OK, so I have little idea about this project because there’s not much information circulating, but I hope it’s not real.
It looks like NASA’s Johnson Space Center is heading up a robotic mission to the Moon. No big surprises there as that plan is pretty much in alignment with the “Flexible Path” for the future of space exploration for the U.S. space agency. Also, now the Constellation Program has bitten the dust, we’re not going to see man return to the Moon any time soon.
So what’s the answer? Send a robot that looks like a human to the Moon instead!
Project M is a JSC Engineering Directorate led mission to put a lander on the moon with a robot within a 1,000 days starting Jan 1., 2010. “M” has significance in two ways. First, it is the Roman numeral for 1,000. And “M” is the first letter for “Moon”.
How is Project M different from past NASA projects?
No prime contractors.
Just use the best engineers in the world to get the job done on time.
There will be full press on this… including embedded media, full multimedia and social networking. Can you say “The Apprentice goes to Space?”
When will Project M begin? Next month? Next year? No, Project M has been “go” since Monday, November 9th.
But “M” is the first letter of “Missing the Point” too, but that hasn’t been mentioned.
The enthusiasm for a robotic mission to the lunar surface sounds fine and dandy, and it’s to be expected, but if they really intend to send a bipedal robotic man to the Moon within 1000 days, then NASA hasn’t learnt anything from the Constellation debacle. This smells like a publicity stunt with little to no direction and it would be a shame if serious funding is being put into it.
Could the bipedal robot just be a metaphor for the project? Possibly, but I’d have to question the common sense in doing that too.
Also, where’s the incentive (indeed urgency) to create a Manhattan Project-style group of engineers to rush this project to completion within 3 years? If the members of Project M think they can avoid the cumbersome red tape and cost overruns that NASA and its contractors have faced in the past, then great, but I don’t think that’s a reality for such an ambitious project that lacks direction.
Sure, there’s funding being ploughed into humanoid robot technology — such as the “Robonaut” that is being developed by JSC engineers and the car maker GM — but the real-world application of androids (robots designed to look and act like a human) is that they can assist human operators. Bipedal androids such as the one depicted in this promo video would be exploring (read: “picking up stones”) space by themselves. There are no humans working along side them and therefore no real reason to create them in the inefficient form of a human.
The human body isn’t exactly an optimized one for space exploration. The next robotic missions to the Moon and Mars will be rovers, with wheels, because guess what? That makes more sense than revolutionizing android technology, sending it to the Moon within 1000 days, only for it to fall over and not be able to stand back up. (I’m sure Project M would counter this argument and say that the technology would have matured to such an extent that the android would be able to stand up again, but why let it fall over at all?) The center of gravity needs to be low for stability and no matter how big you make a robot’s feet, it’s simply not going to be able to explore as efficiently as a wheeled or multi-legged all-terrain vehicle.
When choosing a good April Fools joke, it must have several key attributes. But the priority is that it needs to be revealed on April 1st (obvious, right?). It is for this single reason why I suspect this isn’t a joke; the news was released in July.
Before I get stuck into this article, let’s revisit a real April Fools joke I wrote for the Universe Today back in 2008, in which I talk about a fictional NASA press release that details the space agency’s plans to etch corporate logos into the Martian regolith (BTW this is a joke, just so there’s no confusion):
Today, the space agency has announced an offbeat plan of their own: to burn sponsor logos into the surface of Mars. It’s not quite as reckless as it sounds, but existing technology on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will be used to etch sponsor logos into the top layers of the Martian regolith. The stunt is expected to have minimal effect on the planet, as winds and dust storms will erase the ads within a couple of sols (Martian days). — Universe Today, April 1st, 2008.
In this April 1st article, I went into some detail about cash-strapped NASA reaching out to companies to invest in advertising campaigns. Advertising revenue from this could then be ploughed back into NASA science. It’s a win-win scenario, and what’s even better, the laser etched regolith (not an ability the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter possesses, by the way) would be weathered away in a matter of sols (appeasing any Mars conversationalists). However, laser etching wasn’t the only idea I came up with. What about the Mars Expedition Rovers? Their tire tracks can be seen from space, why can’t they be used to sketch corporate logos in the red dirt?
I had a lot of fun writing this, and I think it was convincing enough to be called a “good” space April Fools joke. Let’s put it this way, I had to think up an even more nefarious idea for the 2009 April Fools, but settled with the Brian Bat – NASA lawsuit story (which pissed a lot more people off than I thought possible. Score!).
So, right at the peak of the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing celebrations, a company that was founded in 2008 (apparently) called Moon Publicity unveiled its plans to sell advertising space on the Earth-facing side of the lunar surface, with this mouth-watering offer:
Exclusive transferable licensing is being made available for 44 regions of the visible side of the Moon. Bidding begins on July 20, 2009, the 40th anniversary of man’s first step on the Moon. Bidding will run for three months, closing on October 20, 2009. The winning bids will be announced in early November, 2009. Don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity. Minimum bids start as low as $46,000 (USD).
$46,000? Holy crapcakes! That’s not the half of it, if you want your ad to be placed in the dead-centre of the lunar disk (Mare Vaporum), be prepared write a $602,000 cheque.
Right… so how does Moon Publicity hope to succeed in this “once in a lifetime” marketing ploy? They are going to use their amazing “Shadow Shaping” technology (patent pending, obviously), otherwise known as ‘a moon rover with grooved grass rollers for wheels.’ Have a look:
As can be seen from the promo video, it certainly looks believable, but investing in a nice-looking bit of computer graphics is great if you consider there might be a minimum 5-figure return from an investor without a clue.
UPDATE: Just a thought. Since when was the lunar surface as flawless as a carefully smoothed golf sand trap? The ‘Shadow Shapers’ design obviously doesn’t cater for any obstacles (like, I don’t know… rocks) and is more accustomed to smoothing out the golden sands of Santa Monica beach. The lunar surface is covered in rocks of all sizes, ensuring the ad-making rovers will have a tough obstacle course at best. Most likely, these cumbersome rollers will get stuck, jammed or break down before they travel a couple of meters. What a great investment opportunity!
But what about the technical issues with this first-class money-making scheme? Actually, the company addresses quite a few on their “Shadow Shaping Challenges” page, that reads like a high school paper titled “Why Space Travel Is Really Hard” and describes every reason why there will be no investors in this project. Some of the best challenges are as follows:
“Gravity – It currently costs thousands of dollars per pound to move payloads from the Earth to the moon. Most of this is spent overcoming the Earth’s gravity.” Yep, right on, that’s rocket science 101. Call SpaceX, you’ll need them.
As the moon is so far away, the ads will need to be very big. “…images would need to be millions of square kilometers in size.” Yikes! “…a fleet of Shadow Shaping robots would be needed…” A big fleet, with at least a gazillion robots I reckon!
“Fire and Ice – Temperatures on the Moon range from 107°C during the day to -153°C at night…” Sure. “During the lunar nights, the Shadow Shaping robots can put themselves in hibernation mode to protect themselves from the cold. But during the days the robots need to be fully operational.” Sounds like standard phantom ad-making robot operating procedures to me.
“The wheels will also need to be hard so they do not wear out.” That sure would be useful.
[Shadow Shaping] “has no impact to the lunar environment, and it only creates images during partial lunar phases, leaving the full Moon unchanged.” I’m pretty sure the lunar aliens wouldn’t agree with you on this point.
So, apart from their patent pending we’re-going-to-dig-grooves-in-the-moon-using-our-make-believe-fleet-of-super-duper-roving-robots technique, I can’t see any real plan that this fanciful idea will ever see the light of day. And just in case you don’t believe me, Moon Publicity agrees, in a round-about way, in the disclaimer (I’ll emphasise the funniest bit):
Disclaimer: Investing involves risk. Licensing Shadow Shaping technology is no different. There are a number of identified challenges as well as unknown risks. Consult with professional advisers before registering to bid. The licensing offer is only available to accredited investors where permitted by law. Information provided is for educational purposes and is not guaranteed for accuracy or applicability. No warranties or guarantees, neither written nor oral, are provided with this offer. —Moon Publicity, LLC
To add insult to injury, in their blog, Moon Publicity says that they’re not really doing this for the money, they’re doing it for the sake of humanity.
However, consider the big picture. What is the biggest problem in the world? Is it hunger? Is it illness? Is it war? No. The largest problem is the inevitable extinction of the human species. The other problems don’t matter in a universe without people. Any number of global catastrophes could and eventually will end live on Earth. It could be a collision with an asteroid, a deadly virus, a nuclear war, a supervolcano, a hypernova explosion or our own sun eventually swallowing the Earth […] Creating images on the Moon provides a commercial incentive for turbo charging space travel technology. Shadows are only the beginning. These advancements will eventually place robots on other worlds building space stations and planting crops.
Apparently, the largest problem is the inevitable extinction of the human species. No shit Sherlock! I’ll tell you what, throw in some 2012 rubbish and you’ll start to sound like one of the nutjobs with a doomsday book to sell.
It turns out Moon Publicity is a humanitarian operation too, jumping on the coattails of legitimate commercial spaceflight ideals in an attempt to profit from an idea that will never materialize. There’s also the argument that even if you did make the investment, and this company had the ability to etch ads in the dirt, would they even be allowed to? After all, who would have rights over the land they were etching?
I really do hope this is a poorly-timed joke, because it reads like one. If it’s not, it’s a rather stupid attempt at making a fast buck, using the 40th lunar landing anniversary as an opportunity to gain some publicity.
Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the Moon Publicity founder is a reader of the Universe Today, if so, I might start claiming I came up with the idea over a year ago…