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. 

Mike Brown ’87 holds his lunar rover on the roof of Caltech’s historic solar observatory.
Mike Brown ’87 holds his lunar rover on the roof of Caltech’s historic solar observatory.
Photo: Peter Stember

Whittaker was not the only Princeton alum to take up the challenge. Mike Brown ’87 is competing, too. Brown is not a roboticist. He had never designed or built a spacecraft. He is an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology best known — infamous, actually — for discovering Eris, the iceball in the outer solar system bigger than Pluto, which set off the domino of events that culminated with astronomers kicking Pluto out of the planet club.

Two years ago, Fred Bourgeois, the leader of Lunar X team FredNet, visited Brown to recruit him. Brown was skeptical that this group — which bills itself as an “open source” collection of scientists and engineers — could compete against more experienced and well-financed teams. “I had heard about this Google X Prize and I thought, there’s no way you could do this,” Brown recalls. “It’s ridiculous.”

But Brown, who has known Bourgeois since his high school days in Huntsville, warmed up as Bourgeois explained it. Huntsville was where Wernher von Braun and the early rocket scientists built the Saturn V rocket. Brown’s father, an engineer, had worked on those Apollo missions. Bourgeois already had enlisted a small company called Masten for the lander. He wanted Brown to put together the rover.

Brown agreed. He is undaunted by a late start or the fact that other teams can tap into decades of aerospace expertise that he doesn’t have himself. “It’s either going to be a very well-thought-out team,” he says, “or it’s going to be a bunch of really scrappy people with baling wire and bubble gum.”

Brown clearly sees himself as a baling-wire guy.

“It’s a fun experiment in doing things that seem impossible and deciding you’re going to do it,” he says. “It may not work. I would say there’s a good chance it won’t work.” But he also convinced himself that success is not completely impossible: “If it were totally wacko, it’s not worth your time.”

Brown’s attempt to build a rover got under way in a Caltech course, “Roving on the Moon,” which met for the first time at the end of September. The goal for the seven class members — a mix of undergraduates, graduate students, and fellow faculty — was to have a working prototype by the end of the quarter, or in just two months.

Brown wanted to build the smallest, simplest rover to meet the X Prize requirements. “If we sent my cell phone to the moon with wheels, it would satisfy the conditions for winning the X Prize,” Brown says. 

A month into the class, Brown had his design — a closed sphere so no moon dust could get in to foul up the gears. It looked like a hamster exercise ball. It was a hamster ball — more precisely, a hollow, plastic exercise ball, built for a slightly larger rodent, like a chinchilla. 

To get the sphere rolling, the class first used a ­radio-controlled car‚ “not a particularly great solution,” Brown says. Then, the team worked out a more sophisticated design, tearing apart the radio-controlled car and reusing the parts. Members added an axle through the hamster ball, with a motor hanging on a rod from the axle. When the motor turns, it swings itself and the rod upward; gravity then pulls the motor down, and the sphere rolls. To turn left or right, the rod tilts to the side, which tilts the ball. At each end of the axle is a clear bubble to house a camera. 

Brown has been using it to chase around the cats at home.

The class never did build its final prototype by the end of the semester because the students wanted to attempt something more ambitious: an inflatable roving sphere. (Think of a beach ball on the moon.) That would allow the rover to be larger — 3 feet in diameter instead of 8 inches — and more capable of rolling over obstacles while still fitting into the tight confines of the lander. “If we can make it and make it work robustly, it would be a great solution,” Brown says. 

The students will keep working on the prototype, though they no longer will get course credit. Brown said in December that he would argue they should return to the less-ambitious hamster-ball design, so that FredNet would have something to use in the competition. (He was considering invoking his veto power, if needed, over the ­students’ choice: “I also learned not to try to design by democracy.”)

And Brown figures that it will take up to two years and millions of dollars to build a space-worthy version, with radiation-hardy and vibration-tested electronics and structures. “In the end, none of this will happen without any funding,” Brown says. “I’m not that guy to figure out how to do funding. I’m a scientist.”

Brown’s team, FredNet, ranks eighth among the Lunar X Prize competitors on a list compiled by writer and technologist Michael Doornbos, who has been keeping a scorecard based on criteria including funding, innovation, and progress to date. Leading the pack is Astrobotic, the company founded and led by Whittaker for the competition. 

Growing up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, Whit­taker spent much of his childhood rummaging through a junkyard for parts for his projects. He built a treehouse. He resurrected radios. He scavenged an engine and built a go-cart. “It was a lot faster than it should have been for safety,” he recalls.

He received a civil-engineering degree at Princeton (he left to serve in the Marines, then returned and completed his degree) and continued in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon. But even as he was winding up his thesis on soil mechanics, Whittaker was spending more and more time talking with colleagues about an intriguing new field: ­robotics. 

At that time, 1979, robotics still was more the realm of science fiction — Star Wars and R2-D2 — than reality. The partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant that year led to Whittaker’s submitting a grant proposal to build robots that would be able to safely clean up the radioactive contamination. He won the grant. He built the robots. They cleaned up Three Mile Island.

For Whittaker, the robotics field offered challenging research problems coupled with the opportunity to build machines just like in his childhood junkyard days. “We are not just academics,” he says. “We are craftsmen.”

A sign in Whittaker’s office reads: “Still plays with trucks.”

When Whittaker signed up for the Lunar X Prize competition Sept. 13, 2007 — the day the contest was announced — his Carnegie Mellon team had just won $2 million in a challenge by the federal government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA — for an automated car that could navigate a 60-mile obstacle course through an abandoned Air Force base, while avoiding other vehicles and obeying traffic laws. (A Princeton team also competed.)

The Planetary Robotics Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon looks like a huge garage with a built-in crane. A 15-foot model of the Falcon 9 rocket that Astrobotic plans to use stands next to a wall. Hanging nearby is a poster of a smaller rocket that had been under consideration. Like Brown, Whittaker first thought that small, cheap, and quick would be the winning strategy.

But after trying that approach for a couple of years, Whittaker came to believe that while the plan worked on paper, it called for several risky maneuvers and would not be useful for much other than winning the prize. “Everything about it was either hard or unrealistic,” he says. He tore up the plans and decided on the opposite strategy: Build big. 

On the floor of the laboratory is the basic structure of the lander that is to go to the moon, which already has passed the shake tests to ensure it will survive the rough vibrations of liftoff. Big beachballs covered in gold foil are temporary stand-ins for the fuel tanks.

The large lander would be able to carry 240 pounds of payload, and if Astrobiotic can successfully sell that cargo space to scientists and space agencies for a planned $820,000 a pound, that’s $200 million in revenue, which would more than pay for the lander, the rover, and the Falcon on which Astrobotic already has made a down payment. Whittaker’s is the only team that already has booked a rocket.

The Astrobotic rover looks like a pyramid on wheels. Solar cells will cover the sloping sides. The challenges have been designing a rover to handle the temperature extremes of the moon — hotter than 200 degrees Fahrenheit at high noon, colder than minus-200 in the depths of the two-week night — and to keep the moon dust from clogging the wheels and gears.

But before it can reap the profits, Astrobotic needs investors, like Matt Griffin ’73 and Bill Lewis ’74, former Princeton roommates who live in Seattle. Griffin admits he has not dissected Astrobotic’s business plan in detail. His investment, he says, is “about the jockey and not so much about the business plan. I look at Red as that kind of guy.”

Space is one of the few frontiers where Red Whittaker has not yet found success. None of the missions he has proposed to NASA ever got a green light and money. Partly, he believes, that is because some of his ideas were too far ahead of their time. For example, he wanted to send a rover into a lunar lava tube — a tunnel formed by an ancient lava flow. But no one had seen a lava tube on the moon, so NASA did not quite see the need for a rover to explore one.

Two years ago, scientists looking at lunar images taken by a Japanese orbiter spotted a hole — a “skylight” — leading into a lava tube.

Even as NASA turns away from the moon — with the Obama administration’s cancellation of the program to return to the moon, NASA now is focusing on asteroids — the Google Lunar X Prize could open the possibility of low-cost scientific missions headed to the moon without NASA.

Whittaker acknowledges that “one of the great concerns in this prize is whether there’s any winner at all.” Still, he’s ­confident. “We’ll get the lander on the rocket, on the moon,” he says. “Our business plan has to succeed with or without winning the prize, because there’s no way to predict with surety that you’re going to be a winner.”

He is, of course, thinking about what he would like to do on post-Lunar X Prize moon missions. One idea is to circumnavigate the moon. He imagines a rover that would keep pace with the sun overhead so that the solar cells continually could generate energy; in a month, it could make it around the moon. He is looking for what he calls “Magellan routes” — obstacle-free paths where the rover could keep pace with the spinning moon and thus remain in sunlight as it goes all the way around the moon.

He hasn’t found one yet, but he probably will. 

Kenneth Chang ’87 reports on science for The New York Times.