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Alex Dobrianski and his father Sergei Dobrianski work on their rover in their workshop at Sergei's apartment in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail)
Alex Dobrianski and his father Sergei Dobrianski work on their rover in their workshop at Sergei's apartment in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail)

Vancouver father and son have their eyes on the Google Lunar XPRIZE Add to ...

Sometimes you have a dream and one shot at it – and that can eclipse everything: full-time employment, financial security, perhaps even reason. But it is not lunacy that drives Alex and Sergei Dobrianski. The father-and-son team, employing deep knowledge of math and computer science – and a long-ago aspiration – are legitimate contenders in a race to the moon, the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP). Working out of Alex’s two-bedroom Vancouver condo, they’re one of 16 teams competing globally for the $30-million (U.S.) prize – and the only Canadian team in the running.

Created in 2007, the competition challenges people to land a privately funded rover on the moon, have it travel 500 metres and transmit HD video and images back to Earth. The first team to successfully complete the mission will win $20-million; the second $5-million. The additional purse is for bonuses – such as surviving a lunar night, detecting water or travelling an extra-long distance. The teams must complete their mission by the end of 2017.

“I would say that during my life, I was not able to touch this place, because of a bunch of different reasons. And when I submitted [our entry], I [calculated] my chances … and found, compared to whatever was 60 years ago, I can actually reach the moon with the probability [of] one to 100. And this is a really good chance and this is why we entered the competition,” Alex Dobrianski says from the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, on Monday – where a documentary Web series about the teams, Moon Shot, had its world premiere. (Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel and executive produced by J.J. Abrams, Moon Shot is available on Google Play on Tuesday and YouTube on Thursday.)

Born in 1959, Alex grew up in the space-obsessed Soviet Union, where he knew a bunch of kids called Yuri – named after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. “I was born together with the space age,” he says. But his own dreams of space travel were crushed by the time he was in Grade 4 – he had motion sickness and poor eyesight. “For sure, no cosmonauts wear glasses,” he says.

He studied mathematics at university and discovered a love for computers. “Computers is all what is my life,” he says.

In Ukraine, Alex developed software. He made a sale to the Russian Space Agency before immigrating to Canada in 1995 with his wife, Luda, and their three children, settling in Vancouver. “With 700 bucks to start a new life,” Sergei says, his father found work fixing parking lot lighting. Because he was tall and didn’t require a ladder, he was able to work three times faster than his shorter co-workers, he says.

After that success, he found a job in computers, then another and another. “And here I am today,” Alex says.An eternal optimist who is a genius with computers and loves to problem-solve – and was once space-obsessed – Alex was immediately intrigued when he heard about the GLXP in 2008.

“[He] started talking about it all the time; it could be three in the morning and he would be talking about the Google XPrize, says Sergei, 28, a computer programmer.

“He made the submission on the last day they were allowed to make the entry. We were all pulling him back, including myself, going ‘Hey buddy, you’re just having a midlife crisis.’ But I’m glad he stuck to his guns; I’m glad he’s stubborn as an ox.”

In 2010, Alex told his employer about his “hobby” and asked if he could forego vacations if he could work on his moon endeavour alongside his day job. They agreed. Alex figures he was putting in about 18 hours a day so he could accomplish both.

In January, he quit his job to focus on the moon project full time; Sergei began working on it full-time last year.

As a guide, Alex has been using Soviet rocket designer Boris Chertok’s four-volume series Rockets and People. He says by reading between the lines in the original Russian, he has extracted a blueprint for achieving a moon landing.

“This is like my Bible,” Alex, 56, says.

The rover they’ve developed is made of carbon fibre, two-wheeled and very light – four kilograms, with the communication system built right onto the rover (as opposed to the lander, as other teams have done). Rather than orchestrate a soft landing, the team will employ an impact shield. They may use a hockey puck as a reaction wheel – and to score a bit of publicity.

“The wager is will the Vancouver Canucks win a Stanley Cup or will we send a puck to the moon? Who will be able to achieve what here?” Sergei says.

The cost of the project has not been astronomical. Working in what used to be the master bedroom (Alex and Luda have decamped to a smaller room), the team, calling itself Plan B, has kept costs low: about $250,000 over the years out of their own pockets – including Alex’s retirement money. That’s in addition to logging 22,000 volunteer hours, which they figure is equal to about $2.1-million.

They’re now looking for investors to help with the launch test – “the cost of a couple of Teslas,” is how Sergei puts it.

To remain in the competition, teams have until the end of this year to announce a verified launch contract (meaning that they’re set up for going to the moon and to attempt the landing).

“The next couple of months are crucial,” says Sergei, the voice of skeptical reason, balancing his father’s enthusiastic optimism. “I’m surprised to say … we actually do have a shot at this. Hopefully, we’re not too late. It seems like we are late on a number of things and we wish we were where we are today a year ago, starting to get the ball rolling, but we do what we can. If things go well, then we might pass this year. If not, I guess you’ll never hear about us again.”

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