As expected the GoogleLunarXprize has generated plenty of controversy. Some are dismissing the whole thing as a PR stunt by Google. Others are complaining because their pet projects are not the goal. Lets have a deeper look.
David Nolan at Popular Mechanics gives five reasons why the prize won't be won. Clark Lindsey responds to the criticisms but I like to make a few points. The contest does not require the team to build the rocket, they can hire a commercial vehicle. Back in 1998 a Chinese communication satellite, Asiasat 3 failed to reach a stable orbit, so engineers rescued the craft by sending it on two lunar flybys making it the first commercial spacecraft to reach the Moon. Perhaps a team could send their rover piggyback with a geostationary satellite. Or perhaps they can use the Interplanetary Super Highway as Brian Wang suggests.
The Xprize people know the prize is winnable from previous experience. Remember this is not a new idea. Lunacorp tried for several years to develop a commercial lunar rover using Russian technology but didn't get anywhere. Perhaps more relevant was a company called Blastoff!. It was a started by several entrepreneurs in 2000 and managed to raise several million dollars before the dot.com bust killed it. One of those entrepreneurs was Peter Diamandis of Xprize fame. Diamandis described how the project came about:
It turns out that Bill Gross (and Larry) were both space fans. One day Bill was talking to his son about the space program and decided he wanted to buy him a moon rock... so he naturally looked on eBay to see if one was available for purchase (of course there are no moon rocks in the public sector). This exercise got him thinking about space... after a few other chance meetings, and a reflection on the tremendous success of the July 1997 Mars Pathfinder internet outreach (run by Kirk Goodall), Bill got the idea that he would fund the first private mission to the moon... a robotic mission that would make its money through internet advertising and media rights.... a company he called BlastOff! Bill and Larry viewed Pixar as the model for a company that could create entertainment and garner a multi-billion valuation. Their objective was to only build business models that could reach the billion dollar category... after all they had done it many times already!
Blastoff! eventually folded but they made enough progress to realise a private moon mission is doable.
As too the New Space critics they are completely missing the point. They seem to think that the only worthwhile space research should be about reducing the cost of space access. I may be stating the obvious , but the purpose of a transport system is to transport something. If some team manages to pull this off despite the high cost of transport, fantastic. This will be a world wide event. Millions of people will be following it on the Internet. It will certainly create world wide interest in space exploration something Paul Breed's reusable micro-launcher idea will never do.
Theres already one serious entry I'm sure there will be more. I'm hope some Australian group has a go.