What costs more than space exploration? WhatsApp.
As reported by seemingly every single person in my Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ feeds, Facebook announced yesterday that they acquired WhatsApp—a text messaging application with nearly half a billion users world wide—for a deal that may be worth as much as $19 billion. Specifically, that package includes $4 billion in cash, $12 billion of Facebook shares, and as much as $3 billion in restricted shares that vest over time (plus an infite quantity of wishes and dreams for everyone who wants to start a new app startup in the near future). You can find a news article or ten to support every conceivable viewpoint on whether or not this was a wise move, but there’s clearly something in it for Facebook: a service with highly engaged users, a mine of personal user data, and a functional application that it sounds like Facebook won’t shut down.
In 2007, Google—Facebook’s neighbor in Northern California—and the XPRIZE Foundation teamed up to start the Google Lunar XPRIZE. This international competition challenges privately-funded teams to send a robot to the lunar surface to explore, moving around in a controlled fashion for at least a half a kilometer and sending back high definition video. The prize offers first and second place prizes, meaning that potentially multiple robots could successfully explore the lunar surface (there are also various bonus prizes for extra accomplishments, like moving further, surviving the frigid lunar night, or imaging an Apollo landing site). In total, 30 team registered to compete for the prize; almost half of those have since bowed out or been absorbed by their competitors. Several competitors have announced launch plans for 2015 using American, Chinese, and Indian rockets, and several teams have signed up NASA and other well known organizations as customers. To spur this activity, Google has now put up a maximum total prize purse of $40 million—or 1/475th of a WhatsApp. (The operating costs for the Google Lunar XPRIZE are not a matter of public record, but based on public records of other similar incentive prizes, one can guess that they are within an order of magnitude of the prize purse itself, and almost certainly equal to or less than the prize purse.)
Disclosure: I had the great pleasure of running the Google Lunar XPRIZE for several years. It is awesome.