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?

Red Whittaker with his namesake, Red Rover II. Hours after Google announced its Lunar X Prize, Whittaker threw his ’bot in the ring. (John Fleck)
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The Lockheed engineers are concerned about this phase of the mission. To them it sounds very risky, “like falling out of the sky,” as one puts it. Finally, Gardner says, “Look, guys, this is not a traditional spacecraft mission…. This is more like a missile operation.” At the end of the two-day visit, the lead Lockheed engineer remains skeptical, but has changed his tune a bit. His verdict: The mission plan is “right on the verge of being possible.” But, he cautions, “you have a whole series of nasty discoveries in front of you.” For Whittaker, that means there’s still plenty of work to do, but he considers the landing problem tractable. And once the rover arrives on the moon and rolls off on its journey, he says, “it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before” by an earlier CMU robot.

Except that now it has to be done on the moon, nearly a quarter-million miles away.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which has built all of NASA’s planetary rovers, Rob Manning has been watching the Google Lunar X Prize contenders with a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. As the chief engineer for JPL’s Mars program, Manning has a keen sense of what it takes to land and rove around on another planet. “Building robots that fly off Earth, land on another body, then interactively explore in a highly hostile environment requires a dazzling array of skills and technologies,” he points out in an e-mail. “I hope that [Astrobotic] fully appreciates this reality. I live it every day.”

Manning holds the individual members of Whittaker’s team in high regard. “The good news is that they’ve got incredible talent,” he says. But, he adds, “this is outside the box. It’s not a car, it’s not the DARPA challenge, not a missile. It’s an all new thing—taking the best ideas from very different places and putting them together in a very weird, highly coupled way that’s got to work the first time.”

If Astrobotic can figure out how to test its systems in an integrated way on Earth, Manning thinks the missile-like landing concept can work, even with the ridiculously low (by JPL standards) $100 million budget. “I think they have a shot at it,” he says. When I tell him that Astrobotic hopes to raise enough money for two shots, doubling its chances of success, he is happy to hear it: “That’s wonderful…. I want them to win.”

Whittaker and his financial team are not counting on angels to bankroll them out of kindness. Their business plan is based on the proposition that, before NASA sets up a base on the moon, robots will be making maps and collecting data. If the Astrobotic rover makes it by 2012, or even 2014, when the Google prize expires, it will arrive years ahead of the astronauts.

It won’t be an easy road. “Skeptics are everywhere,” Whittaker acknowledges. Robert Richards, CEO and founder of the rival Odyssey Moon team, agrees: “As hard a challenge as this is technically, the real hard part is the business plan, and closing that business case.”

So far, outside reactions to Astrobotic’s plan have been drastically different from the reaction Whittaker and Gump got to their LunaCorp proposal more than a decade ago. It’s not just the economics and NASA’s attitude that have changed, says Whittaker. Technology has improved. “There was a time when you actually needed an immense infrastructure and engineering technical capacity to undertake this,” he says. “What’s occurred over those decades is that those tools…have gone from a foggy vision to reality.” He cites a list of developments: Gyroscopes and accelerometers have evolved from complex spinning electromechanisms to “sensors on a chip.” Batteries have doubled their energy density; cameras have vastly improved in resolution, durability, and miniaturization. And, of course, computer hardware and software have advanced steadily.

As for the schedule, if funding is slow to arrive, Whittaker has no problem slipping the 2010 launch date. “Not the kind of thing you get worked up over,” he says flatly. Nor does he worry about the competition. “I definitely don’t lose sleep over other teams,” he says. “That would be a formula for losing.”

Colleagues say that Whittaker is driven. Those who’ve worked with him for years can’t remember when he last took a vacation. But he works on his cattle farm in central Pennsylvania to keep in shape, mentally and physically. “Right now I’m going to the moon,” he says, “and that’s not the thing that’s going to stop me.” So for now, Astrobotic has a man,  a plan, a rover, and a rocket on deck, all waiting for one word: Go. 

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