As far as long shots go, this was truly a moonshot—both literally and otherwise. A true leap of faith which rallied nationalistic sentiments and tens of millions of dollars in angel funds. But in the end, this moonshot seems to have fizzled out. The launch contract that TeamIndus signed with Antrix Corporation—the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro)—in December 2016, in pursuit of its $30-million Google Lunar XPRIZE goal, has been cancelled. Multiple sources within Isro confirmed the news.

One of the five finalists in the private race to the moon, TeamIndus has been aiming to land on the lunar surface before 31 March 2018, the cutoff date in the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP). Now that the contract, which was for a chartered launch on Isro’s rocket Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), has been called off, it’s virtually impossible for TeamIndus to secure another contract on any other rocket and launch before the deadline. So it’s curtains down on GLXP, but it’s not immediately known if TeamIndus would try to land on the moon on its own in 2018 or later.

The odds are stacked against it, for the foreseeable future.

As much as the private moon race is about technology and its smart deployment, it’s also about money. Conservatively speaking, the price tag for the PSLV chartered launch alone is said to be upwards of $20 million; the cost of building and testing the moon rover is several million more. It’s learnt TeamIndus couldn’t pony up funds to pay Antrix beyond the initial signing amount. “Isro has cancelled the contract for a lack of compliances and payment issues,” says a person who is close to these developments. He says, “Rahul [Narayan, co-founder TeamIndus] has spoken to all on the floor recently and informed all of Isro’s decision of pulling out of the mission”. TeamIndus did not respond to questions sent by email. Without denying the news, a spokesperson for the company said, “As a company, we’d not comment on this”.

Antrix, too, did not respond to questions sent in an email on Monday.

In July, The Ken wrote about how the space startup was late in reaching its technical milestones. While it put up a confident face and blamed nearly everything on scarce funding, it was evident to a few people, both inside and outside the company, that even if it had managed to raise funds, meeting the 31 March mission completion deadline would be nearly impossible from a technical and logistical perspective.

At the GLXP review meeting in early October, while addressing the press the judges said that TeamIndus was on step 1 of a 10-step countdown, and in the right direction. Later on, senior employees say, “[the judges] told us on the floor that while TeamIndus was in the right direction, the moon mission launch may not happen soon”.

AUTHOR

Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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