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Racing to the moon: the coolest thing I watched at South by Southwest

A lot of cool stuff has happened in Austin, Texas, in the past week. South by Southwest, a technology/music/film festival, attracts thousands of would-be innovators — and the mind-bending projects they want to show off to one another — from around the world. This year, one venture, and its accompanying documentary series debut, really stood out (to me, anyway): the Google Lunar XPrize.

This is a competition with a $30 million prize — the biggest cash prize of any contest in history. To win, you have to follow these rules: Be the first private team to land a rover on the moon, get your rover to drive 0.3 miles (500 meters) across the surface, and then transmit high-definition video back to Earth before the December 2017 deadline.

A rover from the Japan-based Google Lunar XPrize team Hakuto, from the docuseries Moon Shot.
Bad Robot Productions

Why the moon? The organizer, XPrize, a nonprofit with trustees that include tech magnate Elon Musk and director James Cameron, says it wants the prize to spur "cost-effective and reliable access to the Moon, allowing for the development of new methods of discovering and using space resources, and in the long-term, helping to expand human civilization into space."

XPrize and Google were in Austin to show off the progress of the 16 XPrize teams, and for the debut on Monday of Moon Shot, a documentary web series that profiles seven teams. Watch the trailer:

Each episode of the series, which you can now stream for free, is about eight minutes long and profiles the challenges of each team — from an Indian team led by a female mathematician who faces discrimination in her society to a Ukrainian physicist who has invested his life savings in the project. Each story uses the moon race to explore universal human experiences.

"The film is not primarily about space exploration; it's about this human spirit to overcome seemingly impossible challenges," said Moon Shot's director, Oscar nominee Orlando von Einsiedel, at the SXSW debut. (J.J. Abrams is the executive producer of the series.)

Moon Shot
Deepana Gandhi, from the Bangalore-based Team Indus, in the docuseries Moon Shot.
Bad Robot Production

It's time for private space exploration

XPrize and Google have one main mission with this competition: to bring private competition into the realm of space exploration. "The government has done a great job over the decades, but it's time for private groups to take us to the next step," Chanda Gonzales, the director of the competition, says.

She points to the Orteig Prize, the $25,000 prize that spurred Charles Lindbergh's unlikely flight from New York to Paris in 1927. It led to considerable new investment in aviation technology and heightened public interest in the science of flight. "These prizes have existed for a long time; it's a powerful way to get private groups to contribute to big leaps in technology," says Gonzales.

XPrize only permits the teams to raise 10 percent of their mission costs from government sources. The hope is that as teams advance toward launch, private brands will want to get in on the action, leading to more public interest and, in turn, more innovation for what XPrize calls the "new space economy" for space travel and exploration. For one, Audi has pledged significant sponsorship to a team of engineers from Germany in the competition.

The teams have until the end of this year to nail down a launch contract (basically a down payment for a launch). So far, only two teams have done so. Teams that fail to secure this contract by New Year's Day 2017 will be eliminated from the competition.

You can watch all eight episodes of Moon Shot on Google Play and follow the teams' progress on the team blogs.

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