Tony Spear discusses Lunar X prize

Tony Spear, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus and NASA veteran, engaged students and faculty in a lighthearted and informative discussion about the endeavors of the Google Lunar X PRIZE Team in a lecture titled “What Goes Around, Comes Around” last Thursday.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE is an aeronautics competition for privately funded teams to send a robot to the moon. The competition mandates that a successful robot should travel 500 meters and broadcast video, images, and data back to Earth. The first team to achieve this target by 2012 will be awarded $20 million.

Spear, the project manager of the Google Lunar X PRIZE team at Carnegie Mellon, began attending Carnegie Tech as an undergraduate student in 1958, graduating with a B.S. degree in electrical engineering in 1962. He specializes in coordinating automotive aspects of spacecrafts, and was also the project manager in the Mars Pathfinder mission, a project similar to the Google Lunar X Prize, which involved sending a free-ranging robot to Mars.

The robot landed successfully on Mars on July 4, 1997.

“At Carnegie Mellon, understanding the problem and the approach to the solution is more important than the answer [itself],” said Spear, speaking of his return to Carnegie Mellon after 46 years to join William “Red” Whittaker and his team as they compete for the Google Lunar X PRIZE.

During the lecture, Spear showed his audience a film that described the process of completing the Mars Pathfinder mission. The video depicted Spear and his colleagues as they anticipated the success of their plan. It also showed a robotic rover, “Sojourner,” making its way through the planet’s crimson terrain.

With 36 years of experience at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at NASA, Spear is ready to work with Whittaker and Carnegie Mellon to achieve this milestone in space exploration.

The moon rover, however, will be subjected to a harsher environment than the Pathfinder robot was. Boiling noon temperatures and icy nights may expose the robot to irreversible damage. However, the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon began developing methods to overcome these environmental hurdles almost two decades ago to make safe and successful lunar missions possible.

As stated on the Carnegie Mellon X PRIZE team website, a possible design for the team’s robot entry would be a “sun-synchronous rover,” which would continually move westward, thus following the sun. This design would protect the robot’s mechanical components and batteries from the freezing cold of the lunar night.

Due to the moon’s proximity to Earth, the robot will be able to transmit a high-bandwidth reciprocal interaction. Carnegie Mellon’s robot for the competition, which is currently under construction, will have multiple cameras attached to it to satisfy requirements of the competition to transmit video, photos, and information back to Earth.

The moon rover will land on the site of Apollo 11, where Neil Armstrong first landed on the moon. The robot will transmit high-resolution photo and video images from the momentous site on the moon.

“It’s a very fun project. As a child, I created a LEGO model of Spear’s Pathfinder robot,” said John Thornton, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus and research engineer on the project. “It is a chance of a lifetime to work with Tony Spear, the man who was behind that,” he added.

According to Spear, the most challenging part of this journey to the moon is to achieve pinpoint landing. Pinpoint landing refers to the process of landing on a small ellipse within the gigantic surface area of the moon.

Toward the end of the lecture, Spear advised students on possible volunteer and employment opportunities outside the engineering facets of spacecraft project management. Spear said that class activities are an ideal way to begin working on one’s project management skills.

While Carnegie Mellon’s X PRIZE team works towards its goal of launching a robot to the moon, Spear intends to shuffle between Pasadena, Calif., Tucson, Ariz., and Pittsburgh for work on the project as the space explorers pursue the $20 million prize.