Richards hopes to win the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. But he is in for some stiff competition. There are 24 other privately-funded teams competing to be the first to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video, images and data back to the Earth.
To NASA’s credit, it realizes the potential of these entrepreneurs. In 2008, it contracted SpaceX to provide 12 Dragon spacecraft cargo missions to the international space station for a fixed, inflation-adjusted, cost of $133 million per flight. NASA also provided Moon Express with technology that helped it to get its start, and recently signed a contract to purchase the data that it gathers.
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley.
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Private industry participation in the space industry isn’t a new thing. Defense contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin have long been subcontracting work from NASA. But they never created the revolution and disruption that these up-and-coming entrepreneurs promise to. For example, massive cost overruns are common in government contracts. But SpaceX proudly proclaims on its Web site that “if there are cost overruns, SpaceX will cover the difference. (This concept may be foreign to some traditional government space contractors that seem to believe that cost overruns should be the responsibility of the taxpayer.)”
What is so special about these entrepreneurs (or should I say “spacepreneurs”)?
To start with, they are not encumbered by bureaucracy and don’t need to preserve the status quo – in fact, they stand to thrive if the status quo is all but completely done away with. SpaceX was able to rethink the way rockets were designed and thermally protected, the materials used to construct external heat shields, and even the very production process itself. This gave them significant cost and quality advantages.
Moon Express is engineering NASA’s Common Spacecraft Bus
into a low cost lunar lander configuration and rapidly prototyping software, sensors, engines, and avionics with the latest computer systems and simulation tools. Most importantly, as Richards says, “We’re a bunch of entrepreneurs trying to change the world. We can incentivize our workforce with equity—our workers are the owners. We can make decisions unconnected to congressional or White House politics. We can work in small teams with minimal overhead and high signal-to-noise organizations — noise being management. We can attract capital and expertise from the best entrepreneurs on the planet, and we can work with NASA as a partner to take advantage of the deep expertise and knowledge, while applying commercial entrepreneurial principals to achieve symbiotic goals”.
So, congratulations to NASA for raising our hopes then and again now. But the future of space travel lies in NASA-entrepreneur partnerships. Given that, don’t be surprised if we see a Coca-Cola logo on the next Mars lander.