To the Moon, Google!

Boy, was I wrong. Here's what I wrote three years ago:

The new space race may be more about who can profit most from the renewed push toward the heavens than the thrill of exploration. After all, much of the excitement in space exploration is over.

Whoops. Yesterday, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) decided to sponsor a new X Prize to be given to whoever can successfully explore at least 500 meters of the lunar surface and transmit high-definition video back to Earth before December 31, 2012.

Who needs NASA?
DoubleGoo will put up $30 million in cash for this new space race, which already has its first entrant: a team from the robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon University. Professor Red Whittaker, a pioneer whose innovations include robots for exploring volcanoes, filed his entry less than an hour after the announcement was made.

His enthusiasm is contagious. "We have spent decades building and testing robotic technologies for just this purpose -- so combining lunar rovers with a competitive race to the moon is a great opportunity," Whittaker told in an interview.

For its part, the X Prize Foundation is calling the effort Moon 2.0, a tired if somewhat appropriate reference. Moon 1.0, the organizers say in the press release, refers to the 1960s competition, the space race, between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. The starting gun for that race was a speech by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961, in front of a joint session of Congress.

Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr., who were in attendance at yesterday's announcement, landed on the lunar surface eight years later, in July 1969.

X marks the Google
As inspiring as all this is, what's in it for Google and Google investors? Nothing immediately. More likely to benefit are small contractors such as SpaceDev, which in August announced a contract to build a prototype lunar lander.

SpaceDev, you may remember, built the engine SpaceShipOne used to burn rubber on its way to winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for suborbital space flight.

PayPal founder Elon Musk, who sold his firm to eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) in 2002 for $1.5 billion, also stands to gain. His privately held Space Exploration, or Space X for short, is offering a discount to teams that use its rockets to begin the journey to the moon.

Then there's Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) founder Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin venture has successfully tested a spacecraft that can land vertically. Bezos, like Musk and the team at SpaceDev, is seeking to lower the cost of spaceflight.

Also on the list of beneficiaries are the large contractors: Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) , Ball Aerospace (NYSE: BLL  ) , Orbital Sciences (NYSE: ORB  ) , and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) , which is building the Orion launch vehicle for the next manned mission to the moon.

Notice I didn't include Google. Yet no one should be surprised that Big Goo is leading this latest moon quest. Co-founder Larry Page is a member of the X Prize board. Google HQ played host to a $50 million X Prize fundraiser in March. And Google Sky, which the search king bills as a digital map of the heavens, was released to fanfare late last month.

You can see it if you squint
There is some benefit to Google in all this, although it won't be realized for years, if ever. How so? A renewed push for the moon, with real cash on the line, could spur a new wave of interest in the sciences among students.

We need that. According to testimony given before the U.S. House of Representatives, China and Japan award more than 50% of their undergraduate degrees in science and engineering. Only 23% of U.S. students receive these degrees.

Wouldn't Google reap benefits from a bigger pool of scientific talent? I don't see why not.

But let's be honest. What we really have here is Google billionaires Page and Sergey Brin living the dream. Good for them. But good for us, too, especially if this race brings out as many entrepreneurs as X Prize organizers hope.

Eyes on the stars, Fool.

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