Monday, January 15, 2018

GLXP May Bite the Dust Before Reaching the Finish Line

          By Brian Orlotti

The decade-old Google Lunar X-Prize (GLXP) will officially end on March 31st, 2018 very likely without a winner due to multiple teams dropping out of the race from financial/technical issues or facing launch vehicle delays. Extracting lessons to be learned would be useful in order to create more successful prizes in the future.

Announced in 2007, the GLXP offered $20Mln USD ($24.85Mln CDN) for the first private team to land a vehicle on the moon, travel 500 meters across it, and send back high-definition video by the end of 2012. A $5Mln US ($6.2Mln CDN) prize was made available for the second team to accomplish that goal.

The global financial meltdown of 2008 and its aftershocks greatly limited access to funds for the 32 teams that had initially registered for the competition, slowing their progress. The deadline was extended several times as competitors dropped out. As of 2018, only two teams remain.

According to the January 9th, 2018 The Ken post, "TeamIndus and Isro call off their GLXP launch contract," a launch contract signed in 2016 between Bangalore, India-based GLXP team Team Indus and Antrix Corporation {the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)} has been cancelled.

That contract’s cancellation will also effectively eliminate another GLXP team, Japan-based Team Hakuto, which was to send its lunar rover on the same flight. The cost of chartering the launch of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is upwards of $20Mln USD ($24.87Mln CDN), with the development costs of a rover adding several million more.

But three other GLXP teams remained; Florida-based Moon Express, Israel-based SpaceIL and San Francisco-based Team Synergy Moon. All three have met the GLXP’s requirement of signing launch contracts by the end of 2016 in order to remain in the competition.

However, SpaceIL dropped out in Nov 2017 due to a lack of funds. The chance of the remaining two teams actually meeting the March 31st contest deadline seems unlikely.

Moon Express had been viewed by many space aficionados as a strong contender to win the race. Recently however, founder (and Canadian space pioneer) Bob Richards and Vice President Alain Berinstain (formerly of the Canadian Space Agency) have indicated that Moon Express would not be able to launch in time to win the prize.

The company had entered into a contract with New Zealand-based Rocket Lab to launch their GLXP spacecraft on the new Electron rocket. However, technical issues have resulted in repeated delays of the Electron’s test flights, in turn pushing back Moon Express’ timetable.

Moon Express has downplayed the GLXP’s importance to its business plan and is willing to wait for the Electron rockets’ testing to be completed.

In term of lessons to be learned, building a lunar rover did not seem be the most difficult aspect of the GLXP. Rather, it was securing funds for a launch vehicle without significant government support.

According to Ryan Anderson, the president and CEO of the Satellite Canada Innovation Network, perhaps a better model would be to have each team build a rover and then rigorously test them in an Earth-based lunar analog environment, awarding the prize to the best performer. The prize could consist of either a fixed cash payment to be used by the winner towards their launch, or perhaps even a negotiated group rate for several finalists on a commercial launcher.

A group deal would have the benefits of lowering costs, increasing odds of success and preserving the ‘space race’ atmosphere of the contest.

Google is to be commended for their vision in creating the GLXP and seeing it through to its end, even if unsuccessful. The lessons learned from it will ensure that future competitions will bear more fruit.

It's worth noting that the January 10th - 12th, 2018 "Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop, included two commercial landing opportunities panels that included representatives from numerous past and present GLXP competitors and others.

So the quest continues. Someday soon, another one will bite the (lunar) dust.
Editor's Note: As outlined in the January 23nd, 2018 GLXP post, "An Important Update from Google Lunar XPrize," the contest is now come to an end. 
The organizers will be exploring a number of ways to proceed. According to the press release, "this may include finding a new title sponsor to provide a prize purse following in the footsteps of Google’s generosity, or continuing the Lunar XPRIZE as a non-cash competition where we will follow and promote the teams and help celebrate their achievements."
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.


  1. Is that copy-paste from my LinkedIn comment, Brian?

  2. It's more of a paraphrase, but you should've been credited. My apologies, Ryan. I've contacted Chuck and he'll make the correction shortly. Thanks.


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