As reported elsewhere but as I discovered yesterday on MSNBC's Cosmic Log, Google will offer a $30 million prize to the first private entity to send automated robot vehicles to the moon. Similar to the $10 million Ansari X prize awarded to the first privately-funded team to send humans into space, the moon lander must travel at least 3/10ths of a mile on the surface of the moon, send video and images back to earth, and do all this by 2012 (though a mildly reduced prize is still available until 2014). The prize will be broken up to award second place constestants, and more money will be awarded in true video game fashion in return for certain "extras," like taking a photo of old lunar landing vehicles, finding water, or capturing one of the astronaut zombies known to roam the shadows in their endless quest for human flesh.
We all know where this is headed. The September 15th edition of "The Economist" had a cover which asked "Who's afraid of Google," and according to the leading article, plenty are. I'm only left to conclude that this Google "Lunar X Prize" is merely a step on the way towards giant space-based battleships. I for one preemptively welcome our new multicolored corporate overlords, and please don't vaporize my toes if I don't click all the sidebar ads every time I do a search through your site.
Kidding aside, this is a pretty cool thing to do. I did get a chuckle out of the fact that Sergey Brin, one of Google's co-founders and the driving force behind the prize, actually toyed with the idea of a lunar mission as some kind of elaborate Google marketing extravaganza. You really have more money than you know what to do with if you contemplate lunar missions in your free time.
I think these kinds of contests are great. As I've discussed before in past blogs, we aren't really going to send large numbers of people into outer space while relying on government to do all the work. The United States still uses the space shuttle, the design for which is over 30 years old and which has a history of rather catastrophic mishaps, as its primary launch vehicle, and most of NASA's money these days is dumped into the costly International Space Station the scientific rationale for which is shaky at best.
NASA isn't going to be the avenue by which people go into space just because they want to. Private ventures will do that, and they will use newer technology that is updated more consistently than a government program that has all the bureaucracy of a state-owned corporation.
For space travel to be common, it needs to be cost effective. Profit oriented companies are better positioned to accomplish that.
So, hats off to Sergey Brin. Here's hoping that there are more like him.