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Not content with Earth domination, Google races to the Moon

by Archives October 30, 2007

The Google Lunar X PRIZE, a robotic race to the Moon with a $30 million prize purse, was announced Sept. 13 by the X PRIZE Foundation. Google is co-sponsoring the race to soft-land a privately funded robotic rover to roam a 500 metre surface on the Moon and then send back video, images and data to the Earth.

The X PRIZE Foundation, established in 1995, has sponsored two previous competitions. In 2004 Mojave Aerospace Ventures, headed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and designed by Burt Rutan, built the world’s first private spaceship for the $10 million Ansari X Prize. Their second competition, called the Archon X PRIZE for Genomics, was announced in 2006. Another $10 million prize purse is to be awarded to the team that can sequence 100 human genomes in a 10-day period.

The Lunar X prize is divided into a $20 million Grand Prize, a $5 million second Prize and $5 million in bonus prizes. After Dec. 1, 2012, the grand prize purse will drop to $15 million until Dec. 31, 2014, at which point the competition will end.
Following are the top five companies that have successfully gotten hardware off the ground:
(data and outlook predictions from Popular Mechanics, Sept. 2007 issue)

VIRGIN GALACTIC, headed by British media mogul Richard Branson, has a mission to accomplish in suborbital tourist flights. Its SpaceShipTwo is a hybrid-rocket-powered, winged spacecraft that will be launched from a “mother ship” at 50,000 ft. If all goes to plan, it will carry eight people to an altitude of 85 miles, then glide to a landing.
OUTLOOK: Burt Rutan’s design genius already put two men in space. With Richard Branson’s money, tourist flights as early as 2009 seem within reach. For the price of a mere $200,000.

SPACEX, run by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, is racing to fix design flaws in its Falcon boosters. They have already conducted two test flights with a reusable two-stage liquid-fuel booster, lifting 1,550 pounds to low Earth orbit. One crashed shortly after liftoff, the other failed to reach orbit. NASA is sponsoring another mission, that of building a space station resupply booster, with $278 million in seed money. The Falcon 9 is a fully reusable, two-stage liquid-fuel booster with 20,000-pound lift capability, and the Dragon is a pressurized spacecraft that will be either robotic or manned.
OUTLOOK: “Musk has the focus and the financing ($100 million so far) to succeed. Design flaws are being fixed, and two launches are set for late this year. SpaceX has a reasonable shot at flying cargo missions by 2011. Manned flights will be dicier.” (Popular Mechanics)

BIGELOW AEROSPACE also has two missions: to put souvenir items in orbit and rent out space station space. Las Vegas hotel billionaire Robert Bigelow has already sent up two inflatable, solar-powered modules. Genesis II was launched into orbit from Siberia this June, using a Russian Dnepr booster and Genesis I went up a year ago.
The rental property, BA 330, will consist of a house-size inflatable module with full life support, propulsion and docking systems and is set to rent for $88 million per year; partial sublets available.
OUTLOOK: Bigelow is willing to spend $500 million to put his space station in orbit by 2012, but will rely on proven commercial launch vehicles.

BLUE ORIGIN, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ company, aims for suborbital tourist flights with its cone-shaped, autonomous, three-seat spacecraft New Shepard, designed to take off and land vertically.
OUTLOOK: Last year’s 30-second flight to 285 ft. by a prototype Goddard craft still leaves him years behind Rutan.

UP AEROSPACE wants to be the FedEx of the Space Age, carrying personal deliveries into space. The SpaceLoft XL is an unguided, 20-ft.-long, single-stage solid-fuel rocket that will be able to lift a 110-pound payload just beyond the official threshold of space-62 miles-for a few minutes. UA’s first launch last September corkscrewed out of control, but on the second try, carrying the ashes of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and Star Trek actor James Doohan, it reached 73 miles.

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