Meet the university students trying to send a spacecraft to the moon — for $10 million!

Penn State's "Lunar Lions" tell Salon about their trailblazing effort to put students in space

Published April 20, 2014 1:00PM (EDT)


One hundred and twenty students at Penn State University have their sights set on the surface of the moon -- and some may land a spacecraft there before they earn a degree. The Penn State University Lunar Lions hope to make history as the first university team to successfully launch a lunar mission.

The team is composed of faculty advisors, graduate students and around 100 undergraduates from all disciplines: theater, marketing, communications, business and every type of engineer (civil engineer, mechanical engineer, aerospace and electrical).

The Lunar Lions are among 18 teams still left in the running for Google's Lunar XPRIZE -- a $20 million award given to one team who successfully lands a craft on the moon, takes images and moves the craft one-third of a mile on the moon's surface. And they're flying solo. The XPRIZE Foundation offers no funding or support. The students are building their own spacecraft (rockets, landing gear and all) and communications system. The Lunar Lions also must secure their own launch site and raise $60 million to foot the bill -- all while creating a series of YouTube videos to document their process.

Soft landings -- what the Lunar Lions hope to achieve -- are a rare occurrence in space history. If completed, they'll join the ranks of the U.S., Russia and China.

Though the university team doesn't lift off until the end of 2015, they're already well on their way to the moon. Salon spoke to the director of the operation, professor Michael Paul, about the project, what the students are building and what impact their mission has on future space exploration. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did Penn State and the Lunar Lions decide to sign up for the XPRIZE and go to the moon?

At Penn State I’d been asked to find ways for the university to be more engaged in the space industry. I identified the Google Lunar XPRIZE as an opportunity for us to make a big splash. It's the first mission led by a private organization to the moon. Whether we win the XPRIZE or not, we’re the first university to do a mission like this. We’ll make history.

We’re certainly in this competition to win it, but more importantly we’re looking forward to the first mission, other missions that we will lead after this, and becoming the university that the private space industry goes to for research and the students they need to fill their ranks. The entrepreneurs that we are growing in our ranks will be leaders in this [space] industry in the future.

What hurdles did the Lunar Lions have to overcome in this process?

We’re going to just get this mission done and show that it can be done. The major hurdles that we’ve had to overcome along the way are, first, that mission design: How do we package something that’s going to come in anywhere less than a $100 million? It was too much to raise in too short a period of time. The other major hurdle was to show the feasibility of significant corporate involvement and we’ve shown that. The university is now engaged at the executive level with major corporations in order to secure that, and it’s going very, very well.

And finally, we had to find a launch location. It is harder to find the launch than it is to find that one benefactor that could make this whole thing happen. But we have already identified our launch. And not only have we identified our launch, but we identified a launch that’s going to cost us less than $10 million. Not $70 million, not $150 million, but $10 million. And it’s a cooperative launch between us and several other spacecrafts whose orbits are complementary enough that we can get where we need to go, and they can get where they need to go. And this is the most important hurdle to get over, and we’ve already done it.

What, exactly, do the students do in preparation for the mission?

Right now the planned launch date is for the end of 2015. All of the progress toward that depends on how fast we raise funds.

But to answer your question about a typical day for students: to take for example one, of our undergraduate students has been designing and actually had a newly designed rocket engine 3-D printed in metal at a shop at Penn State.

Part of his day is going to class, part of his day is sitting at a computer designing these parts, part of his day was talking to the facility that printed these for us, working to make sure that the design is right, part of his day is picking up the set of rocket engines that have been newly printed at a facility right on Penn State’s campus.

The other week I got a call from one of our leading graduate students, who said, “Hey, we’re about to do a rocket test. Come on out to the test facility.” I jumped in my car, I drove out there. And an hour and a half later they hit go on a platform rocket test that they had done all of the setup for, the programming, the control systems for jet-boost rocket engines, the test-rig feeding fuel and oxidizing, the ignition system that lights it off, the system that’s measuring the force that comes out of a rocket engine, the pressure. It’s amazing things they had access to, the things that they’ve been doing.

They’re not doing it in a vacuum, though. There’s myself on the team, there are more engineers at the lab that I work at. There are professors in academic positions on this campus that are guiding them as well. So they’re getting the best of both worlds. They’re asked to be creative, hands-on, and make decisions, but have my experience and the experience of my colleagues guiding them through some of the trickier parts of it.

How did the team decide how to build this, and how does one test something like this?

I talked to some people that I know, and we were invited to bring a group of students, and a couple of the researchers to the NASA-run research center Compass Laboratory. So the purpose of Compass Lab is to build a design laboratory where you bring in engineers who know propulsion, engineers that know communication, engineers that know electronics, and over the course of the week, start with a mission goal. What do we want to do? A mission target cost level, order of magnitude, a potential launch vehicle. And over the course of a week, with all those bright brains in the room, with all the tools NASA has at their disposal, you can go from “Where do we want to go?” to the design that you see.

And so right away we had a workable mission concept, where we knew how much propulsion we needed, how much power, how much power we’d need to generate, what launch vehicles were options for our mission from a physics standpoint, not necessarily from a funding standpoint. And so that set us off on a good path where we knew that the mission was something that could be done.

So how do we test it? So there are a lot of different ways that you verify that space systems are going to work the way you want them to in space. And one of the toughest tests is you put it on a table that simulates the vibration of launch. A spacecraft and a launch vehicle, it’s enormous, an enormous amount of noise and mechanical vibrations, and no matter what, once you’ve finished building the spacecraft you have to take the full craft and put it on the shaker table and shake the heck out of it, make sure it’s going to survive that launch.

And that’s gone on virtually every spacecraft that’s ever launched. And that’s one step we have to do. And that’s an example of a service where many of the companies that we’ve talked to have said, hey, when you get to that step, we can do that for you. We have the facilities, we can get you through that.

They also help us do vacuum testing where you put a spacecraft in a chamber and you take all the air out of it, so it’s actually in a vacuum and make sure that it works in that environment as well, by putting cold and heat on it to simulate what it means for different types of spacecrafts to be in the full sun versus looking at cold dark space, and so these tests go on in chambers all over the country.

Now that question of the mission, that last couple minutes when we’re doing the final descent and landing, that’s what I call the crux of the mission, that’s the hardest part. There’s no way to be 100 percent sure that that is gonna work through computer simulation. And so what we’re working on first is propulsion, and first is the control system, and then the next thing is to build a prototype that has the rocket engines that’ll do the final descent and landing, and the same physical configuration as our flight system, and the brains of the control system running on the same computer that we’ll use in flight, but flying here on the Earth.

Once you get to the moon, does the mission have any specific goals?

Yeah, there’s a number of objectives that we laid out. I don’t want to short-change the science side of this by any means, but the most important is that we can show what a low-cost mission to the moon looks like.

But with our mission alone, there are pretty particular objectives that we’re looking at. The first is the camera we send will be able to give us excellent high-resolution images of a portion of the moon that nobody has seen this close-up, and to use it as a precursor for potential future landings either of other robotic spacecrafts or of human spacecrafts.

What I hope is that the Lunar Lions become a model and a precursor for multiple small surveying spacecraft that help NASA and promotional entities plan out their future missions. And so what we need to get out of our camera is both terrain and surface composition. What are the rocks made out of in the areas that we’re landing on? NASA has that for the entire moon at a very large scale, we’ll be able to give it at a very fine scale.

And the third thing is a little bit more esoteric physics. One of the things that the Apollo program did was they put these special mirrors on the moon. Physicists from the Earth shoot lasers at these mirrors, they measure the reflection from those mirrors back to the Earth, and they can measure the wobble of the moon in its orbit around the Earth, and they’ve used this to verify the theory of relativity. And continuing to do those experiments is an important branch of basic physics that’s still going on. The mirrors that are up there now are deteriorating, and so we’re hoping to carry some of these mirrors there so that those experiments can continue.

How long is the lunar mission?

Our mission from launch to end of mission is about two weeks. Not years, but two weeks. So it’ll take about five days for the spacecraft to fly to the moon, landing is an operation that takes a handful of minutes, and once on the surface, we’re only going to operate for about eight Earth days, and then the mission will be over.

The budget for NASA came up a month ago, and it seemed a bit stagnant. Explain what is so important about space exploration – especially about getting students excited about space. What do you tell them, how would you get them engaged?

If we go back 20 years almost, to when I graduated college, there was almost nobody in my graduating class, even though this was aerospace engineering, who were thinking, “Hey, I’ve got a future working in space.” And what we need is not just one or two per graduating class, but dozens and dozens of students from graduating classes at universities across the country and across the world to be saying, “Space is where I’m going to make my mark. Space is what I want to do.”

There’s a good part of society that needs to stay close to home and needs the backbone of what our society is. But we’ve always had explorers within our group who want to go out and push the boundaries.

And whether you’re talking about exploring with a microscope at a biological level, or a telescope into the deep depths of the universe, or a spacecraft, or eventually send people out of our solar system, we need to feed that exploration gene that we have.

This Earth is only so big, and maybe not in our lives, but in some person’s future, humanity will spread itself out into the solar system. Hopefully in the next 20 years we’ll have human footprints on Mars, and beyond that. Will they be able to go out onto the icy bodies where there’s an enormous amount of water in this solar system? Did you know there are moons around the giant planets that have more water on them then the Earth does?

That’s incredible.

So there are other places in the solar system where there could be life, and where we could, with the right technology, sustain human habitation. And if places like Penn State and companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic aren’t pushing those boundaries, then who is going push those boundaries? You talk about the fact that NASA’s budget hasn’t really grown with inflation. It hasn’t really grown compared with the technology that they’ve given all of us. I mean, the phone I’m talking on right now, technology for mammograms. You can’t stop long enough to count the number of good things that were first made by NASA and then applied in other places in our society.

And so the investment that we’ve made in space as a community, as a nation, is minuscule compared to the return that it has given to all of us. And that’s why our private mission to the moon represents an opportunity for a service institution, like Penn State, whose mission is service through education, service through research, to continue to serve the nation, the world and the future by taking on the challenge, and showing not only that it can be done, but there are ways to do it that significantly reduce cost.

Is a low-cost mission something the Lunar Lions want to prove can be done?

Let me give you examples of how we’re looking at cost reduction that can realize a 10-time reduction compared to what everybody thinks a trip costs.

One is a camera that the Japanese space agency used on their spacecraft. So it’s a high-definition camera orbiting the moon. It took some of the most beautiful moonscapes that you will ever see. There was a high-definition TV camera that they looked at, they redesigned some parts of it, they tested it, and then they flew it at the moon and it ran perfectly. So when I tell you I’m going to build something and put it in space, a lot of people will say, “Oh, that has to withstand the radiation and the vacuum, and it’s going to cost $20 million for the camera.” No, they bought an off-the-shelf, high-definition TV camera, and they repaired it properly, and they flew it to the moon; I think it was in operation for two or three years before the mission ended. We’re taking the same approach at our offices.

And another good example is the propulsion. So our descent and landing is a two-stage descent and landing. After the first it leaves us about a mile and a half above the surface of the moon, essentially in free fall. And we have to control that free fall so we can land rightly on the moon and survive touchdown. We don’t need a lot of fuel to do it, we don’t need an incredibly sophisticated propulsion system to make that happen. One of the best engines that we can use, and one of the simplest fixes that we can employ hasn’t been built here in America for decades. But we’re actually looking at purchasing our rocket engines from Mexico, and the total cost for one engine bought, if you will, could be on the order of $50,000 as opposed to $5 million. So we’re looking at significant cost deductions by simply saying, "What’s available, what’s economical, and what fits our mission specifically?"

Do you think that the future of space flight is going to be in the hands of private enterprises like SpaceX or Virgin Galactic, or universities like Penn State? Or do you think everyone will be working together with NASA?

We’re in this awkward in-between time where we don’t have our own human flight system running. But I think looking back on this three- or four-year period that we’re living through right now, we’re going to kind of shrug and say that wasn’t that big a deal. Because private enterprise has stepped up and said, "We can take this on, we can do this and provide it in the service field." The space industry is in a position where it is now maturing to the point where not just America, but other national governments are saying to company X and company Y, "We need this service, you bid on it and we’ll buy it, and we don’t have to own the whole thing we just want that service."

I believe that what’s going on right now is actually going to propel NASA forward, where they don’t have to spend all of their money on building and maintaining these systems, they can simply pick the best company to provide them the service when they need it. For missions they want to execute right now they can secure services, and money can go into mission execution and not into hardware development. So I believe that the transformation we’re going through right now is not just going to be really good for the private space industry and the commercial aspect of it, but is actually going be very, very good for NASA as well.

How far until you’ve reached your fundraising goal?

So the total mission cost is $60 million. About $30 million of that is receiving in-kind contributions from corporations, and the farthest we’ve been on that front. It’s been very promising, especially in the last four months. On the other $30 million, there’s about $10 million worth of university resources whether it’s my office or the lab space where we’re doing our rocket testing right now, that sort of thing. There’s about $10 million worth of university resources that are going to need to fly under this. So there’s $20 million in cash fundraising that we’re doing. And so far our program has secured about $2.5 million of funding.

Most recently, we tested the waters with crowd funding on and we set a goal of $400,000; we achieved about $150,000 of funding. We were really pleased with the way it went. It’s an ongoing campaign, but the month of January 20 to February 25 was a really active outreach period for us and in that time we raised over $150,000, and got 800 supporters -- most of whom had never heard of the Lunar Lions before. The program is in a stronger position than it’s ever been.

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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Google Lunar Xprize Lunar Lions Moon Penn State Space Travel University Students