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"It's a pretty wonderful thing to have something like the moon all to yourself with a robot for awhile," says William "Red" Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University. (Courtesy of www.tartanracing.org)

Google the Moon

Famed roboticist Red Whittaker may have the inside track to win the next moon race.

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.

The way these things work, you fundamentally get one shot. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dirt race or the Olympics or a champion fight or a moon shot. It happens in a moment in time, it’s out there, tangibly in front of God and the world. For me, [the Google Lunar X Prize] resonates, there’s no question, it fires me up, it inspires me, it fits me like a glove. It is going to be something that inspires a generation. In [the Urban Challenge] there were thousands of individuals who gave it heart and soul, gave it years and years of their lives. It starts by believing—the fact that you believe doesn’t mean that it will be so, but if you start without the belief, it’s a pretty sure bet that it is impossible for you. So the idea is to put together something that appears beyond reach, appears unachievable, at least within the constraints of the moment.

A&S: Do you think there’s enough time to meet the 2012 deadline?

Whittaker: In this kind of a prize, if you run too hard and go to launch too quickly, and things are too shaky, you fail for reasons of technical failure or not meeting the criteria. What that means is, you have to do everything or you might as well have done nothing. In other words, there’s no payment for partial landing, or a partial traverse, or falling short on the mooncast or something like that. Of course, if you wait too long then it’s a sure bet that others will succeed.

I keep going back to flying across the ocean—Lindbergh conceived and ordered up an airplane, right? So did the others. Some of them chose tri-motors—three engines—so they’d be sure if something happened they could get back. Lindbergh said How about one, let’s roll all the dice. Those are just variables of risk and redundancy…. I think there’s no barrier whatever for someone, somewhere, to succeed in the 2012 time frame.

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