“This could sound a little crazy,” Sergei Dobrianski warned many times in our conversation. “But things would be a little bit boring if we didn’t try and achieve the impossible.”
Dobrianski is a member of Team Plan B, the only Canadian team in the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a competition that will award $20 million to the first privately funded team that sends a rover to the Moon that travels over 500 metres and transmits high definition images and videos. Of 34 teams initially registered, Plan B is one of 16 remaining.
A computer programmer, a TEDx speaker, a space “enthusiast,” Dobrianski is a man of many hats, but there’s one hat that may stick out — he’s an alumni of the SFU Men’s Hockey team.
After a season with the Grandview Steelers, where he put up nine goals helping his team become PIJHL (now the PJHL) champions, and two seasons with the Castlegar Rebels of the KIJHL, he took his talents to SFU
“I wasn’t done with hockey at that time, and it was good that it was there because I made a lot of great friends that I will know for life,” said Dobrianski.
He came a year after SFU had won their first of three BCIHL championships.
Joining the team in the 2008/09 season, SFU put up a 15-1-0 regular season under then-first year head coach Mark Coletta, improving on a 7-6-3 regular season the year before despite the championship.
“There are times, being close to teams, that you really notice harmony, just everything coming together, a really good team where everything’s fine tuned and it just feels right. And I think in my whole career, my time playing hockey, it happened twice, and one of them was that first year playing at SFU, it was a perfect group — the right setting,” he explained.
“Everyone played a part, everybody knew their role — we didn’t need to communicate too much to iron things out, the leadership was definitely there from the players.”
The team only lost twice. Unfortunately the second loss was in the playoffs and SFU missed out on repeating the championship feat.
In his second and final year with the team, Dobrianski finally did get the championship he desired, when SFU won it’s second.
“This is the thing about playing hockey, [there are] guys who have played hockey for their whole lives, there are guys in the NHL who have never won anything.”
Though he admits that he came to SFU initially for the hockey, he became “interested in programming” at SFU, which he now does as a profession, having developed apps for Team Plan B.
Now, Dobrianski has traded in his hockey stick for a chance to help put Canada on the map for the space race.
“We’re trying to get a foothold for Canada in [the space] industry, to open up these doors. That’s really what motivates us. And to back it up, we’ve logged 22,000 hours [. . .] all from volunteers, their time,” he explains. “Our intentions are not for the prize, our intentions are to get a foothold and make sure that Canada has that foothold for generations. It’s quite ambitious.”
He notes the prize money, which could be augmented by prize bonuses such as the lunar rover surviving a lunar night (14.77 days), “would cover the cost that [it] would take us to deliver a payload to the moon.”
Before entering the competition officially, the team — led by his father Alex, a mathematician, and also consisting of Andrei, his brother, and Alex Ivanov, an engineer — spent 2010 seeing if the endeavor would be possible, and finding a purpose for the mission.
“When we initially started in XPRIZE, we were constantly asking questions — what’s the point of going to the lunar surface?,” he explains.
The key is to help make space travel cheaper and more accessible, so that space missions do not require billions of dollars, with Dobrianski noting that their “approach is supposed to be the most economic out of all the teams.”
Part of the vision also includes 3D printing on the moon, which in theory, could be used to build things out of lunar soil, without having to carry a heavy or costly payload. One could imagine a process like this being used to build lunar bases, fuel depots, launch pads, making space travel easier.
“This seems a little far-fetched,” he says. “We said we could use the lunar soil, and it’s interesting, we made a post, and three months later NASA confirmed it is in fact possible to do it, and it really doesn’t mean much, but it sort of validated our beliefs. [. . .] It really is our belief that one day we will inevitably be working with lunar soil, it might not even be for 3D printing or rapid manufacturing, but it would [maybe be] using those materials for fuel.
“That’s kind of our motivation, that’s the vision of our team, whether it’s going to be achievable in my life [or not].
“It’s interesting, my colleagues they say to me, ‘Why are you making these big leaps, those big steps?’ and I said well the reason why we have what we have today is because of those big leaps.”
It was this that Dobrianski presented on at TEDx in Ivano Frankivsk, Ukraine, in July of 2015, after missing out on an opportunity the previous year in Budapest.
As far as this all seems from hockey, though, he admits that he’s taken a lot of lessons from his days on the Clan.
“What I learned from hockey is being dedicated and working hard, and prioritizing, that’s definitely helping the XPrize, and dealing with a loss, and having a wide pain threshold — because with a lot of stuff we’re doing here, at times, it’s just beating our heads against a wall trying to get something to work,” he acknowledges.
There’s been a lot of hours put in, many of them volunteer, and deadlines are fast approaching — the team needs to secure a launch contract by the end of the year, with only three XPRIZE teams who have managed to do it so far.
“We work part-time on this, we all have our daily jobs. [. . .] I would be involved with this project as much as I could, any moment that I had, in the evenings, on the weekends, so any free time,” he says. “It wasn’t until last year when we had interest from the European Space Agency on a piece of technology that we were working on. I submitted the proposal, and four or five months later they made an offer to us. That’s when I said I should be doing this full time, so luckily I got a sabbatical from work and I’ve been able to work on this project as much as I can.”
But there’s hope in the solid technical details and the potential of the idea.
“Two years ago we went to the Yuzhnoye Dnepropetrovsk, a design bureau — it’s like the NASA of the Ukraine,” Dobrianski explains. “They peppered us with tough questions. It was kind of heated, full approach, they wanted to see any flaws, and it was really cool to see that we had an answer to them on a technical level to each of their questions and afterwards when we’re finished our talks. They said to us, ‘We see that this is plausible, if you have the funds we’ll build this thing for you.’”
Now, the team just has to grind it out in the space race, something Dobrianski will remember well from his hockey playing days.