Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Shooting for the moon

Companies race for lunar landing, $20 million prize

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
‘‘When Liam says he can do something, he can do it,” says Courtney Stadd, senior vice president and co-founder of Quantum3 Ventures. From left are Rachel MacKnight, communications director; Stadd; Liam Sarsfield, co-founder and senior vice president; and Paul Carliner, co-founder and president.
The prize: $20 million, with a potential $5 million bonus.

The goal: Be the first company to land a privately funded spaceship on the moon by 2012.

The entrants: 10 teams so far, including one that includes two Maryland entrepreneurs.

Courtney Stadd insists he’s not joking.

The Bethesda businessman and former NASA executive really is part of a privately funded team working on an unmanned robotic spaceship with hopes of reaching the moon before the federal space exploration agency can return a manned craft there.

His company, Quantum3 Ventures — which Stadd founded in January along with space industry veterans Paul Carliner of Washington, D.C., and Liam Sarsfield of Deale — is one of 10 entrants from as far away as Romania and Italy competing for the Google Lunar X Prize.

The competition is sponsored by the Mountain View, Calif., search engine giant Google, and the X Prize Foundation, a Santa Monica, Calif., nonprofit institute that wants to ‘‘create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”

To collect the prize money, a team has to be first to land a robot on the moon that travels at least 500 meters and transmits images and other data back to Earth.

A soft moon landing has not been done by anyone — public or private — since NASA’s Apollo 17 mission in 1972. However, robotic craft sponsored by governments and public entities, including the United States, Japan and the European Space Agency, have orbited the moon since then, with the Europeans deliberately crashing a probe there in 2006.

‘‘There are plenty of skeptics,” acknowledged Stadd, who is also president of Capitol Alliance Solutions, LLC, a Bethesda aerospace and technology management services company. He has served as chief of staff to two NASA administrators and was on the White House National Space Council.

‘‘It’s a very ambitious undertaking,” Stadd said. ‘‘But I’m very confident and optimistic that we can do it.”

Organizers of the competition say the challenge will change the way people view space exploration — much as Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 transformed commercial aviation.

In addition, the moon, which some say is rich in resources, could help solve problems such as climate change and energy shortages, they say.

Blasting off

Stadd, whose father was an engineer and one of the developers of G-suit technology for pilots in high-acceleration aircraft, has long been drawn to outer space ventures. Upon hearing about the Lunar X competition, he placed a call to Sarsfield, whose résumé includes stints as NASA deputy chief engineer with expertise in spacecraft design and mission planning, as well as managing small spacecraft development for aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda.

Stadd asked Sarsfield — who in 1998 wrote a 221-page report called ‘‘The Cosmos on a Shoestring: Small Spacecraft for Earth and Space Science” for the Rand Corp. — if the ambitious goal was possible.

‘‘He said he’d have to get back to me,” Stadd recalled. ‘‘When he did a day or so later, he said, ‘Yes, it’s possible.’ I was sold. When Liam says he can do something, he can do it.”

Sarsfield said he sees the new venture’s mission as a ‘‘demonstration of how low-cost lunar operations can create viable off-world commercial opportunities.”

Once the company’s craft — called Moondancer because its developers plan to have the ship hop on the moon’s surface rather than roll along it — nears the moon, Quantum3 expects to use a computer-controlled descent method with liquid propellant to land at the Sea of Tranquility. Stadd and his colleagues hope for a landing in the summer of 2009 to mark the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. ‘‘That’s an aggressive timetable,” he said.

Much like laptops and other electronic items, vehicles for space exploration have become smaller and the technology has become more accessible. Quantum3 seeks to place computer stations in schools across the country where students can get hands-on experience with space flight — even actually steering the robotic ship on the moon itself.

Getting funding is a big part of the challenge, not to mention assembling the technical team, Stadd said. ‘‘We’re working on a 24⁄7 basis,” he said. ‘‘We need to start the assembly process in a matter of weeks, not months.”

The founders of Quantum3 expect to continue working on space-related projects after their competition, perhaps trying to land a craft on Mars.

‘‘We see this as the first effort among a number of other efforts in terms of space exploration,” Stadd said.

This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.