Eleven years ago (September 13th, 2007), Google announced one of the most challenging prizes in the human history, called the Lunar X Prize. Twenty million USD, plus a number of bonuses, for the first privately funded spacecraft able to reach the Moon and perform some task on our satellite.
So far, the prize is unclaimed. There are sixteen teams that are still running for it, two of them with scheduled mission launch for the next year. All the others are trying to negotiate a launch contract before the end of this year. Aside from the cash prize, the real deal is about technology demonstration. The team, or the teams, that will achieve such a result will also be able to boast their skills to an emerging market.
To the present day, only national-sponsored programs had been able to reach the Moon with some operational capability (USA, former USSR, China, India); the Chinese mission is still up there, the only operational rover on the surface. For a private firm, this will be a brand new level of confrontation with the big guns. For the most advanced teams, Moon Express and SpaceIL, there will be two different scenarios of development.
Moon Express is an American company that aims to mine the Moon for natural resources – in a word, profit. SpaceIL is an Israeli NGO devoted to promoting scientific research. In both cases, we will have two different approaches to the problem and two different set of technological solutions. Furthermore, whoever wins set up a milestone in the history of space exploration. Science fiction depicted private-owned companies in space since the ’50s, forecasting a future where commercial development in deep space is out of reach for nation-guided programs. Maybe, just maybe, reaching the Moon will be the first step.