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Moon Men: Vying for Google's $20 Million Astro-Prize

Full moon
John Mcconnico
Full moon

California was home to the gold rush, and now it's home to the Moon rush.

Google, the Silicon Valley internet giant, is offering $20 million dollars to the first private team that can launch, land, and move a rover on the Moon by 2012. Another $10 million in prize money is being offered for other lunar achievements, like the second team to get there, or the team that can find proof of frozen water or find relics of the Apollo missions.

Since the Google Lunar Xprize was first offered last fall, at least ten teams have sent in letters of intent, and one team, Odyssey Moon, has filed the full $10,000 registration fee.

But there's one team with big ideas and even bigger heart: Team FREDNET.

FREDNET is led by... Fred. Fred Bourgeois is a software consultant who grew up around rocket scientists -- and is the perfect combination of Trekkie-meets-Techie.

He and four other guys have banded together to try to get a rover to the Moon using the open source community: volunteers from around the globe who can help create, tweak, and improve the software needed to guide a rover from a rocket to the Moon safely. In just three weeks, they've created a prototype rover about the size of a toaster.

"Everything you see that we're using is something you can buy in a local electronics store," says Bourgeois.

The rover is currently sitting inside Kevin Boyd's kitchen in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Bourgeois practices driving it from a laptop 2,000 miles away in San Jose, Calif. They've even built in a three-second delay to duplicate the delay in sending signals to the Moon. I got to drive it, which is harder than you think. I crashed it into a chair, but my excuse was, hey, there aren't any chairs on the Moon! (or are there???)

Other teams in the competition have bigger staffs and better funding, like Carnegie Mellon University, which is planning a bigger rover.

Meantime, FREDNET has big plans to go small.

Google doesn't say how big the rover has to be, just that it has to land, move, and send back pictures and data. "We're not going to put an SUV on the Moon, we're going to put something the size of a cell phone," Bourgeois says.

"You need a rover that can travel 500 meters and take pictures. It's an iPhone."

FREDNET has one gaping deficiency: a lack of funding. They figure it'll cost $12 million to $15 million to make this thing happen. They're hoping to hitch a ride on the Space Shuttle into outer orbit before the shuttle retires in 2010, or pay $10 million to get a Russian missile to launch it past the Earth's atmosphere.

Then they have to get to the Moon, possibly by building what Bourgeois calls a "Lunar Bus," which will cost millions more.

But FREDNET is optimistic! That's what's great about America! The team hopes to sell corporate sponsors on the idea of logo opportunities on the Lunar Bus. As for logo opportunities on the rover itself, well, that will be tough. After all, it's only going to be the size of a cell phone. But hey, if it's an iPhone -- that's the sort of product placement Apple's Steve Jobs could appreciate.

Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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