It can be easy to forget the human element behind robotic spaceflight. When we send complex, exploratory probes deep into space, much of the focus centers around the spacecraft themselves — that thing that travels through the Universe — and less on the spacecraft's makers at home on Earth. Everyone remembers the Curiosity rover on Mars, for instance, or the New Horizons spacecraft that flew by Pluto. But the names of the engineers and scientists who made those robots are harder to recall. In the end, these great minds are overshadowed by the fame of their own creations.
The new web series called Moon Shot aims to shine the spotlight back on these scientists and highlight the human stories behind space travel that can sometimes be forgotten. Produced by J.J. Abrams, the series follows nine of the 16 teams competing in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, an international contest to send the first privately funded lander to the surface of the Moon. Each six or seven-minute episode follows one member from a team. Within that short time frame, we get an intimate glimpse into what drives each of these competitors, along with the unique reasons they feel compelled to send a robot to the lunar surface.
We get an intimate glimpse into what drives each of these competitors
The Google Lunar X Prize was first announced in 2007, with the goal of inspiring entrepreneurs to find cost-effective ways for sending technologies into deep space. That’s why the Lunar X Prize teams must show that their projects have been made almost entirely with private funding. The teams must also book contracts with rocket launch providers that will take their landers to the lunar surface. It's not enough just to touch the spacecraft down on the Moon; each lander has to be able to explore up to 1,640 feet (500 meters) of the surface, as well as send live images and video back to Earth. The first team to meet all these criteria before the end of 2017 will receive $20 million.
The money is surely a motivator, but Moon Shot centers more on the visceral reasons why people got involved with the Lunar X Prize in the first place. Each episode briefly deconstructs the personal stories of the contestants, and the individual motivations that spur them forward. Yariv Bash from the Israeli team SpaceIL, for example, talks about his desire to create a peaceful and positive tool for humanity, having grown up in a country constantly under the threat of war. Deepna Gandhi of the Indian team, Indus, talks about the struggles of loving math and science as a woman in India, and how she was inspired to follow her dream of engineering thanks to Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla. The series delves into each participant’s own incentive for pursuing the prize. It's a great illustration of how there isn't a single path that leads someone to a love of spaceflight.
The teams are also on different paths in the competition, and the series subtly but deliberately shows how some teams are farther along than others. A few competitors already have working lander prototypes, while others are still doing preliminary tests to better understand how the Moon's gravity will affect their technology. The Canadian father and son team Plan B is working out of a spare room in an apartment, while SpaceIL is building their lander in a massive warehouse owned by Israel Aerospace Industries. These clues serve as a reminder of the race that underlies the project, and that competitive atmosphere adds an extra layer of humanity to the entire series. The desire to win is a trait that most humans can relate to.
For once, the vehicles and technologies take a back seat to their creators
Moon Shot offers very few particulars of the vehicles being built by the Lunar X Prize teams. The spacecraft make appearances throughout the series, but they only serve to visually demonstrate how far the contestants have come. Little information is given about how the spacecraft work or how the teams plan to launch their robots into space. For once, the vehicles and technologies take a back seat to their creators.
The deadline of the Lunar X Prize is also barely mentioned in the series, though the date is fast approaching. Each team has to get their landers to the Moon by December 31st, 2017. Only two of the teams — SpaceIL and Moon Express — have contracts with rocket launch providers to carry their spacecraft beyond Earth. Eventually, there will be only one winner, but for now, Moon Shot levels the playing field. By highlighting the participants’ distinct motives for exploring the cosmos, the series unites the teams in their humanity. Once their landers make it to the Moon, the series will serve as a great depiction of the drive it took to get them there.
Moon Shot premiered at SXSW on March 14th. All the episodes are now available on Google Play, and they will be available on YouTube starting March 17th.