Competitors Build Moon Rovers for Lunar X-Prize In the 1960s, the U.S. and Soviet Union were in a race to the moon. Now, the Lunar X-Prize has challenged today's generation to a do-it-yourself space race. Backed by money from Google, X-Prize is offering as much as $30 million to the team that builds the best privately funded, robotic rover.
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Competitors Build Moon Rovers for Lunar X-Prize

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Competitors Build Moon Rovers for Lunar X-Prize

Competitors Build Moon Rovers for Lunar X-Prize

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A bit later in the hour, we'll talk about airplane air quality and check in on the latest on the latest Mars orbiter.

But up first, fly me to the moon. That's the charge from the X PRIZE Foundation. Remember those are the folks who awarded $10 million in 2004 for the first private suborbital spaceflight. Now, they are aiming just a bit higher, oh, 10 times farther than Earth orbit to be precise, with the Lunar X PRIZE, and that one is worth 30 - $30 million.

You want to enter the race, huh? Well, here are the details. A privately fund team - and it's not NASA - it has to be privately funded, has until 2012 to soft-land a robot, a robotic rover on the moon and send it exploring for about 500 meters sending back videos, images and data.

The X PRIZE Foundation announced the prize last week along with Google - the company who put up the prize money.

We're joined now by the creator of the X PRIZE here to tell us about the prize and what the response has been to the announcement, Peter Diamandis. Dr. Diamandis is chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation in Santa Monica. And he joins us today by phone from his office there.

Welcome back to the program.

Dr. PETER DIAMANDIS (Chairman and CEO, X PRIZE Foundation): Ira, it's a pleasure to be back. Good morning.

FLATOW: Thank you very much. Let me just tell our listeners that if they want to talk about this, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. As always, you can surf over to our Web site at And we're also broadcasting in "Second Life." And you can find our avatar at Science School and "Second Life" there and meet and greet Ira Flatley there.

Well, tell us, Dr. Diamandis, what was the motivation for this?

Dr. DIAMANDIS: Well, you know, after the Ansari X PRIZE was won, we set a goal of doing about a third of our prizes in space and about two-thirds in other areas like energy, the environment, education, life sciences, and we're working on those. But question was, where do we go next in space? And…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm…

Dr. DIAMANDIS: And there were two obvious options for us. One was an orbital X PRIZE, which we're still thinking about, that's probably going to be - it's going to be a much larger cash prize. And the second one was near and dear to my heart, which was going to the moon.

You know, having been there in 30 years, and can we inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs, engineers to do it, orders of magnitude cheaper than the government.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: And we think we can.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Have you gotten any good reaction yet?

Dr. DIAMANDIS: You know, it has been incredible because within about 72 hours after announcing it last Thursday at the WIRED NextFest, we - you know, way beyond our belief, we've been contacted by over 125 groups in 23 countries around the world requesting registration materials. And I could have never predicted that.

FLATOW: Hmm. And $30 million may seem like a lot of money, but would - but going to the moon is pretty expensive.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: You know, it is. It's, you know, it's a multibillion-dollar program if you're sending humans, you know. They unfortunately need air and they need to come back. But the robots can go one way, which makes it cheaper. But still, it's an expensive proposition.

My hope is that through this competitive spirit and really through people just trying all kinds of new approaches, we could see teams doing this for a few tens of millions. And I can imagine someone could do this for about 20 million, maybe 30 or 40. So - but that's still, you know, 10 times cheaper than the government programs are expected to do it for.

FLATOW: You actually have three prizes, right?

Dr. DIAMANDIS: We do. The first place prize is $20 million, and it's there for - it's actually on the table through December 31st, 2014, except on December 31st, 2012, it goes from 20 million down to 15 million. So it's an incentive to try to encourage people to do it sooner and take those risks.

We're really about at the X PRIZE incentivizing people to try new breakthrough approaches and take risks that typically the large government agencies or corporations would never take because they're so scared of failure. So it's 20 million dropping down to 15 million through 2014. And then this time, unlike the original Ansari X PRIZE, we're - actually have a second place prize, it's $5 million on the table. And then with Google, we laid out five different what we call bonuses.

So you can win if you go to the moon and you actually visualize human-made hardware, whether it's Apollo hardware or a Soviet Lunokhod, which was their rovers. If you visualize that, you could win five million bucks. If you detect water ice on the south pole of the moon, which is controversial, is it there. If it is, it's hugely valuable, it's literally the Saudi oil fields of the moon, you could win five million. If you live through a lunar night, which gets down to temperatures below 150-degree centigrade and wake up the next time, you could win two and a half million. And if you rove 10 times further than the 500-meter baseline, if you go five kilometers, you could win a bonus.

We also have one new bonus that we're excited about, a diversity bonus, really encouraging teams - the teams who'll have the most diversity from ethnic, gender and age range to try and say, hey, listen, it's not just the same old engineers, it could be a lot more people getting involved here.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

I did a blog on this this week. And I was actually wondering why we don't have one for under the oceans, you know, somebody to go down there?

Dr. DIAMANDIS: It's funny you should say that. Twice a year, Ira, we have our board and our major donors. We call these folks the Vision Circle members. These are folks like Larry Page and others who contributed sizeable amount of money.

We get together. We brainstorm what prizes we should do. We actually sort through dozens of different ideas. And we have our next board meeting in October, and there are actually two underwater prizes on the table for discussion. So in our - we call exploration vertical, which is space and underwater, we'll be looking at two prize concepts, so why not?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the concept here is that you cannot use any government money and you can't make a deal with maybe not even the U.S. but another government? It has to be all private?

Dr. DIAMANDIS: Well, first of all, the competition is open to any country around the world…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: …any private team, like the original Ansari X PRIZE for spaceflight, you have to demonstrate 90 percent or more private financing. So, you know, if you received a small government grant some time in your past, that's not going to keep you out. But we're trying to drive people to think entrepreneurially and do it differently. We're not really trying to attract the traditional players here…


Dr. DIAMANDIS: …but more of the mavericks and the people who can try and figure out any way to do it. You can, you know, go and buy a commercial launch service or even a government launch service to get you into space if that service is available to all the teams.

FLATOW: I see. So you can buy the booster power, but the little robot itself has to be yours.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: That's going to be - I mean, I think, we have folks like Elon Musk, who's on our board, though, and the founders of PayPal has a company called SpaceX now. And he has offered to basically provide a cost much lower the normal cost by donating his profit back to every team that buys his booster. So for $7 million or so, you'll be able to buy a Falcon SpaceX booster that could probably land between 50 or 100 pounds in the lunar surface. And, you know, you can do a lot these days with 50 or 100 pounds.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We have a question from "Second Life," from Ian Writer(ph). And he says, is it really feasible to mount such a large project in just five years?

Dr. DIAMANDIS: You know, that's a great question. And if you're a large corporation or the government, I'd say the answer is, no, you can't do it in five years. But if you're a private entrepreneurial team that's willing to do it, I think, absolutely.

You have to remember - you know, it's incredible what can be done and launched by a small dedicated team. And that's what we're trying to prove here that, you know, a passionate, dedicated team can do things that was once thought only possible by governments.

FLATOW: You know, but when the International Space Station was being built a year ago, we used to talk about it on SCIENCE FRIDAY, and we had such creative ideas about how to do it on the cheap, you know? How much - how you could have used some of the - for example, the shuttle fuel tank could have been taken into space.


FLATOW: Remember those ideas?

Dr. DIAMANDIS: And the external tank's a great idea. In fact, you know, the shuttle expends energy every time it launches to dump those tanks into the Indian Ocean instead of putting them into orbit.

FLATOW: So, there is a tremendous, as you're discovering, a tremendous pent-up welling of creativity out there with these ideas.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: You know, it's - Ira, it's interesting. In 1961, when JFK said let's go to the moon, I don't know if folks realize this, but the average age of the engineers who designed the navigationing guidance, the propulsion, the rendezvous and docking systems, the average age were mid-20's. You know, they had to make it up from scratch. There was no one there to tell them how to do it. And when they made up from scratch, they did incredible things in two or three years - with the moon, for God's sakes, in eight years.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do you think that this - the Lunar X PRIZE maybe will jumpstart -you know, get NASA jealous a bit?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DIAMANDIS: Well, hopefully NASA's going to be one of the biggest beneficiaries from this. If this goes well, we will not have one winner but, you know, a dozen different approaches for getting very low-cost robotic explorers on the moon. And if you can do that, if you can do the lunar surface for, you know, 30 or $40 million and deliver scientific experiments there or test new hardware and prove that it works, you're going to be able to reduce the cost of lunar exploration a lot, because you can jump stages and you can basically say, this has worked before, it's now tested and can be put into the next system.

FLATOW: Yeah. And, you know, we have more countries now involved in a different space - in a new space race. We have the Japanese, the Chinese, the Indians.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: That's true.

FLATOW: They've all expressed interest and say they're going back to the moon.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: It's - the moon is the next target. You know, if you think about it, the moon is really sort of an offshore island for Earth. Everything we hold of value on this planet - metals, minerals, energy, real estate - are available, in one sense, on the lunar surface or in the asteroids that are in the Earth-moon system. And just the same way Europe, 500 years ago, looked towards the America for resources. As we grow on this planet, and humanity continues to evolve, we are going to have to look beyond our boundaries for those resources.

FLATOW: Will you be surprised if no one walks away with this prize?

Dr. DIAMANDIS: I would be extremely surprised. I think there is more available wealth today in the hands of individuals, you know, people who made their millions or billions in the dot com world, in the Internet, and PC world - and more capability in the hands of 20 engineers with computers. I mean, this is doable.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: It is very doable.

FLATOW: And if people want to enter the race, how do they do that?

Dr. DIAMANDIS: Go to - one continuous string of characters - and you can download information about registration. You know, Google has been a tremendous partner and they're helping make sure this goes out worldwide, and it's something that inspires and educates people. That's the goal.

FLATOW: Yeah, and that's a worthy goal. And this is just on top of the other prizes that you have. We hope they're all going well for you.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: We are. We are hoping to launch very soon an automotive X PRIZE, which we're excited about, you know, really, to generate a new - a whole new era of vehicles that all exceed 100 miles per gallon, are low-carbon emission…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: …are affordable, and look great. You know, not just one solution but, hopefully, dozens of different cars that might come out of an automotive X PRIZE.

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Diamandis, thank you for taking time and good luck to you.

Dr. DIAMANDIS: My pleasure. Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Peter Diamandis is chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation in Sta. Monica, California. We're going to take a break and change gears.

And when we come back, we're going to talk about Mars. We'll go from moon to Mars. Some really interesting, exciting new photos, high-resolution photos sent back from the planet, which are changing our ideas about the presence of water on there. So stay with us, we'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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