Tiffany V.C. Montague manages Google Inc.’s space initiatives and its Lunar X Prize, the company’s competition that will award $30 million in prizes to teams that successfully land and operate a robot on the moon. Before joining Google, Montague, 36, was an Air Force officer and worked as a flight test engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque. She spoke recently with Globe reporter Michael Farrell while in town to talk with Boston University students about space.
Why is Google so interested in space?
Google likes to take big bets. We are a company of technologists and space enthusiasts. It’s not surprising to me that we would be involved in space as much as we’re involved in any other game-changing technology, like self-driving cars.
What’s so exciting about space?
Are you kidding me? When I was a kid growing up in England my view of the future was that we would all have jet packs and hover cars and we would be vacationing on the moon. It’s 2012. I don’t have a jet pack, I don’t have a hover car, I can’t vacation on the moon, and I feel gypped about that.
I’ve never been there, but the moon doesn’t look like a very nice place to visit.
It is a fantastic place for a human outpost. The moon is a very attractive place because it’s outside the earth’s gravity well and there are resources that we can use. It’s part of this whole idea of frontierism that we should be pushing outward from what we know, and then find a way to push out even farther.
For $200,000 you can buy a ticket on a Virgin Galactic voyage to space. Would you pay that kind of money to travel there?
I wish I had that kind of money. Space tourism is a perfectly fine way of getting people excited about space. For $200,000 you can go to sub-orbital space. For only $5,000, they can go on the “vomit comet” [a reduced gravity aircraft], which is something that I was fortunate enough to do when I was working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. It’s not space, but it’s space-like.
At what point will the average person have access to space travel?
This has to happen within my lifetime. Twenty years ago you would have been laughed out of the room if you talked about space tourism.
You talk to a lot of college students. Are they still interested in space?
There are still a decent number of kids excited about space. But it’s our job to go out there and raise awareness. Part of the Lunar X Prize is waking people up about space. Otherwise, you just have a horse race to the moon and that’s not enough.
What’s the value of going to space for people left on earth? Will it improve our lives?
My big push is the space economy. We are expanding our economic sphere from the earth to the moon and beyond. But there will also be parallel technology that comes off of the pursuit of space. You can thank the space program for lots of things that you have here on earth today, from Tang to Teflon. All of this is thanks to advancements in the space program. The average person will see the benefits of going to space. There will be all sorts of improvements in technology.
Is there a downside to the commercialization of space? Will we see billboards on the moon?
Not by Google. But your point is how do you handle the fact that there is relatively little in the way of space policy or law? We are at the forefront of policy. Google is actually working with NASA on lunar heritage sites like Apollo landing sites. We have to come to an agreement about how to treat these sites. By the virtue of this Lunar X Prize, we are the ones who are promoting the world’s first discussion about this.