Online Community Project Aims for the Moon
A concept illustration of FREDNET's picorover opening its shell on the moon.
Credit: Team FREDNET

Nearly 40 years after Americans first set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 with NASA's historic Apollo 11 flight, a host of private rocketeers are hoping to follow to win a $30 million prize. Here, looks at Team FREDNET, one of 17 teams competing in the Google Lunar X Prize:

Open source usually applies to virtual space rather than outer space, but Team FREDNET hopes to apply the concept toward winning the Google Lunar X Prize.

The growing group of netizens hopes to reach the moon using the mantra ?simple, small, low mass, low budget,? after starting from a network of professional friends and the vision of a man named Fred Bourgeois.

?It was only natural to fully use the Internet to pull together the team,? said Rich Core, Team FREDNET?s software lead and a longtime friend of Bourgois.

Bourgeois grew up in the space business around Huntsville, Alabama and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. There he made friends with people such as Core, who spent a long career working for aerospace giants such as Lockheed-Martin and as a software consultant in Silicon Valley.

That informal network of friends became the basis for Team FREDNET?s talent when Bourgeois saw the Google Lunar X Prize announcement that challenged teams to land a robot on the moon, move at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) and beam high definition views back to Earth.

Bourgeois e-mailed Core and others with a straightforward proposition — did they want to go to the moon?

?We haven't really had to go out and beat the bushes for people,? Core told ?People glommed onto us as the underdog.?

Strangers all

Members of the online community that form Team FREDNET may never meet in person. The team?s three leaders come from three different time zones in the United States, while the head of communications lives in Sweden and the head of the rocket group hails from Australia.

What gets the team volunteers — ranging from senior aerospace engineers at Boeing to high school students — is a shared sense of excitement about a return to the moon. The former may remember the heady days of Apollo, while the latter see spaceflight as the untapped frontier for entrepreneurs.

Organizing this far-flung group posed perhaps the biggest and earliest challenge. Open source software teams can normally download a program and add their own contributions, but Team FREDNET had to translate its many individual ideas into rocket engines and rover gears.

?Currently it feels like we are operating in [an] organizational vacuum,? wrote a forum member named ATup in April 2008. ?Our fearless leader FJB, can only be so many places at once, and because of that we seem to be adrift in theory-land.?

Separate teams

The group has since crystallized into three separate teams, including a mission team and business development team. But it's the Open Source Development Team that represents the most visible face of Frednet by showcasing the latest rover concepts such as two-wheeled Jaluro, the four-wheeled WRV1 and the roly-poly Picorover.

Bourgeois initially suggested a rover the size of a cell phone, which other team members may see as more a statement of spirit rather than a true engineering goal.

Still, visions of tiny rovers coincide with Team FREDNET aiming to reach the moon on a budget less than $20 million. Winning will require working within those self-imposed budget constraints, Core pointed out, even as the team looks to develop plans and hardware for the future.

?Everything we are planning and doing has an element that will continue even after the X-Prize is over,? Core explained.

The team has attracted a fair amount of attention because of its online presence, but is still mainly self- and volunteer-funded. Team leaders hope that Frednet's unique position as an open-source team can hook bigger sponsors willing to back a nontraditional approach.

Open-source has even led Frednet to give its competitors a rather unusual offer.

"After we succeed, I frankly hope to see another competitor use our already-successfully-completed Mission as a template they use to take Second Prize in the GLXP," Bourgeois said on the team's Website.

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