Space entrepreneur Elon Musk’s plan to establish a city in Mars took two steps closer this April — first a historic landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket’s booster on a drone boat (Watch the video clip) in the Atlantic Ocean, and two days later on April 10, his SpaceX Dragon cargo ship delivering the first inflatable bedroom to the International Space Station (ISS).
The inflatable bedroom could change the way astronauts live in space, and it becomes part of gathering momentum to make possible ordinary people to reside and work outside Earth.
More significantly, the Falcon 9 booster rocket being successfully retrieved for reuse makes space launches much cheaper by blasting away a major cost hurdle for mass space travel.
Already a few hundred intrepid folks have signed up for a one-way ticket to Mars, and technology to enable their extra terrestrial postal address seems promising.
On April 19, the ISS is scheduled to pass over Mumbai at 7.56 pm, visible for a minute at the summer night horizon 10° above North-East, as it orbits the Earth once every 90 minutes at a speed of 17,500 mph. It is a reminder of how some people are already living long term in space.
Many more will join the orbiting lifestyle of the ISS crew; and in decades not too far away live in Mars and Moon. Telling the stories of such eclectic people is Moon Shot, Google’s newly released, gripping web documentary series of the ordinary Joe and Jane seeking to change life on Earth by reaching the Moon and win the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize (watch the video clip).
The approximately seven-minute Moon Shot episodes profile shortlisted teams planning to send a space robot to the Moon and bag the prize being hailed the greatest ever.
Sixteen teams worldwide are racing to this faraway moon dust they call regolith — like shards of glass, sharp, hard, and damaging, forged by endless time in extra-terrestrial terrain that felt no wind and saw no rain for a billion years — that holds hopes for future.
“Our plan is to land on the moon, collect that moon dust and bring it back,” says Internet entrepreneur Naveen Jain, co-founder of Moon Express from Cape Canaveral, USA, from where the SpaceX Falcon rocket took off on April 8. “A tiny amount of Helium 3 in the moon dust can provide enough nuclear fusion energy to this planet for generations to come”.
To win the Google Lunar XPrize, a team’s moon robot must travel 500 meters across moon terrain and send back high-definition video images to Earth. Gathering Helium-enriched moon dust is bonus work.
Motives driving the Google Lunar XPrize teams worldwide are diverse and Moon Shot unearths the inspiration for the Internet generation to reach for the moon dust 44 years after the last Apollo astronaut left his footprints on it.
If the $30 million prize is handed out, it will be first time ordinary people have sent a messenger to the Moon. The solitary Moon valleys and mountains have as yet seen visitors only from space agencies of the USA, former USSR, Japan, India and China.
Now the Moon Shot people, the world’s people, range from a 67-year old professor in Pittsburgh in the U.S. to a small-town girl in Ooty, India. From the 29 teams that qualified for the lunar journey, 16 survived — from the US, India, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, Hungary, Italy and multinational groups in the most unique race in history.
“If they succeed, it will redefine what is possible,” say Moon Shot series makers executive producer J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), his Bad Robot and Epic Digital production house, and director Orlando von Einsiedel (Aisha’s Song, Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul), teaming with Google and XPRIZE.
The team to first complete the Google Lunar XPrize mission will earn $20 million; $5 million will go for the second team and other Milestone prizes, but all teams must be privately-funded. No government funds are allowed to ensure the most cost-effective technologies and also to enable inexpensive voyages to the stars some day.
The deadline is end of 2016 to declare a contract with a space agency to launch the moon robot, and December 31, 2017 to complete the mission.
The bigger lure is not the big money, as the Moon Shot episodes show, but encouragement to entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, and ordinary people to invent, innovate, and create an era of affordable access to the Moon – a small step to sending postcards from outside Earth, from our 4.5 billion year-old celestial neighbor and a gateway to our travel one day across the galaxies.
“I’ve always liked working on stories that combine people who are relatable with something insane,” says Abrams.
Pittsburgh professor William ‘Red’ Whittaker, says: “I am a professor, a businessman and a farmer – and I am going to the Moon,” (watch the video clip) as a setting sun fills a Pennsylvania field with golden light.
Whittaker’s Astrobotic Team comprises his former students. “In so many ways, this is the expression of a new generation – these are the ones who are transforming everything,” he says.
It is as if he is passing on his mind in an ageing and slowing body to younger humans and robots: “I have committed my life to robotics and what it will do for the world. Robots can go where we cannot, face dangers like nuclear radiation exposure, be our tools for enterprises of the future.”
In Vancouver, Alex Dobrianski, founder of Canada’s Google Lunar XPrize Team Plan B, reads haltingly from a blackboard: “The miracle is not what I finished…the miracle is that I had the courage to start.”
Dobrianski from Ukraine calls himself a mixture of mathematician, physicist, and engineer trying to reach the moon. His wife calls him a genius, son Serge thinks he has gone crazy, or is having a mid-life crisis, but decided to be his key assistant.
Origin of their unique Moon adventure is courtesy Peter Diamandis, creator of the XPRIZE Foundation. He graduated from Harvard Medical School, has an aerospace engineering degree from MIT and owns a motto in life: “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.”
So does Robert Böhme, from Berlin’s Landsberger Strasse, leading Germany’s first Google Lunar Xprize team ‘Part-Time Scientists’. Böhme grew up in East Germany, the generation of the broken Berlin Wall, hates barriers of closed information, and cherishes the freedom of unrestricted sharing.
“Much of my professional life is about open-source technology,” Böhme says in the Moon Shot documentary. “It is not only about new technology but the willingness to share – and because of free information we are able to privately land a robot on the moon”.
Car maker Audi believed in the Part-Time Scientists enough to provide the ‘Audi lunar Quattro moon rover’ with a 4-wheeled electrical drive, flexible solar panels, rechargeable batteries, and high grade HD cameras.
“We are like Batman”, says Böhme, “one identity during the night, and during the day we are doing other things.”
Team member Thomas is a game-developer while another member Karsten Becker is an electronics specialist. The core of their world is the wonder called the Internet.
“You can go to NASA website and download all the scientific data”, says Böhme. “It’s not hidden away”. Part-Time Scientists, he mentions, would not have existed without the broken walls of open-source information.
“We are private companies,” says Böhme, “and it is easy to lock up all the technologies we have developed and maybe sell it in the market. But there is nothing to gain, except money – and that’s not all that important. It is much better to share the information.”
If Part-Time Scientists can land a robot on the moon, imagine what many other people can achieve with access to free information, says Böhme.
Part-Time Scientists reflect the Moon Shot people’s freedom of life beyond 9 am-5 pm jobs, beyond self-imposed limits. “You can do anything if you set your mind to it and are prepared to work very hard to achieve it,” says Böhme.
Deepana Gandhi did that. A member of the Bangalore-based Team Indus, she handles the flight dynamics of the space robot from the moment it separates from the Indian Space Research Organization’s PSLV rocket and gently touches down near the Sinus Iridium crater on the Moon.
India’s star-studded Team Indus, winner of a $1 million Milestone Landing prize, was Deepana’s dream come true after overcoming gender bias while growing up in the Southern Indian hill town of Ooty.
Her inspiration, she says in Moon Shot Episode-3, was another small town girl from India, the late NASA astronaut Kalpana Chawla who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion on February 1, 2003, when mission STS-107 disintegrated on re-entry to Earth, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
A tragedy inspired Kazuya Yoshida to reach for the Moon. On March 11, 2011, he watched an earthquake and tsunami destroying lives in Tohuko, Japan.
“The waves destroying everything, I couldn’t do anything but just watch”, Yoshida said.
It became the traumatic, defining experience in his life, of seeing his world suddenly upturned, made extinct. He sees the Moon as a refuge after any cataclysm on Earth.
Yoshida, a professor of aerospace engineering in Tohuko University, is entranced that the Moon surface once had active volcanoes. His Google Lunar XPrize team Hakuto robot, after doing the 500-meter run across the Moon terrain, will plunge into one such tunnel of a lunar volcanic crater, to explore the possibility of it becoming a cradle of life.
“If something happened on Earth, colonization of the Moon is a fascinating idea”, Yoshida says in Moon Shot episode 5. “It is important for human beings to expand our habitable zones to the Moon, or beyond. The Lunar Xprize is a very important first step to open up such a future.
It is a future given hope with the endless wonder that is the Internet. “Twenty years ago, this Google Lunar XPrize would not have been possible,” says Stjepaan Bedic from Team Stellar, “since you could not calculate your trajectory to the Moon with online software. Now you can.”
The Moon Shot teams — and people like Ruben Nunez of Team Omega Envoy and Dr Tibor Pacher of Hungary’s team Puli — not only symbolize technological evolution but also human courage and sacrifice.
Some spent a decade in their Google Lunar XPrize project putting their life’s savings on them with no income to make ends meet and often being called “crazy” by family and friends who lost faith in them.
But they never gave up and kept digging deep to find hidden reserves of strength, determination and self-belief to go after something they know is the biggest project in their lives and to leave a legacy that others can benefit.
“During the course of the competition, we have seen some amazing breakthroughs and technology”, said Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director, Google Lunar XPRIZE.
“We all have it in us to do amazing things,” says one of the Moon Shot people. “All are trail blazers. It only takes a small group of people to change the way we do things here on Earth and beyond.”
And the dots are being connected – the SpaceX Falcon rocket re-landing success, the evolving endurance of the International Space Station and the driving forces behind the Google Lunar XPrize.
- See video of Falcon 9 booster rocket accomplish a vertical landing on a drone boat in the Atlantic Ocean.
- Back to the Moon for Good, Introduction to Google Lunar XPrize, 24-minute Planetarium Show with 3D feel, with stunning imagery of being on the Moon, looking at Earth. Narrated by Tim Allen
- Watch the Moon Shot episodes; Director: Orlando von Einsiedel, Executive Producer: J.J. Abrams
- A Tourist’s Guide to the Moon – year 2082, by Isaac Assimov, New York Times, January 10, 1982
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.