Crowdfunding the Next Moonshot

Once the only people who had a shot at exploring the Moon worked for Nasa and the other big space agencies. Time and technology have made lunar exploration much less expensive. While you won’t be taking vacations on the Moon any time soon, check out this timeline of crowdfunded lunar projects and see how you can help explore the Moon.

(April 2013) Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project - Pioneering Lunar Crowdfunding

Lunar Orbiter 2's view of Copernicus Crater. Apollo 12 landed south of the crater to search for debris from the giant impact. Source: Nasa/LOIRP

Lunar Orbiter 2's view of Copernicus Crater. Apollo 12 landed south of the crater to search for debris from the giant impact. Source: Nasa/LOIRP

Hot on the heels of successful Earth-orbiting projects like KickSat and Ardusat, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) was the first Moon-oriented crowdfunding success. The project had already spent 5 years and $600,000 restoring data from long-forgotten Apollo-era space probes. Nasa launched a series of Lunar Orbiter missions to take pictures of potential Apollo landing sites. Once the Moon race ended, however, nobody at the space agency was interested in that old data. By turn of the century the Lunar Orbiter missions’ 1,500 spools of magnetic tape sat in the garage of a Jet Propulsion Laboratory archivist. The LOIRP’s team of off-duty scientists, engineers, and space enthusiasts couldn’t let a piece of space history vanish. They set up in a former McDonald’s restaurant and jury-rigged a system to convert the analog tapes to digital data. While most of their support had come from corporate and private donations - as well as a few Nasa grants - they turned to the RocketHub crowdfunding service to enlist the public’s help. They hoped to raise $75,000 to refurbish their worn out tape machines. By campaign’s end more than 500 people donated $62,000 to the project. While they failed to hit their target, RocketHub doesn’t take an all-or-nothing approach to its campaigns so the LOIRP got to keep the money. Thanks in part to this successful failure, the LOIRP digitized the entire archive and handed it over to Nasa’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute where historians, scientists, and the public have full access to these early images of the Moon.

(April 2013) Golden Spike - Lunar Fail

Crowdfunding doesn’t just happen. Success requires a lot of hard work before, during, and after a campaign. All of the crowdfunding services want the projects they host to succeed so they publish a lot of advice on the steps to make that happen. Indiegogo’s playbook emphasizes the importance of the pitch video and explains how best to price a campaign’s rewards - the $25 level, for example, is the most popular while the $100 level raises the most money.

Golden Spike failed to execute on any of this advice. Backed by industry veterans like former Apollo Flight Director Gerry Griffen, angel investor Esther Dyson, and planetary scientist Alan Stern, Golden Spike wants to be the first private company to transport astronauts to the Moon and back. Unfortunately, the high-caliber pedigree didn’t carry through to the company’s Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Vague promises, an impersonal introductory video, overpriced rewards, and infrequent updates violated all of the advice the crowdfunding services give for running a successful campaign. Even after a full-court press to get media coverage, Golden Spike only raised 8% of its $240,000 goal.

(August 2013) LunarSail - ...,3,2,1… now what?

Whether its swinging a golf club or running a crowdfunding campaign, follow-through is just as important as preparation. Long-time crowdfunding backers have become jaded by projects that vanish shortly after the money gets paid. Rewards ship to backers months or year late or don’t ship at all as the project’s organizers break under the pressure of fulfilling their promises. And as time goes on, updates from the organizers trickle to a stop leaving unanswered comments from the backers wanting to know what happened.

By all appearances LunarSail was a stellar project. A Florida non-profit wanted to send a CubeSat to lunar orbit. Rather than using rockets, the group planned to use solar sails to propel the spacecraft. Solar sails generate small amounts of thrust when the Sun’s light reflects off its surface. Nasa, Jaxa, and the Planetary Society have developed multi-million dollar missions to test the technology, but nobody has committed to using solar sails to propel spacecraft. Some people may have questioned the organizer’s background as a software engineer and photojournalist. Others may have questioned whether the $11,000 budget would be enough to pay for such untested technology. But more than 200 people gave $15,817 to LunarSail - 44% over its goal. And then….

Production and shipping problems left many of the project’s backers waiting for their promised rewards. The project itself has become another Kickstarter ghost town: updates stopped 6 months after the campaign ended, the project’s multiple websites lie abandoned, and its Twitter account now spews nothing but Russian spam.

(July 2014) SpaceIL - The Crowded Race to the Moon

Proper planning, an established network of supporters, daily execution, and follow through are all equally important elements to a successful crowdfunding campaign. Do these things wrong and your campaign will stutter and stall. But when you do it right, crowdfunding becomes everything its promoters claim.

The Google Lunar X-Prize is a $30,000,000 race to the Moon. Private teams must send a robot to the Moon, move it 500 meters across the lunar surface, and beam high-definition video back to Earth - and they can’t use government money to do it. (OK, up to 10% can come from the government, but that’s it) The first team to do that wins $20,000,000. Several teams tried to crowdfund their race plans but failed to get more than a few dozen backers. 

SpaceIL, the only Israeli entrant in the race, became the first fully successful lunar crowdfunding project. It didn’t make extravagant claims or promise things it couldn’t deliver. SpaceIL’s budget for going to the Moon is over $36,000,000 - its $240,000 crowdfunding goal wouldn’t pay for a full tank of rocket fuel. But the project’s organizers wanted something more important than the cash. Outreach to Israeli students is central to SpaceIL’s mission. SpaceIL’s founders hope that their effort to reach the Moon will encourage more Israeli youth to study science and mathematics. More than 70,000 kids have already taken part in the project’s outreach programs. The awareness and media coverage the crowdfunding campaign attracted supporters to SpaceIL’s community. Of course finishing the campaign with more than $280,000 didn’t hurt.

(December 2014) Lunar Mission One - Taking the Moon to a New Level

Early concept art of the Lunar Mission One craft landing on the Moon. (The Earth appears upside down from the lunar south pole) Source: Lunar Mission One

Early concept art of the Lunar Mission One craft landing on the Moon. (The Earth appears upside down from the lunar south pole) Source: Lunar Mission One

Lunar Mission One set a new threshold for crowdfunding success. Founded by a team that includes leading British scientists, entrepreneurs, and even a former member of Parliament, Lunar Mission One hopes to land a spacecraft at the Moon’s south pole and drill as much as 100 meters beneath the surface. A well-orchestrated publicity and social media campaign enlisted support from prominent British scientists Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox. By the time the campaign ended, more than 7,200 people around the world donated over £670,000 (about $1,000,000). Cleverly, most of the campaign’s rewards aren’t physical objects that cost money to produce and ship. Lunar Mission One instead awarded space in a digital “memory box” that it will turn into a time capsule on the Moon. That means Lunar Mission One will keep a larger share of the campaign’s funds - which it’s going to need. In an interview with the Guardian, Lunar Mission One co-founder David Iron estimated the development and operating cost at £500,000,000. They hope to keep selling their memory boxes which could generate £3 billion in revenue.

(2015) Lunar Dreams

Even if you missed these earlier crowdfunding campaigns, there’s still a chance to make a difference for private lunar missions. Pennsylvania State University’s Lunar Lions competes in the Google Lunar X-Prize. Rather than mess with a rover which can get bogged down in the powdery lunar soil, the Lunar Lions’s spacecraft will land on the Moon and then take a rocket-powered hop to a second landing site. They are a third of the way through their 6-month RocketHub campaign to raise $400,000. The money will let the Lunar Lions - most of them students - build their first prototype lunar lander. 

Africa2Moon is a brand new lunar mission. Founded by members of South Africa’s nascent space industry, Africa2Moon wants to use the development of an African space mission to inspire the continent’s youth to pursue science-related careers in their home countries rather than emigrating to wealthier countries. Reversing the brain drain is essential for African countries’ efforts to develop their economies. Many in Africa view the space sciences, with projects like the Square Kilometer Array, as a way to jumpstart those efforts. Africa2Moon hopes that planetary science can serve the same role. It hopes to raise $150,000 to kick off the planning process and start developing a series of projects that may lead to the first African lunar mission. Africa2Moon accepts direct donations - almost $21,000 so far - through its website. 

Will any of these projects succeed? Space is hard. Even government-funded missions have their ups and downs. But crowdfunding gives everyone in the world a chance to play a direct, albeit small, role in humanity's next great adventure. Your donation could make the difference - and you get a cool t-shirt!