Penn State

Penn State Lunar Lion research team shooting for the moon

Michael Paul believes a group of Penn State students, faculty and researchers are poised to change space exploration as we know it.

It may seem like a lofty goal, but Paul is used to aiming for the sky. Actually, much higher.

The director of the Penn State Lunar Lion team, Paul has his sights set on landing a university-designed spacecraft on the moon by 2015 — and for “just” $50 million.

“For us to land a spacecraft on the moon for $50 million, we’ll literally change the way space in done,” he said.

It’s an unfathomable number for most families, but in terms of space flight, $50 million is a bargain. The typical budget for even a simple NASA mission dwarfs the team’s estimated price tag.

But this isn’t a NASA flight.

The university has one of 25 teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize — a challenge that calls for privately funded crafts to land on the moon, travel across the surface, and broadcast images and video.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, said on the organization’s website that the contest seeks to create a global race to the moon that accelerates space exploration for the benefit of all.

“It has been many decades since we explored the moon from the lunar surface, and it could be another six to eight years before any government returns,” he said. “Even then, it will be at a large expense, and probably with little public involvement.”

Paul said previous X Prize competitions have already sped up progress.

The technology used to win a previous prize was bought by Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company that already has 500 customers waiting to take a flight into space. That would more than double the number of people who have been in space in all of human history, Paul said.

“It’s the source of funding the changes the game,” he said. “It’s private enterprise saying, ‘We know the benefits in terms of technology developments and the spinoffs that comes from it. The technology can then be leveraged for business.’ ”

For the Penn State team, the only group run entirely through a university, finding private partnerships will be key.

If Paul’s energy and passion were enough to launch the craft, it would already be on the moon. Instead, they need a big rocket.

They also need a large launch platform, probably in Florida or California. That will require partnerships.

“Over the last year or so we’ve been reaching out to see if that’s feasible and we’ve had a lot of success,” Paul said. “In the next phase, we have to go from concept level to a detailed design. Through that, we’ll be able to execute formal partnership agreements.”

Winning the Google X Prize comes with another perk — $20 million for the first team to the moon.

“We’re not spending $50 million to make $20 million,” Paul said. “We’re spending $50 million to build a new capability at the university in space research, and to bring new research ideas and new development to Centre County and the region.”

While they are competing against 24 other teams, the field is likely to get smaller. Four teams have already folded, and attrition is expected to continue. Paul said he would be pleased if two teams make it all the way to the moon.

“I’m very confident (we’ll be one of those),” Paul said. “But even if another team wins this prize, even if another team lands a spacecraft on the moon before Penn State does, even if we can’t get our resources together to complete this mission by 2015, we’re still going to see this through to the end.

“This is about so much more than the prize from Google,” he continued. “When we do this, we’ll be the first university in history that explores another body in space. This is really breaking the mold in terms of how this can be done, how this technology can be accomplished. It opens the university up to an area of research worth much more than $20 million.”