Google the Moon

Famed roboticist Red Whittaker may have the inside track to win the next moon race.

William Red Whittaker
"It's a pretty wonderful thing to have something like the moon all to yourself with a robot for awhile," says William "Red" Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University. Courtesy of

A robotics team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, led by William "Red" Whittaker, announced its entry into the Google Lunar X Prize competition on September 13, 2007—the very day the contest opened. The goal: to land a rover on the moon within five years. "The challenge is so aligned with who we are and what we do that it was like meeting the perfect mate," says Whittaker.

Among the foremost roboticists in the world, he’s fresh off the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, and, with NASA funding, to the Atacama Desert and into an active Alaskan volcano. Now he’s preparing to take his skills to the next level—or rather, to the next world.

To get the full $20 million Google Lunar X Prize, the team must land a rover by December 31, 2012. If nobody’s claimed the prize by then, the money drops to $15 million until December 31, 2014, at which point the contest will end unless Google and the X Prize Foundation decide to keep it going.

Besides landing, the rover must be able to travel at least 500 meters (about a third of a mile) and stream a "mooncast" of high-resolution video, still images, and other data back to Earth. A bonus $5 million will be awarded for extra tasks, such as driving the rover more than 5,000 meters (approximately three miles), returning pictures of man-made artifacts like the Apollo landers, or surviving the two-week lunar night.

Robots have advanced greatly since the Soviet Union John Connolly of NASA’s lunar lander project office, delivering a Sojourner-size rover to the moon, on a (ten times heavier) lander, won’t require an enormous rocket. "Some of the mid-size launchers like the Taurus, or some of the smaller international launch vehicles, would do the job," he says.

So far, Whittaker’s team is the only one to throw its hat in the ring, but a second contender, Isle of Man-based "Odyssey Moon," is planning to announce on December 6. Sarah Evans, vice president of communications at the X-Prize Foundation.

What’s in it for Google? Beside encouraging innovation in science and technology, there’s an element of self-interest. Dylan Casey, Google’s project manager for the Lunar X Prize, says, "Ultimately, the teams and fans of the competition will hopefully use Google products and Google search to learn about all the interesting technologies. One of the great side effects we’re hoping will result from this project is that the team that reaches the surface will upload their footage to YouTube so that children around the world can watch a moon landing. Everybody—not just the teams that are trying to accomplish the mission—has the ability to participate and interact. That’s the interesting element that the Internet brings to this whole competition."Air & Space associate editor Rebecca Maksel spoke with Whittaker about this second era of lunar exploration, which the X Prize Foundation has dubbed "Moon 2.0."

A&S: How did you and the team reach the decision to enter the Google Lunar X Prize competition?

Whittaker: It was love at first sight. There was no deliberation whatever. The challenge was so aligned with who we are and what we do that it was like meeting the perfect mate. We’re veterans of robotics adventures, and we have experience and aspiration for space robots—and that includes a commitment to lunar exploration before the moon was popular. Challenges suit us.

Any of these challenges are as much the victory of the alliance [with] sponsors and investors as they are the success of the team that is creating the machines and the software. Technical challenges will always be around. The classics are things like Lindbergh crossing the ocean—that was the Orteig Prize. It’s never really about the money. And the very good challenges really do change the world. It’s not just a technical curiosity; they all open up vistas in business.

A&S: Especially with this particular prize. If they’re going to stream back live video, then everyone who is watching can participate, vicariously.

Whittaker: Something I’ve loved about robotics is not just the technical enchantment, but also what the machines do, where they go, the wonder of the remote experience. That’s true whether you’re going into a live volcano or to the bottom of the ocean.

A&S: One of the objectives of the prize is that the foundation would like to find stuff that’s left over from previous missions, and stream images of that back. That would really be exciting for people watching at home.

Whittaker: Robots can be mobile TV stations, and part of their appeal is the content—where does the robot start, where does it go, what does it encounter along the way, what does it experience—we’re now getting into how does the story, for example, connect with the historical sites. How does that touch the world? It’s a pretty wonderful thing to have something like the moon all to yourself with a robot for a while.

A&S: The X Prize Foundation says that teams from at least 40 countries have indicated interest in participating.

Whittaker: It would be so easy to underestimate what it would mean for a team from the Middle East, say—I’m just making this up—that maybe never had a space program, to plant their flag on the moon, or be there in a remote presence. The fact that they’re not spacefaring nations, or hadn’t been on the surface elsewhere, doesn’t matter. When you start talking about connections with the moon, those are so deep, they are pre-historical, they vary from spiritualism to the tides of the oceans, to the time of the month. It’s an aside, but in these challenge competitions the Web sites always have a map with pushpins in them to show where the teams come from. And I so loved this most recent one [the Urban Challenge], where there was a cluster of teams out of Utah. Some of these things are world opportunities, the ability to reach out and thread together so many parts of the world.

The way these things work, you fundamentally get one shot. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dirt race or the Olympics or a champion fight or a moon shot. It happens in a moment in time, it’s out there, tangibly in front of God and the world. For me, [the Google Lunar X Prize] resonates, there’s no question, it fires me up, it inspires me, it fits me like a glove. It is going to be something that inspires a generation. In [the Urban Challenge] there were thousands of individuals who gave it heart and soul, gave it years and years of their lives. It starts by believing—the fact that you believe doesn’t mean that it will be so, but if you start without the belief, it’s a pretty sure bet that it is impossible for you. So the idea is to put together something that appears beyond reach, appears unachievable, at least within the constraints of the moment.

A&S: Do you think there’s enough time to meet the 2012 deadline?

Whittaker: In this kind of a prize, if you run too hard and go to launch too quickly, and things are too shaky, you fail for reasons of technical failure or not meeting the criteria. What that means is, you have to do everything or you might as well have done nothing. In other words, there’s no payment for partial landing, or a partial traverse, or falling short on the mooncast or something like that. Of course, if you wait too long then it’s a sure bet that others will succeed.

I keep going back to flying across the ocean—Lindbergh conceived and ordered up an airplane, right? So did the others. Some of them chose tri-motors—three engines—so they’d be sure if something happened they could get back. Lindbergh said How about one, let’s roll all the dice. Those are just variables of risk and redundancy…. I think there’s no barrier whatever for someone, somewhere, to succeed in the 2012 time frame.

A&S: Do you think that all the problems are beat, or is there technology still to develop?

Whittaker: The unique technology might be as bold as integrating everything into a miniature monolithic spacecraft, so that the thing that flies is the thing that lands, is the thing that rolls, is the thing that broadcasts. And that would require a leap of technical gymnastics. And then, the X Prize victor will be a rolling TV station…because a robotic space mission is so limited in landed mass, everything that lands is used in some way to achieve the goals. And the X Prize goals are very clear. These robots are clearly not going to be the last lunar robots. We’ve talked about so many different objectives that might be pursued, and each of them is different, and each of them would be a great X Prize victory. [A team might revisit the Russian rover] Lunokhod in the highlands, or go to the equatorial mares. Somebody who would go after ice discovery would target the polar regions that might harbor ice. So each of those is a different mission. It could be that diverse teams approach those for different reasons.

A&S: We’ll be following this story in the coming years.

Whittaker: Not too many years, I hope.

"It's a pretty wonderful thing to have something like the moon all to yourself with a robot for awhile," says William "Red" Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University. Courtesy of

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