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Team FREDNET Talk to the Space Fellowship about the Google Lunar X-Prize

Published by Rob on Wed Feb 13, 2008 8:11 am
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Many of you may have heard about Team Frednet, a completely open source team ready to compete for the Google Lunar X-Prize. Over the past weeks I have been in contact with Fred Bourgeois, leader of Team Frednet, he has been answering some questions put together by myself and the rest of the Space Fellowship team.

What is the Google Lunar X-prize? 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 be awarded in bonus prizes. The final deadline for winning the prize is December 31, 2014.

The first question I put to Mr Bourgeois was regarding the feasibility of running such a project open source. I asked him is he thought open source lunar projects were a viable method of competing. He told me “A project such as this can only be funded in two ways: by a multi-billionaire with millions to burn, or by a team of expert volunteers who have a passion to do the job. We have thus far found quite a number of experts who are passionate about doing this, and about bringing Space Exploration within the grasp of everyone.

The idea of having a team running open-source has raised many questions. Recently I spoke with Charles F. Radley, Vice President of The Moon Society. We were discussing the viability of running a project in such a way, Charles made an interesting point. “Frednet appears to be based in the USA, with US citizens working on the project. Therefore, how does Frednet reconcile their “100% open source” policy with the US ITAR laws requiring “non disclosure” for space technology hardware/software?

I decided to put this to Mr Bourgeois and he told me “We are based in the U.S., but have members from all over the world (four continents and counting). We are working on figuring out how to deal with ITAR restrictions, and have tried to enlist a couple of attorneys into the team to assist with that very question. We don’t know the answer yet, but for now we are planning on using a commercial launch provider, which shifts at least part of that burden to the launch provider. Beyond that, we will work with the necessary government agencies to comply with applicable laws while still maintaining our Open Source methodology.

In a recent interview with InterPlanetary Ventures I asked CEO Kevin E. Myrick if he had been paying attention to potential Google Lunar X-Prize competitors, he told me “Yes, we are watching the news about other organizations entering the race. I am very excited by the diverse nature of the potential teams, which includes university groups, open source internet based groups, non-profits and fully commercial groups.
Find the article here

I put this same question to Mr Bourgeois who had a very different attitude to Mr Myrick, he explained “We probably should be watching our competitors developments, but quite frankly we haven’t been too concerned with them, although a couple have given us a good chuckle. We’ve been too busy with our own plans, developments, and team building to expend much effort on them.

Besides, we’re going to win: you can’t win a race while looking out for your opponents in the rear view mirror. I suspect they are spending so much time watching us that they are having trouble accomplishing anything on their own.

Sending a probe to the Moon may seem to be an unattractive business proposal to some but organisations such as Team Frednet have already made progress to accomplishing their goals. Asked about the progress with designs Mr Bourgeois told the Space Fellowship

In software development, every project is 90% complete. ;-) [Sorry, I'm a software development guy, so I had to slip that in.] Seriously, I wouldn’t be able to estimate our percentage of completeness in the design process with any degree of accuracy at this point. Although we have one goal and one general task, there are so many sub-components and sub-tasks to consider that it is hard to give one overall number.
We are working on the top three or four priority components right now, and everything else will depend on the completion of those components.
Also, there is still a lot of planning work that needs to be completed. On that end, we have made significant progress towards our next generation rover, our communications systems, propulsion systems, and launch providers are being researched.

Find a link to a recent Rover video by CNBC’s Jane Wells at the end of this article.

With regards to getting to the Moon some have said that the journey will be the most critical part. Getting a rocket to leave Earth Orbit, get to the Moon and have the capability of deploying a small rover will no doubt be expensive and complicated. One topic of conversation that seems to keep coming around is what potential teams will do about building or buying rockets for the job. I asked Mr Bourgeois if he planned on outsourcing this sort of design. His reply was straight to the point, “We are not going to build a vehicle capable of reaching Earth Orbit (EO)” also adding that “There are far too many organizations that have already accomplished that goal, and I don’t see any reason for us to re-invent the rocket … unless of course we think of a newer, faster, cheaper way of getting something into EO. When it comes to rocketry, we have and are talking with a number of experts in the field about other aspects of the mission; i.e., there are stages beyond EO where we will be both building our own systems and utilizing business partnerships to build exospheric vehicles.

A problem with many organisations competing for competitions such as the X-Prizes is that the public don’t often get to see hardware, or at least not flight ready hardware. The Ansari X-Prize for example had a lot of great professional teams competing for the prize. Asked about the state of Team Frednet’s hardware Mr Bourgeois told me that they had already started to put hardware together. He explained how this was to show that an open source project could produce results in a fairly short timeframe.

We’ve already shown one very early piece of hardware, namely the first prototype rover (one of two we’re working on currently). Really, that should be called a “zeroth generation rover”, because it can’t survive the lunar environment, and it doesn’t achieve all of the goals to win the X PRIZE. It only demonstrates a few key capabilities, and shows that an open source team can produce significant results in a very short time frame. Lunar-ready hardware is a little farther off. I can only say that we are actively working on the design.

Teams competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize must be registered by December 31, 2010. The first prize of $20 million will only be handed to a team fulfilling the prize requirements by December 31, 2012. I asked the team if they had decided to work with any timeframes in mind. The team told me “The deadline to win the X PRIZE is December 31, 2012 (for the full prize). We definitely want to be on Luna by that time. When we launch, everyone will know about it. Actually, I suspect that we’ll be giving out more details about the launch time frame on our forum well in advance, but I can’t say we have committed to any dates yet. Some of that will depend on the available launch windows from the launch providers.

Although the timeframe is obviously something to be considered we must not forget that landing on the moon in time will be for nothing if the Lunar Rover can not complete the objectives identified by the X-Prize Foundation. With this in mind we can cast our minds to thinking about potential landing sites.

The image below is one I took of the Moon last year; I have identified the Apollo 11 landing site.


Asked about landing sites Mr Bourgeois explained “I think about landing sites all the time. I would really like to land near and (virtually) visit the Apollo 11 landing site. More importantly though, we want to choose a landing site that gives our rover the highest probability of success. That means we are looking at sites that have a large and fairly open, flat moonscape, with interesting craters that can be navigated by our rover. As for dust and environmentals, those all fall within the engineering area we call “lunar hardening”. We are designing in all necessary shielding, seals, and recovery systems we have identified. I suspect this is an area in which we are probably far ahead of our competitors.

Speaking with Mr Bourgeois I was most impressed about the details he gave me about the initial start-up of the team. Something we rarely hear about is the moment when someone gets the “Light bulb” above their head and decides to enter into the competition. Asked about the start-up process Mr Bourgeois highlighted some of the key moments that started the process up and running.

The Team Frednet Start-up Process

I started this with a couple of email messages and phone calls to some friends whom I suspected might find this an interesting challenge.
Specifically, I contacted Rich Core and Dan Smith right off the bat (September 14th, the day after the prize was announced). It was a very simple short email message with a Subject line of “Doing the impossible” … in fact, here it is:

| From: F. J. Bourgeois
| Sent: Friday, September 14, 2007 07:40
| To: Dan Smith, Rich Core
| Subject: Doing the impossible
| Going for the Lunar X Prize, open source. Interested in joining?
(”A journey of 384000 km began with a single email.”)

I spoke with Dan on the phone that weekend at length about robots and storage requirements, and shielding, etc. He joined up immediately.
Rich sent me an email when he saw my message a few minutes later:

| From: Rich Core
| Sent: Friday, September 14, 2007 08:20
| To: F. J. Bourgeois
| Subject: Re: Doing the impossible
| Certainly!!!!… sounds very interesting…
| just did a quick looksee at http://www.googlelunarxprize.org/
| I’ll read up more!
| Rich

By September 24th besides the three of us we had also enlisted three advisory board members (two from universities and one who is a retired CEO of a publicly traded company).

Beyond the historical emails, I set up a web site and a discussion forum (http://xprize.frednet.org/ and http://forum.xprize.frednet.org/) and we proceeded to promote the idea to our friends, colleagues, co-workers, relatives, …. A few people joined up, a few people said we were crazy, and a few people said we were crazy AND joined up. We decided to start from the end and work backwards, which is how we started working on the rover first. Things just snowballed from there.

At this point we are still looking for more staff. This is a huge undertaking, and we are pursuing this prize in a way that is different from anybody else in history. Open Source, Open Participation. We currently have members from all over the world – four continents (maybe five) – I would like to see that number rise to at least 6 continents (7 if we can find someone stationed in Antarctica). We need people from all areas of expertise, there is no reason to exclude anyone who has a new idea and wants to contribute to our efforts. We see ourselves as one people, one planet, working together to solve big problems.


Finally I wanted to find out what their plans were beyond the prize. We have already seen how Burt Rutan has carried on with his space efforts after the 2004 Ansari X-Prize. Asked about their long term goals I was informed that:

I stated at the outset that my personal long-term goal is to build a city on the Moon. That is still a very long way off, even after we win the X PRIZE. The nearer-term goal (perhaps the “next-step” goal) is to use the things we create in pursuing this prize to create both a foundation and a consortium of space technology endeavours. The members of our Team are developing the skills and experience that will be necessary to continue to run that consortium and the future technologies we will need to pursue the next projects. I can see many opportunities for our rovers to be used in a variety of settings, both terrestrial and off-world, so that will be one key component. We can certainly use versions of these rovers to explore mining possibilities on the Moon and among the asteroids. There are opportunities to create space tracking systems using this technology also. Our communications network will give us another wide set of possibilities.”

The discussion was finished with a brief summary of their long term goals. The Team Frednet long term ambition summary follows.

Our long-term ambition is to create an Open Space Foundation. That Foundation will be able to spin off some of these technologies we develop and use those to create more opportunities for space exploration. Besides that, I hope that we can unify people in our common goal. We are embarking on a form of truly Creative Capitalism, showing that the talents of individual’s and the efforts of individuals can have an incredible impact on achieving something truly remarkable. I also believe that this effort, space exploration, is our best and finest hope for improving our lives here on Earth. This is a new generation and a new millennium – ask not what your planet can do for you, ask what you can do for your planet.”

To watch a recent CNBC video of Team Frednet’s latest rover in action please follow the link below

If you have ay problems accessing the CNBC site them there is a downloadable Mov file here

The International Space Fellowship would like to pay special thanks to everyone at Team Frednet who helped with this article. We also wish them all the best in their efforts. We will endeavour to update our members on progress made by the team.

Copyright 2008 The International Space Fellowship. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.

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