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January 28, 2015

To the Moon, Alice!

Photo Credit: Éole Wind

If you are of a certain age, you can remember the excitement of the space race. The race to have your countries have its team be the first step foot on the moon. TV coverage was huge and constant. We also had all that drama when we first circled the moon and the spacecraft was in trouble. Today we have a new race!

Just about everyone alive has heard of the XPrize, which has spawned hi-tech competitions with multi-million dollar prizes for everything from fuel efficient vehicles to sub-orbital spacecraft. However, in what must be the XPrize that is by far the most “Out There,” the race is on as three-dozen teams are vying to become the first private enterprises to land a rover on the moon. The winner takes home $30 million. In fact, the Google Lunar XPrize competition has recently heated up with one competitor, Team Astrobotic collecting a three quarters of a million dollar “Milestone Prize” for overcoming key technical risks in the areas of imaging and mobility. XPrize may announce more Milestone winners in the coming weeks, if other teams can prove their rovers are on track to land on the moon by Dec. 31, 2016.

As a Trekie Would Say, “To Go Where No XPrize Has Gone Before”

Image courtesy of deviantart.com

Image courtesy of deviantart.com

To truly comprehend the sheer audacity of the current prize, you need to understand those that came before it.  The XPrize Foundation was founded in 1995 by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis who offered a $10 million prize to the first privately financed team that could construct and fly a three place vehicle 100 kilometers into the stratosphere.  The contest, which later morphed into the Ansari XPrize eventually involved 26 teams whose combined expenditures topped $100 million.  Won by Burt Rutan and his Mojave Aerospace Ventures team who flew SpaceShipOne into space and back, the XPrize did not end there.

The inspiration for the XPrize did not get its start in the space age, but the Roaring 20s when French Hotelier Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize for the first person to fly nonstop between New York City and Paris.  That’s right, this is the very prize that inspired Charles Lindbergh to work with the Ryan Aircraft Company to construct the Spirit of St. Louis.  While Lucky Lindy won this prize in 1927, what most people forget is that he was not the first, nor the only person, to attempt the feat.

The Daily Mail offered a 10,000 pound prize for any airplane or airship that crossed the Atlantic Ocean in either direction between the British Isles and the U.S. or Canada on the same year that the Orteig Prize was announced.  Capt. John Alcock and Lieut. Arthur Whitten-Brown of the RAF accomplished this feat in a First World War Vickers-Vimy bomber, making the prizewinning flight from Newfoundland to in a little more than 16 hours.

They were not the only ones, however.  According to thestraightdope.com, “Major George Herbert Scott of the RAF and the crew of the British dirigible R.34 in July 1919 flew from East Fortune, Scotland, to Mineola, Long Island, New York, a distance of almost 3,000 miles, in about four and a half days. Also on board were a stowaway (William Ballantyne), a stowaway cat (Whoopsie or Wopsie) and two homing pigeons. The R.34 made the return flight to Pulham, England, a few days later, marking the first round trip transatlantic flight.”

Although 10,000 Pounds Sterling or $25,000 U.S. does not sound like much today, as well as a flight from Europe to the U.S. or vice versa, when taken into context, both the prizes offered and the lofty goals put forth were staggering for their time.  It also goes to show that cash prizes are an incredible way to galvanize the creative spirit and spur competition.

Other Prizes That Were Newsworthy

Ansari XPrize may have been the most newsworthy, but it was not the only competition to bear that moniker.  In 2007, Progressive Insurance through its hat into the ring announcing the Automotive XPrize whose goal was to design, build and race vehicles that could achieve 100 MPG that were capable of being mass produced.  On September 16, 2010 three winning teams were announced:

  1. Team Edison2 won the $5 million mainstream competition with its 4-passenger Very Light Car that achieved 102.5 MPG.
  2. Team Li-Ion Motors won the $2.5 million Alternative competition with their Wave-II electric vehicle that achieved 187 MPG.
  3. Team x-Tracer Switzerland won the $2.5 million Alternative Tandem competition with an electric motorcycle that clocked in at 205.3 MPG
Image Courtesy of inhabitat.com

Image Courtesy of inhabitat.com

The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XCHALLENGE was introduced July 29, 2010, offering a $1 million prize that inspired a new generation of innovative solutions that will speed the pace of cleaning up seawater surface oil resulting from spillage from ocean platforms, tankers, and other sources. The team of Elastec/American Marine won the challenge by developing a device that skims oil off of water three times faster than previously existing technology.

A Clear Cut Case of Lunacy

Next up was the Google Lunar XPrize, introduced in September 2007.  The goal of the prize is for teams to launch, land and operate a rover on the lunar surface.  Offering $20 million to the first team that successfully roves more than 500 meters and transmits back high definition video, the competition also offers a $5 million second prize as well as millions in bonuses by being the first to achieve specific goals.

According to Wikipedia, “As of June 2014, 18 GLXP teams remain in the competition, and five of those are thought to be making good progress. However, none of the GLXP teams have announced firm launch dates to attempt the prize. The prize expires at the end of 2016 and launch service providers typically require launch vehicle reservation 24 months prior to the date of the launch.[4] Also in June, one GLXP team is scouting co-competitors to travel with it on a common launch vehicle and lunar transit satellite. Astrobotic announced it would be willing to share a single “ride” to the Moon with up to four competitors. The shared transporter, including a shared Lunar landing, would result in a common start time for a race to achieve the 500 m lunar-surface distance-traveled objective. However, Astrobotic had not yet lined up its own launch arrangements with 18 months left in the competition.[5]

Image courtesy astrobotic.com

Image courtesy astrobotic.com

That does not mean several teams have not made significant progress.  Several teams, including Carnegie Mellon University have already completed rovers. Astrobiotics Griffin Lander is well under way.  https://www.astrobotic.com/griffin  Whether any of the teams will be able to snatch the prize before the clocks runs down is anybody’s guess.  But if Lucky Lindy hadn’t risked his life to make the first solo transatlantic crossing by airplane, think of how different the world might be today.

But Wait, There are More XPrizes

If flying to the moon isn’t far out enough for you, there is yet another XPrize that’s even more out there.  In 2011, Qualcomm sponsored a Tricorder XPrize with the goal of creating a mobile device that can deliver medical diagnosis, better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians.  Inspired from the Tricorder device from the series Star Trek, this prize has yet to be won.  I have seen a device at last year’s One Spark that actually measure heart rate, temperature and several other bodily functions, that is actually a little bigger that the “’Star Trek’ Tricorder.” It works, but it still needs a physician to provide a diagnosis. With $10 million in prizes on the line, all I can say is, “Get cracking, all you Trekkies out there.”  No one will need a doctor when you can point, click and read the diagnosis!


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Carl Weiss has been working the web to win since 1995 and has helped hundreds of companies increase their online results. He is president of W Squared Media and co-host of the weekly radio show Working the Web to Win which airs Tuesdays at 4pm Eastern on BlogTalkRadio.com. Click here to get his latest book "Working The Web to Win: When it comes to online marketing, you can't win, if you don't know how to play the game!".

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