Beyond X PRIZE: Commercial lunar space market worth $1.5B in next 10 years?

Google Lunar X PRIZE competitors and others to reap benefits of going to moon.

race for the moon
Optimism certainly abounds in some corners of the manned space community.  Today the aerospace consultancy Futron said that as much as $1.5 billion may be up for grabs for commercial space operation in the next ten years.

The consultancy singled out the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE contestants as a highly likely group to take advantage of such a cash pot but there are many others who'd like a slice of that pie as well.

The X Prize competitors will battle to land a privately funded robotic craft on the Moon that is capable of roaming the lunar surface for at least 1,600 feet and sending video, images and data back to the Earth. Since the competition was first announced a year ago, 567 potential teams from 53 countries have requested registration information, the foundation said. Teams must be at least 90% privately funded and must be registered to compete by December 31, 2010.

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The Futron study focused on the 19 teams already registered in X PRIZE competition and came up with six areas most likely to succeed in any commercial lunar market:

-hardware sales to the worldwide government sector

-services provided to the government sector

-products provided to the commercial sector

-entertainment, sponsorship, and technology sales and licensing.

Taken together, the study projects the value of these markets to be between $1 - $1.56 billion in the next 10 years, the consultancy said.   

X PRIZE competitors would like to see some of that return on investment sooner rather than later.  That's because in the current economic environment no one is immune to feeling a little pinch. For example, earlier this year the group said its NASA/X PRIZE Lunar Lander Challenge is making competitors host their own competition at a facility of their choice.

The Lunar Lander Challenge, which is a competition designed to accelerate technology reusable rocket-powered space vehicles, is administered for NASA by the X PRIZE Foundation at no charge to the space agency.  The prizes which amount to $1.65 million this year are funded by NASA.

X PRIZE said on its Web site, the concept of conducting a large common event at which all teams fly their vehicles is likely not financially sustainable for the Foundation going forward. Additionally, the conduct of such an event imposes non-negligible expenses on our teams, who must not only transport themselves and their vehicles to the venue for the competition, but who also must complete their design process, their regulatory paperwork, and their procurement of insurance with not only their own "home facility" but also the competition venue in mind.

While finances loom large over any space projects, technology development is also proving to be a bugaboo.

For example, even as NASA's commercial partners such as SpaceX and Orbital have made steady progress in developing space cargo transportation technology, they have recently fallen behind their development schedules.  Combine that with the fact that the most critical steps lie ahead, including successfully launching new vehicles and completing integration with the space station and you have a hole that will be tough to climb out of. Those were the two main conclusions of a Government Accountability Office report on the status of the commercial space world last month.

The GAO went on to say after the planned retirement of the space shuttle in 2010, NASA will face a cargo resupply shortfall for the International Space Station of approximately 40 metric tons between 2010 and 2015.  Specifically, NASA estimates that it will need a total of 82.7 metric tons of dry cargo delivered to the ISS between 2010 and 2015 to meet crew needs and to support maintenance and scientific experiments.

Commercial partners' vehicles will transport almost half of this cargo and are scheduled to fly more cargo delivery missions than the space shuttle and international partners' vehicles combined-including 14 of the last 19 missions. Delays in the availability of commercial vehicles to fill the cargo resupply gap would result in diminished usage of the space station, the GAO stated.

The ISS program office has identified the approximately 88,000 pound cargo resupply shortfall as a top program risk, and its risk summary report states that a delay in 2010 in the availability of commercial partners' vehicles would lead to a significant scaling back of NASA's use of the space station for scientific research. If there were a delay in 2011, NASA could no longer maintain a space station crew of six astronauts and its ability to conduct scientific research would be compromised, the GAO found.

Space development programs are by nature complex and rife with technical obstacles that can easily result in development delays. In our recent report on selected large-scale NASA projects, we found that 10 of the 13 projects that we reviewed had experienced significant cost and/or schedule growth from their project baselines. Commercial partners must develop and demonstrate new launch and space vehicles, launch and mission operations capabilities, and achieve integration with the space station in a 3- to 4-year period, the GAO stated.

While the challenges are obviously difficult, there are some who see the commercialization of space as conquering a futuristic Mount Everest.

"The glories of the first Moon race were accomplished with only two real developers and two real customers--the national space programs of the United States and of the Soviet Union," said William Pomerantz, Senior Director of Space Prizes at the X PRIZE Foundation. "Now, we're entering a new paradigm - Moon 2.0 - that features an enormous variety of innovators each trying to serve a wide range of customers. National space programs such as NASA's will certainly benefit, but so will academia, the general public, and the economies of those nations where teams step up to meet the challenges of lunar exploration. That breadth of impact will make Moon 2.0 much more sustainable and longer lasting than the first era of lunar exploration."

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