Does the Future of the Space Industry Depend on Kickstarter?
Chris Lewicki would’ve been perfectly happy with failure.
His company’s high-reaching Kickstarter project, the ARKYD telescope, certainly had the potential to oblige. With a $1 million funding goal, the crowdfunded “space telescope for everyone” could have very publicly fizzled out.
"To say it directly and bluntly, we were completely ready to put out all our ideas and have people be totally uninterested in them," says Lewicki in a Skype interview. "And that would’ve been as good of a result as success."
That’s a pretty risky plan coming from the president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, one of the most ambitious private space companies in the U.S. But the risk paid off, and by June 30, the ARKYD Kickstarter project had raised $1.5 million, surpassing its funding goal by $500,000 and making it one of the site’s top 25 projects of all time.
The ARKYD is by no means the first space exploration venture to use crowdfunding. Other examples include JP Aerospace’s “1000 Student Projects to the Edge of Space" — which raised just over $12,000 — and the "SkyCube,” by Southern Stars — which raised over $115,000.
Kickstarter isn’t the only crowdfunding site being applied, either. Startup Uwingu’s products “will fund space exploration, research and education." It surpassed a $75,000 Indiegogo goal in September 2012.
The list goes on when you consider current projects, like HyperV’s “Slingatron" Kickstarter, which looks to raise $250,000 by Aug. 22.
(visit slingatron kickstarter page)
So what does this crowdfunding trend say about the future of the space industry? In short, a lot.
"I think it represents the absolute democratization of the support of ideas," says Lewicki. "In the case of our project, there are 18,000 individuals who said, ‘Yes, I want to see this project happen; I am allocating this much of my money to ensure it happens.’ And you essentially live or die by that metric; the best idea or ideas win."
Of course, not all projects see the kind of success that the ARKYD or the SkyCube experienced.
(visit kickstarter site)
GoldenSpike, a private company with the goal of “sending countries and individuals to surface of the Moon before 2020,” launched an Indiegogo campaign in February, seeking $240,000. After 70 days, the project received less than 10% of its funding goal.
(visit goldenspike site)
The difference between successful and unsuccessful campaigns is engagement. Successful crowdfunding space projects offer even lower-tier donators a chance to participate in space exploration, and that makes all the difference.
"It just allows us to engage more directly with the rest of the planet on the exploration that we’re doing. It’s letting people follow along and, in some cases, directly participate," says Lewicki.
"There are reasons why people are interested in space," Mason Peck, chief technologist of NASA tells Mashable. "Look at the trends. You’ll find that the number-one thing individuals like about space is the prospect that they could be there themselves. People want engagement with some kind of space activity, whether it’s supporting private enterprise or even being part of NASA."
The ARKYD project certainly offered that engagement. For $25, donators could upload any picture of their choosing to be captured on the satellite, with Earth in the background. The project received over 7,200 backers on this tier alone.
"For us, the space selfie really was the simplest form of connecting with the wonder of the universe," says Lewicki. "You dont need to understand math, science or physics, but everyone can appreciate the beauty of the earth."
The current budgetary climate for publicly-funded space exploration is at best unsatisfactory. Future NASA missions are hitting red tape in Congress, and the agency’s recently approved budget is the lowest its been in 27 years when adjusted for inflation. These smaller, exploratory missions would not be possible were it not for private companies and crowdfunding.
Mason Peck couldn’t be happier about the growing industry.
"It says loud and clear that the public supports space exploration, research and technology," Peck tells Mashable. "Despite what you hear from other corners, there’s a real thirst out there for the kind of explorations that we care about here at NASA, and that Planetary Resources and others are undertaking privately."
Some may find NASA’s support for new industry competition strange. Peck wants to quell that thought process.
"By law, NASA cannot compete with industry," says Peck. "Just like in aeronautics, when [private space] one day becomes a successful, self-sustaining industry, we will step out of the way."
Of course, the transition from government funding to crowdfunding and private industry will not happen overnight.
"You know, this is probably not the way that we’re going to build the next human lander on the Moon or Mars. That’s still a massive government project. But for our case, it’s within reach to do a fairly scientific and technical project to put something into space," says Lewicki.
But is it really so audacious to think that a larger crowdfunded space mission might happen in the near future? In the words of astronaut Neil Armstrong, “We predict too much for the next year and yet far too little for the next 10.”
"There will come a time, I’m confident, when the kind of public enthusiasm and, in fact, private investment that we see now is going to build a private space enterprise for the nation," says Peck. "And I would like nothing more than that."
Peck predicts the future will see a blurring of lines between public and private funding. In time, he believes this will snowball into lower launch costs and more access to space for everyone.
"I haven’t seen this kind of energy behind commercial space for decades. And it’s a wonderful time to be part of it," he says.
The future of space exploration really hinges on the creativity of individuals and the support of the public. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer the perfect space to express that support.
"You know, things are only possible if people choose to do them," says Lewicki. "And we have more at our fingertips than ever before. As a race, we’ve never been smarter. We’ve never had more technology or resources to go out and create the future."
Want to know more about the power of Kickstarter? Reference the below posts for recent projects I’ve helped promote toward their crowdsourcing efforts, such as the aforementioned ARKYD space telescope and the “I Want To Be An Astronaut” indiegogo campaign:
Planetary Resources (tagged/planetary+resources)
ARKYD Space Telescope (tagged/ARKYD)
Chris Lewicki (tagged/chris+lewicki)
"I Want To Be An Astronaut" indiegogo campaign (tagged/i+want+to+be+an+astronaut)
FIGHT FOR SPACE: The Kickstarter campaign toward producing the film/space documentary “Fight For Space" has successfully been funded its goal of $65,000, surpassing that mark at over $105,000 and the campaign deadline is August 19th. Truly another example of what public support around the world will do for projects that aim to increase science literacy and awareness surrounding elements seemingly beyond our control. You can check out (and still donate!) to the campaign and trailer HERE. Currently the project is still being produced as they incorporate more interviews and depth into the film.
Thanks for putting this together. Now every time that some idiot cries about how little funding NASA is getting from the government I can send them this link.