Do you remember where you were on July 20th, 1969? Unless you’re in your mid-forties or older, that’s a trick question. There have been six manned missions to the moon—all conducted by NASA over a three-year period, ending with the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.
In other words, no human being has set foot on the moon in more than four decades. And while I think it makes more sense to create outposts on the moon than it does to send people off to die on Mars, I’m not complaining; manned lunar missions are dangerous, expensive, and may yield few tangible benefits. But there are ways to reduce the danger, reduce the expense, and increase the tangible benefits. The Google Lunar X Prize, which is set to put multiple privately-owned unmanned rovers on the moon’s surface by the end of next year, may do all three. You can watch the promotional video here:
Unless you sleep with a copy of Atlas Shrugged under your pillow, you’re probably not dabbing the corner of your eye over the idea of funding private corporations to mine the moon for minerals. But some of the contestants have more creative plans; Moon Express intends to put optical and radio telescopes on the moon’s south pole by the end of 2018, Team Italia is designing innovative new rovers that could later be used to explore planets and asteroids, Astrobotic’s Polaris rover will dig for ice under the lunar surface, and so on. By monetizing lunar missions, the Google Lunar X Prize is bringing the same attention to unmanned offworld missions that the Ansari X Prize brought to reusable spacecraft—creating newer, cheaper technologies that we’ll be able to use for decades to come.