up to the task. “The tough nuts are the precision landing and a soft landing,” he told the assembled Google Lunar X Prize teams and the press in May. “When we nail that, it’s an easy journey. No matter what it takes, the robot will get us there.”
WHITTAKER’S CONFIDENCE comes from a lifetime of working with machines. Born in 1948, he grew up mainly in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, a railroad town nestled in a small valley near Altoona. His mother was a chemist who taught school, his father a World War II bombardier who later sold explosives for mining and road construction.
His parents encouraged him to roam, and by age six he was raiding the local junkyard for parts. One of his first constructions was a rocketship, with rudimentary propulsion cooked up from a chemistry set. At 16 he fixed up a Jaguar XK-120 (he ended up driving it for years), and he took a job swinging a hammer on the railroad lines, where he learned that bending iron requires as much finesse as brute force.
In the late 1960s, he left Pennsylvania for Princeton University, intending to study civil engineering, but interrupted his education to enlist in the Marines, one eye on the educational benefits. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July 1969, Whittaker was in basic training. He has no memory of the event; on Parris Island, South Carolina, he says, there was “no news in, no news out.”