Google’s Lunar XPrize drives private space race

Two scientists work on their lunar lander.
Two XPrize engineers work on their lunar lander. (Bill Cramer/Wonderful Machine)

In his mind, aerospace engineer and entrepreneur Ruben Nunez set out for the moon the day he heard about the Google Lunar XPrize, a race to put a robot on the moon. Nunez had so many ideas that he couldn’t sleep. He and other young space enthusiasts decided to enter the competition as the Omega Envoy team. Then Nunez founded Earthrise Space Foundation Inc. to support it.

Google will award the $20 million prize to the first team that

  • lands a privately developed robotic craft on the moon,
  • moves it across the surface while sending images and specific data to Earth, and
  • does so by the end of 2015.

Contestants reaching key milestones will divide an additional $10 million in prize money.

2015: A space odyssey

As the deadline nears, Earthrise and the 17 remaining competitors are designing, building and testing prototypes. Aerospace veterans and young engineers are key contributors, but university students and recent graduates are particularly passionate about their projects.

Omega team (Courtesy of
Omega team (Courtesy of

Fundraising is crucial to staying in the hunt. A few finalists sell project data to NASA. All seek sponsorship money from private companies and universities.

The competition has an educational outreach program, and many teams emphasize educational goals. Israel’s SpaceIL, for instance, pledged to donate any prize money to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for middle-school children.

Several teams plan to continue their efforts even after the XPrize competition ends. Omega, based in Orlando, Florida, hopes to offer payload delivery to the moon, while Moon Express, from Mountain View, California, wants to extract minerals from the moon.

Artist's rendering of Omega's lunar rover on moon, with Earth in distance (Courtesy of Omega Envoy)
Artist’s rendering of Omega’s lunar rover (Courtesy of Omega Envoy)

Most competitors consider themselves winners, regardless of who captures the prize. Rahul Narayan, who started the Indus team, based in India, views the race as an once-in-a-lifetime adventure — “a fantastic engineering feat.”

Possibly the real winners are not even in the competition. Thousands of young people around the world follow the the XPrize finalists on the competition’s website and social media. Those age 9 to 17 are invited to create robots that simulate lunar missions. Some of these young people may be the space pioneers of tomorrow.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the XPrize, asserts that entrepreneurs have much to contribute, even if they lack a scientific background. The most critical step, he says, is “focusing on your passion and becoming knowledgable and curious.”

Ready to compete but the moon’s not your thing? Current XPrize Foundation competitions focus on ocean health and global learning, and past contests have focused on fuel-efficient cars and oil cleanup strategies.