Ex-Staffer Shoots for The Moon

Posted March 21, 2008 at 3:41pm

In the 17 years he worked for the Senate, Paul Carliner gained exposure to officials at government’s science and space agencies and to the budgets granted those agencies. But he probably never imagined he would use that experience to plan a trip to the moon.

That’s exactly what Carliner, who left the Hill last year to start a consulting and government relations firm, is doing now. The former staffer is leading a team in the Google Lunar X Prize contest, an international civilian space exploration competition.

“Basically, it’s a race to the moon,” Carliner explained.

Teams have until December 2012 to assemble and launch a robot that will land safely on the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit photos and data back to Earth. The first team to complete the tasks before the deadline will win $20 million.

Carliner said his most recent Hill position — staff director of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing NASA’s $17 billion budget — will help bridge the distance between working with NASA’s budget and planning an actual excursion into space. He also worked as Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-Md.) chief adviser on space and science issues for more than eight years.

“It was really my experience on the Hill that gave me the knowledge to help start the team,” Carliner said. “We know what it takes, and we know what we have to lose.”

That’s why Carliner was ready to jump in when a friend approached him about the contest. Combined, the co-founders of Carliner’s “Quantum3” team have 50 years of experience in the aerospace sector, according to the contest’s Web site.

As the team’s president, Carliner’s specialty will be planning the mission to the moon from fundraising to the actual launch. He will only work on the project part time (he’ll retain his full-time job as head of Carliner Strategies LLC).

His teammates have other jobs, too.

Courtney Stadd, Quantum3 co-founder and vice president, is the senior vice president at Terrestar Networks Inc., a satellite service company. And Liam Sarsfield, Quantum3 co-founder, vice president and chief engineering and mission developer, is an independent engineering consultant.

Two other members have joined the team to help out in areas including communications.

The cost of the endeavor could be anywhere from $60 million to $100 million, Carliner said. Right now, Quantum3 is in the process of finding companies to sponsor the team.

Carliner couldn’t name specific firms, but said technology companies have shown interest in such ventures in the past. For instance, Plantronics Inc. supplied the headsets for the Apollo 17 space mission, the last manned moon voyage to date.

As of this month, there are nine teams registered to compete against Quantum3. But the competition could eventually get even more stiff; registration will remain open through the end of 2010.

If Quantum3 were to win the contest, some of the prize money would go to the team’s sponsors and investors, and most of the remainder would be reinvested for further contests and excursions, Carliner said.

The team would need to complete the mission by the December 2012 deadline to earn the full $20 million offered. But if none of the competitors meets that deadline, the prize could be handed out as late as 2014 (the first-place allotment would drop to $15 million). There are also second- and third-place prizes of $5 million available.

Carliner said he is hoping Quantum3’s fundraising will be completed in the summer or fall. The team’s launch goal is July 2009, which he described as an “aggressive” timeline. But the date has symbolic value; it coincides with the anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

Although the mission could be accomplished faster and more cheaply if the team ordered Russian, Ukrainian or Chinese rockets, Carliner said Quantum3 wants its mission to be purely American.

“This is a really exciting opportunity, and we really have a chance to make a change or an impact,” Carliner said. “We want it to be an American-led effort.”