Why is There a Lunar X Prize?
For several decades, only the governments of a few countries got involved in the field of space exploration. Private companies developed many of the technologies used in various space programs. But government agencies were the only groups organizing and executing missions.
The Lunar X Prize is an attempt to encourage a private space exploration industry. Why privatize space exploration? One of the reasons is that privatization promotes competition. With a publically funded program, the administering organization might consider bids from various companies when deciding upon technologies and equipment. Ultimately, only a few private companies will get to produce the equipment used in a mission.
A privatized space industry is a different story. Competing technology companies can participate. It's a huge public relations boost when a company's products contribute to a team winning the X Prize. And because multiple technologies from different companies are involved, it becomes possible to compare different approaches and see what works best.
Another reason to promote a private space industry has to do with costs. Publically funded organizations have to adhere to strict budgets. Sometimes this means a government-funded space organization has to abandon plans if the cost is too much. For example, NASA considered abandoning the Hubble Space Telescope when the projected costs of a robotic repair mission climbed too high. A privatized approach means that each individual, company or organization involved must determine its own spending limits. The consideration shifts from an agreed-upon budget to a comparison of risk versus reward.
The competition's administrators say that they want to promote space travel in a way that engages and excites young people. The future of the space industry depends upon young people getting interested in the field. For that reason, a big part of the competition involves reaching out to educational facilities and allowing students the opportunity to interact with the various teams. By bringing space exploration into the classroom, the administrators hope to inspire the next generation of engineers and astronauts.
Google and the X Prize Foundation also hope that as companies develop new technologies, the price of space exploration will decrease. Since each team must share its approach with the public, future engineers will be able to see which methods are best suited for space exploration. In effect, the Lunar X Prize is a massive research and development project.
Finally, the Lunar X Prize could help establish the moon as a legitimate launching point for future space missions. NASA plans to establish a lunar base by the middle of the century. A base on the moon could serve as the staging ground for missions to more distant destinations, like Mars. Some people believe the moon could harvest energy we could use back here on Earth. The Lunar X Prize helps draw attention (and perhaps funding) to other moon missions.
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