And the Google Lunar XPRIZE Goes to… No One

Five teams stuck out Google’s contest to spur private investment in lunar exploration to the end, but none will meet the March 31 deadline.

Back in 2007, the real moon seemed reachable. It didn’t turn out to be so easy. (Google Lunar XPRIZE)

Moon Express, Hakuto, and other private firms are still planning to go to the moon, but they’ll be doing it without the prize money Google put on the table more than a decade ago. Though the Google Lunar XPRIZE has extended its deadline at least three times since its September 2007 announcement of cash awards of $20 million and $5 million (for the first and second teams to land a spacecraft on the moon, send a rover at least 500 meters across the surface, and transmit video back to Earth), organizers acknowledged this week that none of the five competitors who’d remained in contention will make the contest’s final deadline of March 31.

More than two dozen teams entered the contest, but in recent years the field had winnowed to the U.S.-based Moon Express, India’s TeamIndus, Japan’s Hakuto, Israel’s SpaceIL, and the multi-national Synergy Moon. In a joint statement issued yesterday, XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis and Chief Executive Officer Marcus Shingles blamed “the difficulties of fundraising, technical and regulatory challenges” for the lack of a victor, while maintaining that the contest had succeeded in convincing humankind that traveling to the moon is not the sole purview of powerful governments, but will yet be achieved by “small teams of entrepreneurs, engineers, and innovators from around the world.” 

Small, of course, is a relative term. Diamandis and Shingles went on to cite the $300 million in funding the various XPRIZE competitors had raised as one favorable outcome, singling out the $90.2 million Hakuto announced it had procured last month as especially encouraging. They also praised the founding of the first space companies in India, Malaysia, India and Hungary and the creation of “hundreds” of new jobs as developments that might not have occurred, or at least not so quickly, without Google’s incentive.

Three months ago, at the annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group—which advises NASA on science goals related to the moon—the space agency announced “no funds exchanged” agreements with Astrobotic, Masten Space Systems, and Moon Express. Prior to its withdrawal from the XPRIZE at the end of 2016, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic had been a frontrunner, earning $1.75 million in Google money for meeting certain milestones: $1 million for a successful navigation-systems test using Masten Space Systems’ Xombie-model rocket; $500,000 for demonstrating the mobility of its prototype rover; and $250,000 for demonstrating­ it could capture, compress, and transmit video, still pictures, and other data in a simulated lunar environment.

Moon Express remained until the end, and the Florida-based firm is still dreaming big. It has announced its intention to build an outpost on the South Pole of the moon in 2020. The base would be the staging area for the company’s MX Robotic Explorers line of, well, robotic explorers, which would perform tasks ranging from returning materials mined from the moon back to Earth to converting lunar ice into rocket fuel. The first of these is to be the roughly mailbox-sized MX-1E, the lander with which Moon Express had hoped to earn a cool $20 million. For starters.