The High-Dollar Prize Finds its Limit—the Moon

 So close yet so far. photo: rangizzz/shutterstock

So close yet so far. photo: rangizzz/shutterstock

In the 10 or so years since Google and XPrize launched a $30 million contest to reward privately funded lunar missions, we’ve seen the concept of the high-dollar prize extend into pretty much any field you could imagine. 

There have been prizes for curbing ocean acidification, saving peat bogs, preventing antibiotic resistance, and, of course, the reigning king, MacArthur’s $100 million grant competition. There’s even a platform that allows you to make your own prize—a prize for anything!

But after a decade and multiple deadline extensions, the Google Lunar XPrize, still one of the most audacious and prominent of the whole bunch, may have found a limit to what the spirit of competition and a big check can accomplish. Last week, the XPrize Foundation announced that none of the five remaining teams was close to hitting the March deadline, and Google would be withdrawing its award money. There would be no winner. 

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It’s a real downer for those enthusiastic about privatized space exploration, as the Lunar XPrize has been a symbol of the commercial space race since it followed up 2004’s original XPrize, with the winning team backed by Paul Allen. But Google, the XPrize and the competitors (there were originally 30) came to a conclusion made vividly clear by Matt Damon and Sandra Bullock alike—space travel is really, really hard. 

The teams either couldn’t raise enough funding or simply weren’t progressing fast enough. XPrize released a statement that, while they were disappointed there would be no winner, they were also pleased at the progress teams made toward changing “expectations with regard to who can land on the moon.” Teams were able to secure a lot of outside financing and cross some regulatory frontiers, as the overall space industry continued to grow. If the goal was to promote the idea of privatized space travel, you could say the Lunar XPrize was a partial success.

But it did end with a serious sad trombone, so why the demise of the prize? For one, Google might simply have gotten sick of it. Others have pointed out that the company, now Alphabet, could be losing its taste for so-called “moonshot” programs, shuttering some other unsuccessful, starry-eyed projects as it has matured. The contest extensions were probably getting old as things dragged on. In the time that has passed since it launched, the $30 million purse has been well-overshot by big-bet philanthropy. It’s also indicative of the fading hubris of the tech industry over the past 10 years.

Then again, it might have been folly from the start. A big part of prize’s goal was not only to help private entities wrest space travel from the realm of nations alone, but to lower its price. It was to inspire a lean reinterpretation of the space race. Forget your bloated agency budgets and outdated shuttle program. It was going to show that with innovation and competition, you could spur faster, cheaper space exploration. 

But maybe we just learned that’s not actually true. That there are some challenges not suited to scrappy contests and oversized checks. After all, it’s also been over 10 years since Richard Branson launched his carbon sequestration challenge, with no winner in sight. Are we getting close? Anyone? 

While the term “moonshot” has become overused, it’s easy to forget what an enormous endeavor the original moonshot was. True, Cold War-era competition drove it, but the 1960s American space race was a huge and highly cooperative program. It involved an extraordinary government budget over many years that Kennedy had to pitch both to Congress and directly to the American people. Hundreds of thousands of engineers, scientists and technicians from more than 20,000 companies and universities contributed. We now live in a different world, but the end of the Lunar XPrize is a reminder of just what a collective heavy lift bold space exploration requires. That's part of what makes a true moonshot such an impressive achievement. One common critique of high-dollar prizes is that they place too high a premium on individual achievement in fields that rely on complex ecosystems of work.

Musings about the Lunar XPrize aside, don’t shed too many tears for privatized space travel, or even the space travel competition, for that matter. While Google is out, another sponsor could very well step in to take over, or launch a new prize. A number of the participating teams are continuing their work, regardless of whether there is a prize. And of course, companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin continue to charge ahead, making incredible progress on their own and in coordination with national space programs. So maybe the lesson of the Lunar XPrize isn’t that private funding and competition don’t work to incentivize space travel. Rather, it just takes a lot more money.

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