Lunar landing challenge lures him to CMU team

A successful project requires organization and talented people working toward a common goal.

Tony Spear used that tried-and-true formula to land Pathfinder on Mars in 1997.

He now intends to use that plan at Carnegie Mellon University to land a rover on the moon and claim the $25 million Google Lunar X Prize.

"It's a wonderful thrill to come back to Carnegie Mellon to win the X Prize," said Mr. Spear, a 1962 graduate. "My team was the first to land a rover on Mars, and I'm here to win the space lottery on the moon."

Mr. Spear will lecture on his career and the X Prize at 4 p.m. tomorrow in Room 7500 of Carnegie Mellon's Wean Hall.

He said the July 4, 1997, landing of Pathfinder was the greatest moment of his life. It brought relief and excitement followed by surprise at worldwide reaction, which "pegged the needle of the 'Wow Meter' at 10."

Pathfinder used giant air bags to bounce and finally settle on Mars. Its rover rolled down a ramp and snapped 16,500 photographs of Mars over almost three months.

Mr. Spear, a Martins Ferry, Ohio, native, said the project broke the rules, stayed within budget, met a tight three-year deadline and proved the value of his "faster-cheaper-better" philosophy.

Suffering burnout after the mission, he retired in 1998 from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where he lives one mile from the Rose Bowl.

But acclaimed Carnegie Mellon roboticist William "Red" Whittaker, who led his Tartan Racing team to victory last fall in the Urban Challenge robotic vehicle race, announced in September he'd pursue the X Prize.

He lured Mr. Spear from retirement to serve as project manager for Astrobotic Technology Inc., the company Dr. Whittaker created with others to pursue the prize and other projects. The team now includes the University of Arizona and Raytheon.

During his career, Mr. Spear helped design and develop various planetary orbiters and communication systems. He holds a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California.

He said he's ready for the X Prize challenge.

Astrobotic hopes to land on the moon more than three years ahead of the prize's year-end 2012 deadline.

Mr. Spear, 71, said the project will cost $100 million -- a price to be offset by plans to market the project, sell media rights and products related to the mission, and solicit donations from entrepreneurs interested in space travel.

Astrobotic's "Tranquility Trek" mission has pinpointed a landing site near the July 1969 Apollo 11 landing -- the first manned lunar mission. The team has set a landing date to celebrate the 40th anniversary of "one giant leap for mankind."

Red Rover will land at prime time on a Raytheon landing platform with grasshopper-like legs. Once it lands, Red Rover needs only to roll off and explore the lunar landscape.

To win the prize, it must travel 400 meters across the lunar surface and broadcast photos and real-time high-definition video back to Earth. It can earn an additional $5 million if it discovers water, travels more than 5 kilometers, takes photographs of Apollo 11 or survives a full night of frigid lunar temperatures.

Mr. Spear said the project is more media event than science. Technology already exists to land on the moon. And Dr. Whittaker's Red Rover already is being field-tested.

But Mr. Spear said he anticipates strong reaction when Red Rover completes its mission: "The world is going to become unglued with this mission," he said, predicting the Wow Meter again will peak at 10.

He's a successful project manager because his "demon mind" works overtime to solve problems that plague him during daylight hours. On many occasions, he's had eureka moments in the dead of night.

Another key to success? Plenty of coffee and caffeine, he said. For Mr. Spear, it's a return to a familiar routine.

"This job is no different than going to Mars," he said.

David Templeton can be reached at or 412-263-1578. First Published February 13, 2008 5:00 AM


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