Graduating from the Google Lunar X Prize

Six years ago, Astrobotic made a bold move. We were the first Google Lunar X Prize team to announce a contract with a launch service provider to compete for the $20 million prize in a bid to become the first private company to land on the moon. We believed then that a launch contract would convince customers and investors to book our lunar lander’s remaining payload capacity and invest in our company to finance the rest of the launch payments – but it didn’t work. We lost our launch opportunity and had to rebuild our mission.

Illustration of Astrobiotic's Peregrine lander on the surface of the moon. Astrobiotic announced partnerships with Airbus Defence and Space, and DHL, to support the lander's development. Credit: Astrobiotics Technology artist's concept.

Illustration of Astrobiotic’s Peregrine lander on the surface of the moon. Astrobiotic announced partnerships with Airbus Defence and Space, and DHL, to support the lander’s development. Credit: Astrobiotics Technology artist’s concept.

As I survey the field of Google Lunar X Prize teams that have announced launch contracts over the last few months, I see many repeating the same mistake. X Prize has announced that any team that does not secure by the end of this year a launch contract to fly in 2017 will no longer be eligible to compete. For many teams, signing a launch contract now is an act of self-preservation. Unfortunately, the premature schedule is forcing teams to take perilous risks. Some teams are promising to launch next year without having cut an ounce of metal. Some have pledged to fly on brand new launch vehicles that haven’t even flown yet. Others are hanging their hat on headline-grabbing policy announcements to suggest big progress is being made toward a mission. Still others are hastily assembling their spacecraft and hoping for the best.

We have learned from our mistake. This time around, we will not be signing a hasty launch contract for a launch in 2017 to satisfy the X Prize requirements. As such, Astrobotic must announce its separation from the Google Lunar X Prize. We do not make this decision lightly. However, when the demands of the X Prize competition are in conflict with the demands of our customers, we must stay true to our customer-first principles. As a Rust Belt space company from Pittsburgh, whose focus from the beginning has been to build a long-term sustainable business, we believe it is more important to wholly focus on performing for our customers than chasing unrealistic prize deadlines. We intend to fly our first mission when our customers and technology are ready in 2019.

Although we’re separating from the X Prize, we acknowledge the important role they’ve played in our development to date. The X Prize, like any technology prize, was meant to be a catalyst for a new market. And to its credit, it did exactly that. It was because of the X Prize that Astrobotic was founded and won $1.75 million in milestone prizes in 2015. For that, we remain forever grateful. But from the beginning, we built Astrobotic as a business first, with the X Prize as a potential bonus. This approach has led to 10 signed payload deals with more than 100 lunar payload customers in our pipeline, and a team of world-class partners including Airbus Defence and Space, NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Our reputation as a space company of technical rigor and credibility has enabled us to attract these top-quality partners. Our combined technical excellence maintains those partnerships through numerous technical reviews, including a recent three-day intensive design review of the Peregrine Lunar Lander.

The Astrobotic team reflects the seriousness of our approach to the lunar logistics business. We have a former NASA associate administrator and astronaut on our board of directors, a 25-year Lockheed Martin industry veteran responsible for 30 shuttle and space station payloads leading our mission team, and a technical team that brings experience from other space programs like Orbital ATK’s Cygnus. We challenge anyone to survey the field of X Prize teams and stack any team, technology or service against ours. We stand by our work. But don’t take our word for it: ask our customers, who tell us that our development is “years ahead of the competition.”

Today, Astrobotic is closer to the moon than ever before. As the space community prepares for an upcoming presidential transition, decision makers in Washington can now build on the foundations and rapidly mature U.S. commercial lunar delivery services to lead the world back to the moon.

The first steps are already in place, with NASA’s Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST) program infusing Astrobotic with invaluable technology, expertise, software and processes. And just recently, NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division announced a request for information for payloads that could be sent to the moon on commercial providers.

As the worldwide market grows ever larger, bold and timely policy action is needed to secure the U.S. lead in commercial lunar delivery. Astrobotic is uniquely positioned to lead this effort.

John Thornton is the chief executive of Astrobotic.