Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Fun Space Things Happening in Huntsville

Today Dynetics proved that the space business is by no means finished in Huntsville, Alabama, regardless of the future direction of NASA. So what's the hubbub? In this case, Dynetics announced that they are leading a team to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize. What the heck is that? Well, as one person at the press conference joked, "You can always Google it." However, for the sake of the reader's sanity, here's the short version from their web site:

The Google Lunar X PRIZE is a $30 million international competition to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to the Earth. Teams must be at least 90% privately funded and must be registered to compete by December 31, 2010. The first team to land on the Moon and complete the mission objectives will be awarded $20 million; the full first prize is available until December 31, 2012. After that date, the first prize will drop to $15 million. The second team to do so will be awarded $5 million. Another $5 million will awarded in bonus prizes. The final deadline for winning the prize is December 31, 2014.
The team leader for this project is not a surprising choice for anyone familiar with the Huntsville aerospace community: Tim Pickens. Pickens is a former HAL5 rocket enthusiast who decided to turn his passion for rockets into an honest-to-gosh business, starting with designing the propulsion system for Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, and then moving on to starting Orion Propulsion, which is now part of Dynetics. Along the way, Pickens and his team have also designed thrusters for Bigelow Aerospace's next space station and a low-cost launcher for military mini-satellites. Pickens and his friend and lead engineer Steve Mustaikis have kept themselves plenty busy. The Google Lunar X Prize is simply the latest mountain for them to climb on the way toward human settlement of space. As Pickens put it quite adamantly, "If we don't step up to the challenge, other countries will."

What interested me was the technical approach for their lander. They will be a piggyback payload on a Falcon 9 launch to get to the Moon. The lander will use thrusters similar to the ones Dynetics is building for Bigelow to soft-land on the Moon's southern hemisphere. Once there, the lander will broadcast live video from the surface, which will be available to the public via internet and mobile devices. No doubt each of the partner organizations in the Dynetics-led coalition will have their own crucial roles to play in the project. Pickens, a fearless promoter as well as rocket builder, noted that sponsorship opportunities were available for the lander and rover. "Come join us and make history. It'll be fun. Let's do it!"

The Dynetics-led group is called the Rocket City Space Pioneers, and it features team members that all "speak geek" fluently: Teledyne Brown Engineering, Draper Laboratory, Andrews Space, Univeristy of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH), and the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation.

Also lending voices of support to the Rocket City Space Pioneers were Homer Hickam (author of Rocket Boys and My Dream of Stars, a biography of X Prize founder Anousheh Ansari) and Alabama Governor Bob Riley. Hickam was a natural person to invite, as he's a Huntsville resident and Tim Pickens began his professional rocket-building career working on the X Prize. Governor Riley, understandably, was there to lend a little gravitas to the team and to take the political opportunity to show off Alabama as a place where "we can do something significant." I believe this will be the case.

Pickens made it clear that the X Prize project was part of Dynetics' business model, which makes sense, given the conversations I've had with him over the years. His attitude with Dynetics is the same as it was with Orion Propulsion: by going after the X Prize, he is demonstrating that Huntsville companies can adapt to a space industry that is no longer focused solely on one customer.

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