But don’t write them off just yet.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
But don’t write them off just yet.
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Google’s Lunar X Prize is ending this month without a winner. The US$20 million competition kicked off in 2007, but more than a decade later, the prize will go unclaimed. The competition was established to help lower the costs of getting to space, and over 25 teams raced to become the first privately financed venture to make it to the moon.

So far, only government agencies like NASA have touched down on the lunar surface, a fact that will unfortunately remain unchanged for now. These missions often run into the hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars, so the Lunar X Prize was meant to prove that private individuals could do it as well.

Of course, this meant working with a much smaller budget, and the idea was to provide the incentive for teams to come up with cheaper and more creative methods of getting to the moon.

However, that was only the first part of a multi-step challenge, and teams had to devise a rover capable of traveling up to 500m on the moon and broadcast live back to Earth.

But at the end of the more than decade-long journey, it seems like no one will get to the moon by the 31 March 2018 deadline, a date that has been extended several times beyond the original 2014 end date.

In the meantime, the Chinese government has achieved what the X Prize teams have been shooting for. Its Chang’e 3 spacecraft landed on the moon in 2013, and both China and India have further robotic missions planned for later this year.

Governments still appear to be in a far better position for moon landings than the private industry, and it’s no surprise too given their deeper pockets and access to more resources. However, some have credited the Lunar X Prize with changing the conversation about who can land on the moon.

“As a result of this competition, we have sparked the conversation and changed expectations with regard to who can land on the moon. Many now believe it’s no longer the sole purview of a few government agencies, but now may be achieved by small teams of entrepreneurs, engineers, and innovators from around the world,” said a statement from Peter H. Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation and its executive chairman, and Marcus Shingles, its CEO.

Of course, it’s hardly surprising that the competition’s organizers are claiming a positive impact on the industry. And while that may very well be true, SpaceIL and TeamIndus, already among the top five teams, still ran into difficulties trying to secure the required funding at the end of last year. Furthermore, none of the finalists, except for Hakuto, have completed their spacecraft.

The good news is that most of the teams have confirmed that they still intend to pursue their missions. The Lunar X Prize may not have been able to replicate the success of 1996’s Ansari X Prize, which culminated in 2004 with the successful suborbital flight of SpaceShipOne, but it seems fair to say that it has kickstarted considerable innovation in the quest to return to the moon.

It’s telling that each of the five finalists intends to take a different route to the moon. Moon Express wants to get dropped off in low Earth orbit, then fire up its engines to go in for a landing. On the other hand, SpaceIL will use the final stage of a Falcon 9 rocket to push its lander into the path taken by GPS satellites on the way to geosynchronous orbit, then power up its main engine to carry out trans-lunar injection.

Ultimately, it doesn’t seem fair to say that private space exploration is impractical, as that would discredit the work of all these teams. It appears more a case of unfeasible deadlines, as claimed by Astrobotic, one of the teams that dropped out of the race in late 2016.

When you’re literally shooting for the moon, things often don’t go as planned, and you can’t judge success based on arbitrary deadlines set by third parties.

The private space industry is a promising vanguard in mankind’s leap toward the stars, and sometimes it’s shallower pockets that bring about the smartest solutions. With ambitious plans to commercialize the delivery of payloads to the moon, and even turn it into a base for exploration further afield, it seems only fair that we give them more time.
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Team Indus

The good news is that most of the teams have confirmed that they still intend to pursue their missions.
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Moon express

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· Developed by a non-state owned, profit seeking enfity

· Developed and upgraded with risk-capital of at least 25% total development costs · Can serve government, but must also serve nongovernment, profit-seeking customers

Numbers revised since 3Q17 using more nuanced definition for commercial launch vehicles Source Space Angels