Google Lunar X Prize Will Make a Trip to the Moon as Normal as an International Flight

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Will the moon find a place on the mainstream travel map of the future? If the ongoing moon-landing contest led by Google's (GOOG) (GOOGL) Lunar X Prize are anything to go by, it will.

Soon, traveling to the moon will become as seamless as a transatlantic flight, according to the teams behind Lunar X Prize, an international $30 million incentive-based initiative that marks Google's shift from the vanguard of a technology-driven future to a catalyst for something the world has never seen before.

"Our goal is to make the moon as close as the next continent," John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, which participated in the Lunar X Prize competition, told the media this week.

Astrobotic, which has developed a Red Rover that is capable of landing on the moon, is among 18 teams vying for the Lunar X Prize, which will confer an award of $30 million to the first private company that lands a robotic spacecraft on the moon, navigates one-third of a mile over the lunar surface and transmits high-definition "mooncast" video and imagery to the earth by December 31, 2015.

There's a fresh spurt of momentum with the upcoming sale of the Apollo 15 Attitude Controller Assembly, the 45-year-old joystick which helped David R. Scott's Falcon lunar module plot a course on the moon in 1971. Bidding for this treasured hand controller, which will be featured at an aviation and space auction, is expected to escalate to $300,000. It is likely that some of the participating teams will join the bid.

Meanwhile, competition is intensifying as the weeks roll on. A Tetris robot, developed by Japanese private group Hakuto, has recently shown that it can handle long strolls on a beach, displaying strengths that would be required on the moon. The beach has been an ideal choice of location for practice, Hakuto says, because its soft sands resemble the powdery soil on the moon's surface, which has been pulverized by comets and other celestial objects over billions of years.

With private sources required to account for 90% of the funding for the space mission, Google expects that some participating teams will invest as much as $100 million in their endeavor to win the contest.

But other contenders are turning away from the prospect of developing pricey rovers. Instead, they're deploying commercial payloads to reduce their costs and ramp up their race to the moon through cutting-edge spacecraft engineering and design innovations that aren't as complicated or expensive.

SpaceIL, a nonprofit participant from Israel, is designing a small 300-pound spacecraft on a budget of $36 million. The company, funded by the government and a crop of philanthropists, says that it will strive to make space exploration accessible to any student, group, community or country that wishes to get involved in the quest to make scientific discoveries and travel to the moon.

The contest takes place against the backdrop of the U.S. federal government's austere funding policy for space exploration. Cutbacks in federal funding for space travel are estimated to be $1.9 billion, according to London Economics, a U.K.-based research and advisory firm.

Many entrepreneurs and scientists say that the Lunar X Prize effectively steps in to close the void that government cutbacks have left in the quest for lunar travel and in the commercial marketplace for space technology.

In addition to the $30 million award to the early bird on the moon, the Lunar X Prize competition will provide $5 million in funding to the second team that achieves the space mission.

Plus, $4 million will be available in bonus prizes for teams that achieve specific feats like surviving a lunar night, exploring lunar artifacts and landing the spacecraft precisely near the Apollo 11 module site. The initiative is also encouraging diversity among the builders of this technology with a $1 million award to teams that expand ethnic diversity in STEM fields.

The space industry is sure to benefit from a project that can be built and launched for $2 million or less, rather than the $300 million it would have cost in the 1990s, according to Dr. Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center.

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At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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