Saturday, September 15, 2007

The New Space Race (Sponsored by Google)

It's been almost 40 years since Apollo 11 astronauts gingerly took their first steps on the surface of the moon, but the public's childlike wonder with outer space is as strong as ever. And Google knows it.

Last week the search engine-and-so-much-more company announced the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition co-sponsored by the X Prize Foundation to send an unmanned robotic rover to the moon that can transmit images, video and data back to Earth. That's nothing new in terms of space exploration, but the $30 million prize is intended to spark interest in finding a more cost-effective way to reach the moon. If Google gets its way, this contest will move the space race into the private sector, speeding up the possibility of lower-cost private space travel. Someday your rich neighbor might be rocketing off to the moon instead of jetting off to Fiji.

In celebration, Google also synergistically relaunched its Google Moon site, which allows you to view the locations of the Apollo lunar missions and see 360-degree panoramic views of these areas. Inspired yet?

Since I was a kid, I have always been in awe of space travel and everything NASA has ever done. When I was in fourth grade and the Apollo 13 movie was in theaters, I was sure I would one day be working at mission control in Cape Canaveral. I inhaled every word of Jim Lovell's book, Apollo 13: Lost Moon, joined the Young Astronauts club in seventh grade and even spent a weekend in a homemade biodome in my school's basement. (No, it wasn't just me--I swear there was a whole group of us.) Unfortunately, the harsh reality of high school math and science prevented me from realizing my aerospace engineering dreams, but the interest and wonder persist.

The sensible argument is that this contest is a waste of resources, money and creativity that could be better spent on something imminently useful. In recent years, that kind of thinking has gained steam against NASA, as recent headlines have been characterized by cracking heat shields and cracking astronauts.

But who wants to think sensibly when you're talking about going to the moon? The only reason this contest exists is because curious little boys have become curiously rich men and they are now in a position to throw money at their hobby. I'll be curious to see how many people enter this contest and whether anyone is successful. I don't really think the space travel price tag will be coming down any time soon, but it sure is fun to dream. If anyone needs me, I'll be in my biodome, working on my lunar rover blueprints.

1 comment:

Kelly Mahoney said...

I wish I was a rocket scientist. Damn that counselor who told me no one would pay me to look at the stars. Instead, I went into the highly lucrative world of journalism.