Is the Google Lunar X-Prize Breaking Rule #1?

I’m a space flight fanatic. I grew up watching the Apollo lunar missions on TV. My mother got me up for the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969; I still remember hearing the crackling live broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s famous words as he became the first human being to set foot on another planet. (Okay, another astronomical body than earth.) In 2004, I was at all three flights of SpaceShipOne. (See the pictures that I and my then-friend, now-husband Joe Jefferson took here and here.) But something I heard today left me worried about the potential long-term impact of another X-Prize, the Google Lunar X-Prize. This is why.

This week I’ve been in Sacramento, California with Joe, who is attending the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) convention. Today I finally used the guest pass that he got me to attend an afternoon symposium titled, “A New Frontier for Historic Preservation: Space and Aviation Heritage”. Several archaeologists gave papers on the work that they have been doing to preserve the remnants of early human activities outside of the 100 km altitude boundary that marks the end of Earth’s atmosphere and the beginning of space. Three or four of the presenters either mentioned or focused their presentations on efforts to preserve Tranquillity Base, the original Apollo 11 Lunar landing site.

Several presenters at this symposium expressed concern about the effects of commercial space activities, and especially tourist activities, on this irreplaceable and at present completely untouched historical/cultural site. Each presenter mentioned specifically the additional prize money that Google is offering to any Google Lunar X-Prize competitor that lands close to an Apollo lunar landing site, sends a rover with a camera to the site, takes high-resolution photographs, and beams them back to earth.

So why is this a problem? Simple: it encourages developers of a new and untested unmanned lunar lander to land very close to an irreplaceable archaeological site, and then travel even closer to the site to get the pictures. If the lander is a few feet off in the wrong direction, it could land *ON* the site instead of near it, and damage or destroy evidence. Even assuming that the lander itself does no damage, the rover could also travel a few feet from where it was supposed to, and damage or destroy evidence. Worst of all, Astrobotic Technology (viewed as one of the leading Lunar X-Prize competitors) has announced that its goal is to visit Tranquillity Base. In other words, it plans to test its own robotic lunar lander and rover on an irreplaceable archaeological treasure that could be severely damaged or destroyed if it makes a mistake.

I would absolutely love to have good, high-resolution photographs of Tranquillity Base. I can’t imagine a space flight nut who would not. I also am normally an enthusiast for private space flight activities. However, getting some photographs a few years earlier that we otherwise would is NOT worth taking a significant risk of damaging any Apollo site, let alone the greatest of them. That is shortsighted, and I believe unnecessary. And unfortunately Google’s well-intentioned and otherwise admirable effort to spur space flight and development of space technologies is spurring at least one competitor to do this.

Perhaps Google could consider modifying the terms of the Lunar X-Prize to discourage attempts to get dangerously close to the Apollo landing sites? I would suggest making the Lunar X-Prize null and void if a competitor’s lunar lander lands closer than a minimum safe distance from an Apollo landing site, or the rover gets too close to the site. Instead, encourage the competitors to develop and use extremely fine cameras and telephoto lenses if they want to take pictures of these sites. That way, we can ensure that these irreplaceable archaeological treasures are available to future generations of scientists, and to our descendants.

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