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Feb. 8, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 7


Fly me to the moon

Princetonians compete for a lunar landing – and the $20 million that comes along with it

By Kenneth Chang ’87
Published in the February 8, 2012, issue

William L. “Red” Whittaker ’73 sits in front of the lunar lander in his lab at Carnegie Mellon University.
Photo: Ryan Donnell
William L. “Red” Whittaker ’73 sits in front of the lunar lander in his lab at Carnegie Mellon University.

Twenty-six teams from around the world — with Prince­tonians playing key roles on a couple of them — are chasing a $20 million grand prize put up by Google to become the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon. 

This time, there won’t be any footprints. No astronauts. Instead, it’ll be tread marks. The robots are going.

Which is fine for William L. “Red” Whittaker ’73, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who has little interest in the current debates over the future of NASA’s astronauts. Over the past four decades, Whittaker’s robots have cleaned up the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania, discovered meteorites in the icy expanse of Antarctica, mapped dark and dangerous tunnels of abandoned mines, and navigated an obstacle course to win a million dollars. Now he wants to win Google’s $20 million and then establish an Earth-to-moon transportation system. 

“I have a very robot-centric view of the universe,” he says. “My life is robots, robots, and robots.”

Eighty-five years ago, a promised $25,000 reward spurred Charles Lindbergh to fly nonstop from New York to Paris; several other aviators had died or were injured in their attempts to win the money. Similar prizes helped fuel design advances that made the airline business profitable.

Already, the X Prize Foundation, which is running the Google Lunar X Prize contest, has a track record of spurring new commercial ventures into space. A decade ago, the first X Prize offered $10 million to the first private company that could send someone into space — officially defined as more than 62 miles above the surface — and repeat the same undertaking within two weeks. 

Burt Rutan, a legendary aerospace engineer, designed a space plane called SpaceShipOne, which was financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. A Princetonian, Brian Binnie *78, was at the controls for the second, X Prize-clinching flight in 2004.

Richard Branson, with his Virgin empire of airlines and media companies, invested in SpaceShipOne to create a new company, Virgin Galactic, that built a bigger space plane, with room for half a dozen passengers; commercial flights to the edge of space might begin this year. “Clearly the X Prize accelerated the state of the art in space transportation by at least 10 years,” says George Whitesides ’96, president and chief executive of Virgin Galactic. (Read about White­sides and other space entrepreneurs in the April 27, 2011, PAW.)

In 2007, the X Prize Foundation — which also offers prizes in the fields of education and global development, energy and environment, and the life sciences — announced a follow-up space competition, financed by Google. The Google Lunar X Prize would go to the first team to put a spacecraft on the moon, move it 500 meters along the surface, and send back video images. (The prize drops to $15 million if a government-funded mission beats the X Prize teams back to the moon — and both Russia and India have spacecraft headed to launching pads.) The second team to accomplish that goal will win $5 million. Another $5 million would be divided and allocated for achieving specific benchmarks, such as visiting one of the Apollo landing sites or surviving a frigid two-week lunar night.

For the competitors, getting to the moon will not be easy, but technology is not the biggest hurdle. After all, both the United States and the Soviet Union landed robotic spacecraft on the moon more than 40 years ago. The harder part is squeezing the technology into a shoestring budget. For a NASA mission, just the rocket to lift a spacecraft to space costs well over $100 million.

One of the hopes of the X Prize Foundation is that the competition will draw young engineers into the space industry the way that Apollo and the moon landings once did. And indeed, most of the work at Carnegie Mellon is done by undergraduates and graduate students. 

Last summer, Peter Davison ’12, a Princeton senior majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering, was an intern assigned to a Lunar X Prize team called the Rocket City Space Pioneers, based in Huntsville, Ala. Davison and several other interns were asked to design a system that would mimic the lesser gravity of the moon in testing the algorithms that are to safely guide the lander to the surface. (Because of the round-trip delay of about 2.5 seconds for radio signals going between the Earth and the moon, a spacecraft has to make quick decisions on its own.)

During the 10-week internship, the students came up with something that brings to mind an air hockey table on an angle. “We think it’s a really sound, really good idea,” says Tim Pickens, the leader of the Rocket City Space Pioneers. 

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