Can CrowdFunding Give the Private Space Race a Boost?

 Virgin Galactic's first commercial space flight

Virgin Galactic’s first commercial space flight

By Stephanie Mlot, The end of the space shuttle program ushered in a new era of space exploration carried out by private firms like SpaceX. But Elon Musk isn’t the only one interested in exploring the cosmos, and some organizations have turned to crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to make their space dreams a reality.
Former NASA engineer and LiftPort Group founder Michael Laine, for example, took to Kickstarter last year in an effort to fund a sci-fi-inspired Lunar Elevator, or a rocketless transportation system to the moon.
LiftPort’s modest campaign set an $8,000 goal to build an indoor test rig and a robot that can climb 2 kilometers straight up – an early step in the eventual construction of a Space Elevator. For a company that had only five years earlier shut down the project after running out of money, the hope for this campaign was to help rebuild the LiftPort community.
Over the course of the 21-day funding campaign, the company earned more than $110,000 from 3,468 backers – a response that “literally changed our lives,” Laine said Saturday during an appearance at the Engadget Expand conference in New York. “We were completely unprepared for that.”
The overwhelming support helped LiftPort make history as Kickstarter’s first $100,000-plus space campaign.
“The Kickstarter folks have been amazing,” Laine said. “We wouldn’t be sitting here otherwise.”
Asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources set a much more ambitious goal: $1 million for the development of a low-Earth orbit telescope. The springtime Kickstarter campaign earned more than $1.5 million from 17,600 supports in 32 days. Excess funds, the company promised in June, will be used to launch a search for alien worlds.
For Planetary Resources President Chris Lewicki, Kickstarter was an opportunity to gauge the public’s interest in the private company’s product. Before investing too many resources, the company was able to throw out a handful of ideas to see what stuck.
“When we announced the company to the public last year, we had an overwhelming response of interest,” Lewicki said.
The Planetary Resources community has since grown to about 18,000 people. And it’s that community that these companies rely on, according to Laine, who admitted that he was startled by the crowdfunding focus on money.
“Yes, it’s a factor,” he said. “But the thing that’s most important was contacts, relationships, and the global community.” Some of LiftPort’s initial supporters later became members of the board of advisers.
“I didn’t care about the cash. I was really trying to build the community,” Laine said.
Lewicki suggested that services like Kickstarter or Indiegogo are the best way to test the global interest in an idea.
“For us, failure was an option,” he said Saturday, adding that if the campaign was a dud, they’d only lost a month of effort instead of hundreds of millions of dollars. Thankfully for Planetary Resources, the end result was anything but a worthless.
For more on Planetary Resources, see PCMag’s interview with co-founder Peter Diamandis
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