I only recently heard about the Google Lunar X-Prize, another attempt to encourage private initiatives in space through prize competitions. In this case it's 20 million dollars to whoever can land a robot on the Moon and move it 500 meters, all the while returning data to Earth. Now 20 million is nothing to sneeze at if you're an individual, but in the world of government space programs -- and even big business -- it's nothing. As a reference point, a 30-second TV ad during the Super Bowl costs about 2.5 million dollars, so the Google prize is equal to the cost of maybe two commercial breaks during the game.
If you browse the pages describing the teams which have formally entered the competition, you'll see there is tremendous variety. Some of the designs are pretty recognizable "space probes" while others look like snakes, or sea urchins, or giant spiders.
So is this the future of space exploration? Groovy garage-band robots noodling around on other worlds? It's an appealing notion -- virtual space tourism for everyone!
But wouldn't it be nice if humans were making some new footprints up there?