It’s official: no one is going to win the Google Lunar X Prize competition

An artistic rendering of competitor Moon Express’ MX-1E lander
Image: Moon Express

No one is going to win the X Prize Foundation’s competition to send a spacecraft to the Moon, the foundation announced today. Only five finalists remained in the Google-sponsored Lunar X Prize competition, and in order to win any grand prize money, the teams had to launch and complete their missions to the Moon before March 31st, 2018. But with only two months until the deadline, no team is ready to launch, so Google will keep the prize money instead.

“After close consultation with our five finalist Google Lunar X Prize teams over the past several months, we have concluded that no team will make a launch attempt to reach the Moon by the March 31st, 2018 deadline,” the X Prize Foundation released in a statement. “This literal ‘moonshot’ is hard, and while we did expect a winner by now, due to the difficulties of fundraising, technical and regulatory challenges, the grand prize of the $30 [million] Google Lunar X Prize will go unclaimed.”

The Google Lunar X Prize was established in 2007 as a way to help lower the cost of getting to space. So far, only government agencies have landed on the lunar surface, with missions that have cost many millions and even billions of dollars. That’s why the X Prize Foundation, which sets up global competitions, challenged teams with developing and launching robotic lunar landers using mostly private funding. The idea was to make them come up with creative methods for getting to the Moon on the cheap.

Landing on the lunar surface was only part of the challenge. Teams had to travel up to 1,640 feet (500 meters) on the Moon too, as well as do live broadcasts. The first to fulfill all these requirements before the deadline would receive $20 million, while the second place team would get $5 million. Other smaller purses would be awarded to teams that did special tasks, such as completing an orbit around the Moon before landing.

Even without a winner, the foundation says it is extremely pleased by what the five finalists and other teams have accomplished: raising a combined $300 million for their missions and creating hundreds of jobs in countries such as Israel, India, Malaysia, and Hungary. The X Prize Foundation also awarded more than $6 million for achieving certain milestones throughout the competition, making important technological advancements, or doing exceptional educational outreach. One team, Moon Express, even received regulatory approval from the US government for its mission — the first time that has ever happened for a private mission the Moon.

“As a result of this competition, we have sparked the conversation and changed expectations with regard to who can land on the Moon,” the X Prize Foundation said in its statement. “Many now believe it’s no longer the sole purview of a few government agencies, but now may be achieved by small teams of entrepreneurs, engineers, and innovators from around the world.” A Google spokesperson also told CNBC that the company is “thrilled with the progress made by these teams over the last ten years.”

The original deadline was set for 2014, but was extended at least four times until March of this year. The competition also started with more than 30 registered teams and was eventually reduced down to five finalists: SpaceIL from Israel, Moon Express from the US, TeamIndus from India, Hakuto from Japan, and Synergy Moon made up of members from six different continents. All five of these teams had secured launch contracts with rocket companies to send their vehicles to space. But none of them except Hakuto have completed their spacecraft, and Hakuto’s rover is meant to ride to space on TeamIndus’ lander. Plus, neither SpaceIL nor TeamIndus have been able to fully fund their missions.

An artistic rendering of competitor SpaceIL’s lunar lander
Image: SpaceIL

Many teams say they will still pursue their missions. Moon Express, for instance, plans to mine the lunar surface one day. “The competition was a sweetener in the landscape of our business case, but it’s never been the business case itself,” said Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, in a statement. “We continue to focus on our core business plans of collapsing the cost of access to the Moon, our partnership with NASA, and our long-term vision of unlocking lunar resources for the benefit of life on Earth and our future in space.” Meanwhile, other non-finalist teams are still working on getting to the Moon, such as Astrobotic, which wants to become a lunar delivery service.

The X Prize Foundation is considering ways to help these teams continue working. The organization may find another sponsor to provide cash prizes for teams that do end up making it to the Moon. Or the Lunar X Prize may simply live on as a competition without cash prizes, and the X Prize Foundation will continue to promote the teams’ achievements.

The failure may inspire doubt as to whether cash prizes are an effective incentive for lowering the cost of spaceflight. But the X Prize Foundation says it is undeterred and will continue to set up contests to promote technological advancement. “If every X Prize competition we launch has a winner, we are not being audacious enough, and we will continue to launch competitions that are literal or figurative moonshots, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible,” the foundation said in a statement.

Comments

Bummer. I guess extending the deadline once more was out of the question.
I wonder what’s going to happen with the finalists’ projects.

If your company’s business plan depends on winning the lottery to stay a float, then your company doesn’t have a business plan. The 20M "grand prize" only goes to the first company that succeeds… meaning if your company succeeds in reaching the moon a single day later, then you still only get the consolation prize of 5M.

Also, it still costs at least 60M to launch an object in low earth orbit (via SpaceX), since the moon is 10x farther away… I would think it is still quite a bit more expensive to get a probe all the way there. So the prize money I think was always a bit of an "icing on the cake" type deal.

At least one was (still is?) planning on launching on Electron, so that launch cost comes right down to $5m. But your math stands: the business model here can’t be the prize pot.

They obviously didn’t want to spend the money. Otherwise, they would have a competition to spearhead a launch project with 20 -25 million in budget. The best plan wins the funding and maybe some google resources.

Only the the final "grand prize" for actually landing on the moon was cancelled after standing unclaimed for a decade. Google has already given the competitors around $5M for achieving intermediate milestone goals of building some of the technologies needed for the final task (i.e. actually sending up a probe and landing it on the moon).

Your idea of throwing money at people with a "great plan" is a great way to lose money. There are tons of "startups" with promising sounding ideas that get 20-25M thrown at them… only for it to turn out that all there "planning" was just smoke and mirrors to grab the cash. Look at Theranos… to date is has $1,400,000,000 USD in private funding and over a decade to build a blood testing device that uses less sample blood than current devices. $100,000,000 USD of that came AFTER it was discovered none of the devices work and Theranos was quietly just sent the tests to a third party that did blood testing using conventional technology OR just sending back results that were completely wrong.

I think offer milestone base "prizes" seem to be a much better idea of fostering innovation as companies have more "skin in the game" versus being a continuous money leech like many startups or even government contractors have become.

But but wasn’t that really the point all along. Free publicity for Google and the deadline that couldn’t be reached. Now guess whose name is going to be connected to those projects at no cost to themselves when they do eventually go ahead. You guessed it, Google. And knowing them, they’ll no doubt take the credit then buy the startups at a discount after they’ve spent their last remaining funds trying to achieve their dreams.

Anybody can send a spacecraft to the Moon. Just ask Hollywood producers for help. They can land you on Pluto before March 31. 2018.

$20 million is pocket change for Sergei or Larry’s personal account, let alone Google’s corporate account. If they really wanted to see a moon landing they could easily increase the prize to $200 million, and it would still just be a tiny fraction of what it actually cost to go to the moon. The $20M prize caps the built in ROI and forces teams to come up with alternative business plans when looking for investment. It’s hard enough to build a lunar lander, this forces them to build a lander that can also generate revenue.

If the idea was to motivate or inspire people to attempt something like this, I think the result will be the opposite, the idea of private enterprise building a lunar lander will now be seen as an impossible task, and few will ever attempt it again.

In the end the entire exercise was more a marketing stunt for Google than anything else, for just $10M in actual money handed out, Google received almost 10 years of free publicity associating their brand with lunar exploration, and that is the real accomplishment of GLXP.

Your comment is mainly ignorant. As stated above, a prize of $20M or $200M wouldn’t have made a single difference. None of these companies based their business models on winning this prize. You can’t base your business on something so random. If you do, then you’re pretty stupid and not really cut to lead a successful business, let alone one that wants to do something as ambitious as to go to the Moon. This price was always and only seen as a bonus by them, as proved by what one of the contestant stated in this article.
And 200M$ wouldn’t have changed anything, they haven’t already launched their vehicules for a variety of reasons but the size of the prize is none of them.

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