When Google announced that J.J. Abrams was producing a documentary series about the Lunar XPRIZE, details were scant. The trailer indicated that Abrams wouldn’t be muddying up the story of the $30 million lunar rover competition with the fast-paced action or lens flares he’s known for; this would be an Abrams joint, but the camera would be in the steadier hand of director Orlando von Einsiedel to do his thing.
For those that don’t know, the competition (announced by Google in 2007) is offering $30 million in total prize money to the first privately-funded spaceflight team that lands a rover on the moon, drives it for at least 500 meters, and transmits high definition media back to Earth. Google’s reasons for launching this competition are numerous, but the central goals were concrete: promoting private “new space” exploration while pushing down costs associated with extraterrestrial activities. There were less tangible goals as well. Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director for the Lunar XPRIZE plans to teach the world something.
“Hopefully the lesson is you don’t have to work for a government agency to go into space,” she says. Thus Moon Shot, a sterling effort by the propaganda arm of a well-financed skunkworks. “You put a group of people working together towards one goal, and every single person will approach that goal in a different way, with different dreams and reasons for doing what they are doing.” This makes for compelling entertainment.
If you’re looking for something immersed in videos of fiery launches, incredible panoramas of stars and galaxies in the distance, and highlights of new, audacious technology developments, Moon Shot won’t be for you. von Einsiedel is most famous for directing the 2014 Academy Award-nominated documentary Virunga, which told the story of four rangers working to protect Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and keep the world’s last mountain gorillas safe from war and poaching. Naturally, he brings that sort of character-driven emotional sensibility to Moon Shot, and jettisons hard looks at the science and technology of the competition in favor of exploring the teams themselves and telling the stories of the people competing for the prize.
“It was clear quite quickly that there were these amazing people who were very inspiring,” says von Einsiedel. ”A lot of science content simply focuses on just the science. Thats really important, but I think if you want to engage as wide an audience as possible…you need to make them much more human. So that’s what we really tried to do with these films.
“If we had just concentrated on the science, very quickly we would have had nine almost identical films,” von Einsiedel says.
Though they are on an extraordinary undertaking, the people taking part in this competition are imbued with dreams, qualities, and hopes that are universally shared. Moon Shot does an excellent job of bringing someone like legendary Carnegie Mellon University roboticist Red Whittaker to the same level as rural India-born Deepana Gandhi.
“We tried to choose a real diversity across the world,” says von Einsiedel. Calls it a “good cross-section of humanity in these worlds.”
Though von Einsiedel loves all the team stories very much, he has a soft spot for Episode 4, about Team Plan B from Vancouver, Canada. Alex Dobrianski, an immigrant from Ukraine, has staked his retirement money on his work in the competition. “Team Plan B is a family that works together,” said von Einsiedel. ”They don’t have enormous resources, yet they’ve been involved with this for years. They have all sorts of really interesting science between them.”
Gonzales-Mowrer cites Space IL from Israel — featured in Episode 7 as a team that particularly embodies Google’s second goal. “They want the country of Israel to know that they’re going to the moon and have that sense of pride,” she says. “They call it ‘the next Apollo moment’. They want to give that to Israel.”
Von Einsiedel ultimately hopes that what people take away from the series is the sense that anyone — no matter their background, country of origin, social status, whatever — can take part in something as incredible as space exploration.
So far, only two teams have secured launch contracts: Space IL, with SpaceX, and Moon Express, with Rocket Lab. The deadline for other teams to get their launch contracts signed and verified by Google is the end of this year. All teams that pass that threshold will then have the entire 2017 year to fire off their rovers towards the moon and give their best shot. Gonzales-Mowrer is “highly confident” at least a few more teams will get their launch contracts finalized in time to participate in final leg of the competition.
Will there be a follow-up film series as the competition moves forward? Gonzales-Mowrer can’t say for sure if those plans are in motion, but she and her colleagues definitely hope they can do something similar when the launch dates for the teams begin to near.
In the meantime, do yourself a favor and check out the film series. If youre not immediately moved to start your own space company and launch a probe or rover out to Mars or something, you can be sure it’s because you have no heart.