Will Pomerantz: A Final Q&A

The now-former Sr. Director of Space Prizes, Will Pomerantz, fielded a few final questions from the public last Friday about the Google Lunar X PRIZE and the X PRIZE Foundation. You asked the questions, and here's what he answered:

Well, let's start: How many LOIs were there in total?

Over the lifetime of the competition, we had a total of 31 teams sign Letters of Intent to compete. Of those, 20 ended up either registering or joining registered teams; 11 did not.

Who was your best GLXP intern? Hint: his name is Brian. Great work on GLXP Will!

I bet you didn't think I'd post this one, did you Brian? Unless this wasn't Brian... which would be really weird.)

Seriously, though, I've had the chance to work with awesome people over the years. Nicolas and David helped us get started on this prize, then Brett and Brian and Becky and Mike and Pierre-Damien... and now with Amanda, Chanda, and Nicky. All of them are awesome people, I could never judge.

(In case it's not clear, most of those people were not interns.)

Were there any other X PRIZEs that you thought up while working for XPF that *need* to become a reality?

Hmm... great question. Peter's managed to get me excited about a Directed Energy Launch prize, which I was initially quite skeptical of... but I don't know if that would yet be my favorite. I liked a very rough X CHALLENGE (smaller prize, shorter duration competition) about 3D printing in space. And, of course, that's only counting the space prizes--I think the oceans stuff is marvelous, and AI Physician, and...

By the way, in case people haven't noticed, we recently totally revamped the prize development section of xprize.org. Please check it out!

Will the X Prize organizations do more outreach in the area of connecting kids with nature, as well as connecting them with tech? The current generation holds more fascination their electronics rather than the life and mystery to explore outdoors.

Great question. For the Google Lunar X PRIZE in specific, we are transitioning into a new phase of the competition where you'll see education be our number one focus. We've laid the Foundations for a successful prize already--great teams, great rules, great sense of legitimacy in the community, et cetera--and although those things need work, we can focus our attention on another one of the key goals of this particular competition: inspiring the next generation.

MoonBots was just a small taste of what we can and will do with this competition. I am extremely excited for the awesome things that Chanda and company have coming.

This is a great place for me to say that you as fans can really help us. We've got cool programs and great ideas (in my opinion, at least), but cool programs and great ideas are useless if no one knows about them. The more you can help us spread the word, the more you can help us get our programs in front of teachers and students and parents, the bigger the impact will be. 

Why did only US-based teams win in the ILDD?

 
You'd have to ask NASA--we weren't involved in the selection process. I do know that some non-US companies (including Google Lunar X PRIZE teams) applied, and some were viewed strongly and favorably. Obviously, it's a bit simpler for NASA to direct what are ultimately tax-payer funds to US-based teams, so I'm sure that was a portion of the calculus, at minimum. But in the end, NASA chose the groups it felt could return the most value to NASA.

It's important to note that is not necessarily the same thing as saying NASA picked the teams it thinks are mostly likely to win the Google Lunar X PRIZE or to reach the Moon the soonest. I know for a fact they were considering both risk and reward--and there may be some cases where teams that were viewed as low risk (e.g. very likely to make it to the Moon) were not selected merely because the information they could share with NASA was not as valuable as the data sharing being provided by others, even if those others might have carried more risk.

I'm glad NASA selected 6 teams... I wish they could have selected all 29!

What do you think about an idea for XPF to invite some more famous actors (like James Cameron) or singers to promote GLXP activities? Organizing set of such events with their participation probably would be a good way to attract people interest all around.

We're incredibly fortunate in that Jim Cameron is already very supportive of the Google Lunar X PRIZE, and the Foundation in general (see a video of him endorsing the prize on our YouTube channel). And we've had a number of other actors show their support, although they often due it in private ways (hosting or appearing at fundraisers, for example).

We would absolutely love to have more of these things, and to have them be more public... it's a question of finding the right person who has the time and the willingness to do so. If you know of any, send them our way! = )

Which entry in the GLXP surprised you the most (as in, you weren't expecting to see anyone from THERE, etc).

Probably the biggest surprise to me--leaving aside the fact that we got so MANY teams--was that when we got two teams from Germany back-to-back, they didn't merge with each other. It makes sense now--they have fairly different cultures, and I'm not sure how quickly they'd learn to work smoothly together, but at the time, we were almost positive they would link up once each knew the other existed.

The biggest disappointments were that we don't have teams based in France, Japan, or Australia. Still, it's hard to be upset given that we more than doubled our most optimistic projection for number of teams.

I think X PRIZE is brilliant, and have followed its progress from the beginning. It's blazing new trails. I am concerned that there don't seem to be many women involved, or am I mistaken? Is X PRIZE doing anything to specifically encourage women to enter?

It's funny that you ask this question, because we were just talking at lunch about how, after today, the Google Lunar X PRIZE team will be all female.

Amanda, Chanda, and Nicky will be the three full-time dedicated staff for the prize. Cristin will take over the leadership role in the interim. Our main point of contact at Google is also female. It was very strange to realize just how often I was the only male in the room when Google Lunar X PRIZE decisions were being made.

That said, we do wish there were better female representation in the competing teams, specifically in leadership positions. That's one reason why were are offering Google Lunar X PRIZE teams a $1 million bonus if they can make the greatest contribution to diversity in these kinds of disciplines--that's not just gender diversity, but other kinds as well. You can also rest assured that Chanda is going to be making females to focus of a number of our educational programs.

Having had the pleasure of working with some remarkable women over the years, and have the great fortune of being married to a NASA engineer who is both brilliant and beautiful, I know that there is great hope for the next generation of space superstars to be a much more balanced/diverse group. That is an awesome thing.

Are you happy to have a person like Mike Doornbos who keeps up with the contest and reports its progress? Did he find you or did you find him?

Mike is a great guy and a great resource. I check his unofficial scorecard at least once a day, every day--it's a great way to get a sense of what the public knows and thinks about our teams and our competition. I don't always agree with his rankings, obviously, but I always find them useful and informative.

Mike found us, but I hope that we've been helpful to him over the years. He was also kind enough to guest blog for us for a while back when we had to make do without Amanda for a few weeks as she helped out the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE staff.

Are you in the mystical moon team and if yes: how many?

Ha! No, I'm not. I think about 28 other teams would kill me if I joined up with Mystical Moon or any other team.

I hope you will all have fun learning about Mystical Moon, though! Long time Google Lunar X PRIZE fans may recognize some of the players on that team, when all is said and done...

Organizers of competition make financing of participants of competition?

(I'm assuming the question is asking if we help the competing teams raise the money necessary to compete)

The X PRIZE Foundation essentially operates on a cash-on-delivery model. Teams don't get a single penny of the prize money until after they've completed the work; which means not only do they have to do all the hard with the engineering, they also have to raise the money upfront. That's obviously not easy.

That said, we do our best to find ways to help, whenever we ethically and practically can. Some of that is by creating preferred partnerships; we also commissioned a third party study about the size of the back-end market for commercial lunar services (as much as $1.5 billion this decade); another is by offering training through webinars and particularly through the team summits. Mainly what we are doing, though, is offering a great amount of legitimacy to these teams, and the promise of a lot of very positive public exposure for the teams and their sponsors.

Was there ever something planned with the glxp to do that was not done but would have significantly altered it from what it now is? Did the glxp become was it was intended to be?

It was never 'planned' but there was something we discussed a while back but ultimately rejected. We briefly considered the idea of offering a much smaller prize purse, but providing a launch. The concept was to buy a very large launch vehicle, divide it up to carry three or four vehicles, and then essentially say we'd launch whichever were the first three teams that were ready.

There were all kinds of problems with this idea: problems of ethics, insurance, logistics, and regulations... but also the problem that by doing this, we'd likely be constraining innovation. If some Google Lunar X PRIZE team finds a totally novel way to get to the Moon--a much lower mass, a weird trajectory, whatever the case may be--we want to reward that, not punish it.

Still, the idea had some undeniable appeal: the image of a flotilla of spacecraft journeying to the Moon simultaneously and an unforgettable one. We're therefore thrilled that some teams have independently started talking with each other about sharing a ride: if arranged by the teams themselves, almost all of those problems go away.

In response to your second question: yes, the Google Lunar X PRIZE has become what it was expected to be, and more. Now, if the global economic recovery would just speed up...

Do you think ITAR handicaps non-US teams? I've heard of some teams saying they want to purchase things from US-based companies but can't. Is there a chance to get rid of ITAR in the near future?

I don't think ITAR handicaps non-US teams, but I think it does handicap teams that want to include both the US and non-US partners. Doing so is really, really hard.

People have been talking about ITAR reform for ages. I don't have any particular insight into when or if it is likely to occur, but I hope it will. Obviously, the law is there for an important reason, but I believe that as currently practiced, it ultimately harms the US far more than it should.

Is it true that originally the Google Lunar X PRIZE was going to be the NASA Lunar X PRIZE (or the ESA or similar)?

Yes, it's true--we conducted a study on the feasibility of a $20 million Lunar X PRIZE for NASA back in 2006 that showed such a prize could definitely work. When we finished the study, we were extremely excited about it--and so were a lot of people at NASA. We started investigating to see if such a program could have been created.

One potential draw back to creating a NASA Lunar X PRIZE would have been that the prize money was restricted to US teams only--that's in the language of the law that allowed NASA to give prizes. Because of that, we hoped that if the prize was created, we'd be able to get ESA, JAXA, and others to offer matching prize purses of their own, to allow us to build an international race that way.

Thankfully, we soon connected with our marvelous partners at Google, who had the vision to fund this prize themselves and remove those restrictions on nationality (they also raised the total prize purse value to $30 million, which allowed us to add the bonus prizes, second place prize, and diversity award). And now, with NASA still effectively involved through programs like the Innovative Lunar Demonstrations and Date program, we have basically the best of both worlds. We're hopeful other space programs will follow suit with ILDD-like programs of their own, too!

What should the teams and the prize organizers be doing better to ensure that this competition has the intended impact: to create a sustainable exploration industry for the moon and beyond?

I've saved this one for last (sorry to the others who submitted questions I won't have time to answer) because this is THE key question.

If someone wins the Google Lunar X PRIZE, but then there is no lasting change in the way we explore the Moon, we will not consider this effort a success. The change doesn't necessarily have to be immediate (we'd consider the Ansari X PRIZE a big success since it has spurred a billion dollar industry and all kinds of development, even though none of those vehicles are actually flying humans sub-orbitally today), but it has to have a change.

For the teams, the key things is in making sure they are building their teams and their technology not just for this prize, but for the long haul. Hopefully, their business plan is robust enough to tolerate not winning the Google Lunar X PRIZE (or at least not the Grand Prize), and hopefully they are already thinking about how they are going to accommodate customers on mission number two and beyond. Wonderfully, this is indeed true with almost every team.

The teams and the X PRIZE Foundation also need to work together to spread awareness of these new capabilities now, before they come online. That's something we've had success with: we can go to the science community and the civil space agencies with a 'white hat' and tell them "we're not here to sell you something, we're here to inform you that this capability is being developed, and to encourage you to start building it into your plans." We've had GREAT success with that--the reception we get at lunar science conferences, for example, is amazing; and although we certainly can't claim full credit for NASA ILDD, it is indeed a sign that we're effectively communicating this message.

But we can never lose sight of this goal, and nor can our teams. The more our 'fans' and supporters understand it, the better.

We're in the business of creating technological revolutions that benefit all mankind--not in the business of stunts. Nothing could be more critical that constantly reinforcing that message.

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