A short while back, Jeff Krukin of Google Lunar X PRIZE team STELLAR asked via blog post "Where Are the European Teams?". Right around the same time, Mike blogged here on the Launch Pad with a detailed look at what the numbers tell us about the geographical distribution of potential and current Google Lunar X PRIZE teams.
Seeking to probe further into the question Jeff raised using the numbers Mike published as a key data set, I went to two of my best resources for thoughts and opinions about all things Euro-Space, Pierre-Damien and X PRIZE alum Nicolas Peter. Pierre-Damien should already be familiar to readers of the Launch Pad; readers of the old Pomerantz Report may remember seeing Nicolas appear on a post there a while back.
I posed a few questions for them to consider. What followed was a fun conversation that I'm going to break into two chunks. Please feel free to send in questions you'd like to see in the second portion!
Without further ado:
WJP: Is the distribution of potential teams within Europe what you would expect? If not, why might that be? Specifically, are you surprised that the UK (47) is so much higher than France (14) or Italy (18)? Why might that have happened?
NP: Those are cool stats, but I have a question: do you correct for double entries from a particular entity, such as university? What is the total per country in Europe then?
WJP: No, we don't correct for those. Often, we don't have the information to do so. And in some cases, there may actually be multiple potential teams working in parallel within a given entity, especially when that entity has multiple physical locations, so we'd be in danger of over-correcting if we tried, given our limited information.
NP: I am not surprised that there are a limited number of expressions of interest in France, due to the structure of the higher eduction system there. We have limited opportunities in our schools for engineers to have access to a multi-disciplinary space curriculum, as would be needed to put together a complete team. Another factor might be the lack of support from professors, as well as the language barrier--something not to belittle, especially for France and Italy. I know that the Google Lunar X PRIZE was presented at the UK Space Conference, which may partially explain the large number of inquires from the UK. But again, you need to look not only at inquiries but also at actual teams, and take into account that the current Italian team represents so many different institutions within Italy.
PDV: I agree that what matters in the end is the number of fully registered team and not only the requests for the registration materials. For example, the student competition hosted in France during the team summit involved teams from five different countries: in preparation for that, team members would have done everything a registering team would have done, including completing the online form as a potential team, and that's probably reflected in these numbers. That's a case where even though the numbers show an increase in the number of registration requests from a country, it doesn’t mean there are actually more potential teams... at least not yet! So, seeing the relatively small numbers of teams in some European countries as compared to others, I would tend to think this breakdown is more the result of personal influence than the culture of the country.
WJP: Is the gap between the USA and the next country on the list--India, which has only about 15% as many potential teams thus far--what you would expect? If not, why might that be?
NP: I am not surprised to see such a strong lead by the USA, as space studies are well spread through the country, and also due to the impact of the regional NASA centres and key space industrial hubs like the Denver region. Furthermore, the strong history of links between industries and enterprises is one of the historical strength of the national innovation system of the US. Favorable intellectual property rights in the US probably also play a big part.
PDV: I am not surprised to see the US having many more potential teams than any other country. First of all, the X PRIZE Foundation is an American foundation, and while there has been an extensive effort to reach a worldwide audience (holding the Team Summit in France, et cetera), the media coverage has been much more important in the US than anywhere else. Additionally, the US higher education system allows teams to rely on students, as we see with teams like Astrobotic. I am stunned to see the huge research budgets in some universities here in the US, which allow students to be part of great projects (such as University of Arizona in the Phoenix mission). In France, there is a much bigger emphasis on theory and calculation than on hands-on experience.
More importantly, US culture has always been inspired by risk-taking ventures and competition: most American people's ultimate goal in life is to create their own company, while in France, this ultimate goal would instead consist in having a secure, life-long job with a reasonable workload. In addition, things like donations to your university, fundraising, and angel investors are common in the US, while extremely rare in France, if they exist at all. Not to mention how easy it is to actually start a company in the US comparing to other places, and how taxes and regulation also differ!
To me, the strong US lead in the number of potential and current teams is a result of all of this. However, I strongly believe there is enough room for a several more European teams!
NP: I have been underlying for quite some time that there is a definitive internationalization and globalization of space affairs in the post-cold war era, with involvement not only being restricted to the historical "space club." Your numbers demonstrate this! There are now more and more hubs of space activities and the Google Lunar X PRIZE is underlying this trend.
I think the more translations you have available, the better. It would be great to have as much information as possible available in French, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and Russian.
PDV: It is amazing that there has been such a fantastic level of interest from so many countries! Of course, translations are always good to reach the population, but I think any group seriously thinking of forming a team would speak English enough not to need translations. A good way to widen the geographic distribution would be to reach international media, and not only focusing on US-centric media. Organizing events outside the US is also a great way to increase public awareness of the Google Lunar X PRIZE worldwide.
Stay tuned for Part II, and please feel free to pose potential questions in the comments.