One Giant Leap Backwards

Today, the X Prize Foundation announced its latest competition, the Google Lunar X Prize. In a follow-up to 2004’s Ansari X Prize, which was awarded to a team that successfully launched a privately funded suborbital manned flight, the foundation would seem to be raising the bar. The finish line in this latest competition is the moon itself, the conditions calling for a robotic rover, similar in concept to those exploring Mars today, to land on the moon, travel more than 500 meters, and transmit high definition video and images back to earth. No easy task. The $25 million prize more than likely will not cover the cost of development and execution of a successful mission, but it has never been the goal of the X Prize to make money for the competitors. Instead, the competitions are meant to foster innovation and development, leading to the betterment of mankind. That being said, the Google Lunar X Prize does none of this.

The Ansari X Prize was about returning human beings to space. NASA being stuck in a rut with low-earth orbit shuttle flights for the past twenty years, it was thought that the Ansari competition would spark a return to the glory days of manned space exploration, from initial suborbital flights, to orbital, to returning to the moon, to expanding the scope of manned exploration beyond the moon and finally making an effort to adapt to and survive out in the final frontier. The frustration with NASA that led to this competition is that it is too busy driving rovers around Mars and sending satellites into orbit around Saturn to be able to carry the mantle of manned space flight. For all the difficulties that are inherent in NASA’s shuttle flights, they seem unwilling to take on greater risk and push the boundaries of human existence, something that is necessary to prolong the life of our species to an indefinite amount of time.

NASA has announced plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2020, but that promise rings hollow. Indeed, it is shameful that by that time it will have taken us almost fifty years to return to the place farthest afield where our boots have trod. The X prizes should establish a pattern begun by the Ansari prize, and insist that any competition in space involve manned exploration. The next logical continuance after Burt Rutan’s team collected on its suborbital flights would be orbital flights. Successful completion would send a powerful message to NASA that it is not alone up there, and that it is now in a virtual tie in spacefaring ability with a private group that will surely have less resources, and time, to accomplish its goals. Sending rovers to the moon is decidedly less of a robust proclamation that a new era of space exploration has arrived, especially not with NASA having been so successful with its own rover program, with three successful missions conducted on the surface of Mars.

Manned exploration of space is not easy, which is why we have turned to robots of late to do the heavy lifting. Robotic flights are lighter, which means they also travel faster and use less fuel. They are more capable of enduring the stresses of launch and reentry than humans. They don’t need to lug along copious amounts of air, water, and food. They have no muscles that will atrophy in space. And if the mission ends catastrophically, no astronauts die. These reasons and more make robotic exploration a compelling alternative to manned, when the goal is simply to gather data. But manned exploration has never really been, and never should be, about the mundane aspects of space exploration. The information provided is invaluable, and no one is arguing that robotic exploration be discontinued. But if the X Prize Foundation is truly about managing competitions for the betterment of mankind, then a competition that embraces the passion of space exploration, that demands human beings once again march down the path that will lead to fresh imprints on alien soil, would be befitting of a prize modeled after that which Charles Lindbergh collected on completing his flight across the Atlantic.

Mankind will never be in danger of finding itself without robots in space, but we are on the cusp of pulling back completely from sending people to the stars. Were that to happen, it could be decades, or even centuries, before we return. Similar examples in our past abound, as evidenced by pullbacks from exploration by both the Vikings and the Chinese. The X Prize Foundation would better serve mankind by helping to reverse this slide away from manned exploration, rather than posting a reward in an area of expertise that we are in no danger of losing.