Inside an old storage warehouse in an abandoned shipyard in Copenhagen, Kristian von Bengston and Peter Madsen have been building a one-man rocket ship they intend to send on a 15-minute, parabolic trip to the edge of space and back.
Von Bengston and Madsen’s non-profit, private space agency is called Copenhagen Suborbitals, and is probably the most extreme do-it-yourself project in the world. Von Bengston is an architect and former NASA contractor. Madsen is an engineer who founded a DIY collective that built three submarines as a hobby.
Copenhagen Suborbitals has no government grants, no investors, and no academic affiliation. Instead, they’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from ordinary people around the world who donated in exchange for a part of their dream.
Von Bengston is building the capsule. Madsen is working on the rocket that will propel it 100 miles up, past the Kármán line dividing Earth’s atmosphere from outer space. Every day the pair report to the chilly 300-square-foot workshop, occasionally joined by members of an all-volunteer rogue science army. Von Bengston has a smooth bald head and a soul patch. He talks fast and comes across as chronically happy. Madsen has ultra-blond hair and ears that stick out. They want to prove that anyone can go to space. "This project will not change anything in terms of science," von Bengston said, "but it will change the way we look at human space flight."
Copenhagen Suborbitals has completed three iterations of its spacecraft design, 45 engine tests, and four rocket launches, which were staged in international waters east of Denmark to avoid regulations that might prohibit launching a bespoke space ship.
They scrapped the first test after power failed to a hair dryer used to defrost a liquid oxygen valve. They achieved lift-off for the next test, but the rocket’s trajectory was too low and Mission Control had to cut the engine. A third rocket lost its nose mid-flight. During a test last August, the rocket and capsule started tumbling wildly through the air, then the capsule hit the water without fully deploying its parachutes, crushing the bottom. Copenhagen Suborbitals declared each of these launches a tremendous success.
"You have to be prepared to make a fool of yourself when you’re doing a project like this," said Von Bengston, who likes to say he’s only interested in problems that are potentially unsolvable.
"In the beginning, people were against us," he recalled in a Skype interview conducted from his home office while his small, very blond son climbed over the back of the chair, oblivious to the fact that people once thought his dad was legitimately insane. "They thought it was a complete hoax or media stunt. There have been a couple of incidents where somebody has snitched on us to the [police] because they thought we were laundering money."
Copenhagen Suborbitals established credibility gradually through the press and by tweeting, blogging, and video-sharing every calculation, construction, success, and failure. For example, Von Bengston hosted an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit this week. More than 700 subscribers contribute $20 every month, and roughly the same amount comes in through PayPal donations and merchandise sales. Von Bengston doesn’t know how much they’ve raised so far, but estimated it to be less than half a million dollars. "Money for us is just a nuisance, because you need to just spend it," he said.
The backers do more than click "donate," however. Copenhagen Suborbitals engages about 45 volunteers from its fanbase who specialize in things like radio communications and electrical engineering.
Fans can also come to the shipyard for guided tours or the more casual "open evenings." If the workshop is too far, they can follow the project on YouTube and through von Bengston’s "Rocket Shop" blog, where he regularly solicits help with physics problems. "We reply to every comment," he said. "People are becoming part of the process. This whole project is based on the interest from people and their involvement."
Copenhagen Suborbitals just finished a campaign on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to finance the pressure system for Tycho Deep Space Capsule II, a flight-ready vessel with room for one self-taught astronaut.
"Your donated money for this will go 100 percent into the organization," the pitch says, "and I can guarantee that your donated money will be burned in a blaze of fire and inspiration."
Despite promising that donations will be treated like tinder in a great, uncertain experiment, the campaign raised $10,765 from 212 donors. "You and your project are an inspiration," one backer wrote. "Ad astra." To the stars.
The sentiment is powerful: space is no longer an exclusive club
Space travel has always seemed unobtainable, reserved for humankind’s elite. It’s technologically complicated, fraught with complex international legal restrictions, incredibly dangerous, and so damn expensive that your typical enthusiast must be content with telescopes, science fiction, and the Mars Curiosity Rover’s Twitter feed.
But as it turns out, space is no longer reserved for governments and billionaires. There are more projects like Copenhagen Suborbitals, amateur missions financed by space fans who want to be a part of something that feels big. We’re entering a second Space Age, in which innovation is led by the private sector, and crowdfunding is part of this new ecosystem. The Elon Musks and Richard Bransons of the world will take care of the multi-million dollar launches and $200,000-ticket space tours. Crowdfunding seeds projects at the other end of the spectrum, where tinkerers and star-gazers meet, and space may not be as far away as it looks.
In Virginia, three scientists and an entrepreneur raised $72,871 to build a prototype electric-pulsed plasma jet thruster. In Arizona, an aerospace company raised $20,843 to build a rocket motor for its suborbital spacecraft. In New York, a costume designer and a Russian aerospace engineer raised $27,632 to build an intra-vehicular space suit. In the Bay Area alone, there are at least three crowdfunded groups launching small satellites. The amounts are small, with the average donation falling between $24 and $157, depending on the project. But the sentiment is powerful: space is no longer an exclusive club.
When software developer Tim DeBenedictis watched the Space Shuttle Atlantis’s final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in July 2011, he realized he was seeing the end of an era. American space exploration seemed on the wane. In addition to decommissioning the shuttle, the Obama administration had ended NASA’s Constellation Program, which planned to send humans to the Moon, an asteroid, and Mars. No one in government seemed interested in even talking about space anymore. During the election, both candidates were decidedly lukewarm on space, making vague generalizations and talking about missions in 2025 or 2030 — a far cry from President John F. Kennedy’s speech on September 12, 1962: "We chose to go to the Moon. We chose to go to the Moon in this decade."
DeBenedictis's astronomy iPhone app SkySafari had sold "like gangbusters," and he was trying to decide what to do next. As the shuttle touched down, he turned to a friend and said, "Maybe we should think about doing our own satellite." A year later, he had raised $116,890 on Kickstarter to do just that.
Supporting a serious space project through crowdfunding is something that only became possible very recently. Mass-produced parts, particularly electronics developed for the cell phone industry, have gotten good enough to use in do-it-yourself space flight.
Kickstarter isn’t going to put a human on the Moon any time soon, but the fact that anyone can now buy into a space mission is pretty amazing. Even Laura Burns, an active NASA contractor who works on telescopes and flight simulation, gets a rush from backing space projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. She’s contributed to ten so far. "When you find something and think, ‘I can support this and I can help make this happen,’ it’s just all the more exciting," she said. "We're investing in the excitement, in the future."
"This is the beginning of trying to put space in the hands of everyday people."
"Have you ever dreamed of having your own spacecraft?"
In the fall of 2011, Zac Manchester, a grad student in aerospace engineering at Cornell, set up a video camera in his basement lab and recorded one minute and 22 seconds of himself smiling nervously and reciting from a script directly into the camera. He then posted the video on Kickstarter, asking for $30,000 to send a satellite to space filled with hundreds of microsatellites. He called the project KickSat.
Manchester and his student research group have been developing tiny satellites equipped with solar cells, a radio transceiver, and a microcontroller with memory and sensors such as a thermometer or camera. For the Kickstarter campaign, Manchester proposed to launch these "ChipSats" into low orbit, where they will take readings and transmit signals for a few days to a few weeks before burning up in the atmosphere.
Backers who pledged at least $300 could take charge of one of the ChipSats and program it to broadcast a five-character message from orbit. For $1,000, they could program the microcontroller and set up a ground station to track the satellite’s position with radio signals. Manchester ended his video with a rallying cry, "Let’s kickstart the personal space age!" He ended up with $74,586, which will enable him to launch three loads of ChipSats instead of one.
KickSat is patient zero of the Kickstarter space movement — the first serious space project to successfully raise funding on the platform. Many grassroots space entrepreneurs cited this campaign as their inspiration; two contacted Manchester to ask him how he did it.
For Manchester, Kickstarter was a last resort. He and his colleagues have been working on the project since 2007. They attempted to get funding from traditional sources, including academic institutions and government agencies like the National Science Foundation, DARPA, and NASA. They were able to get funding for early stage research, but no one wanted to put up the money for a test flight.
"We were met with a lot of conservatism and doubt," he recalled. "The spacecraft industry is really conservative. As a general rule, there’s a saying that ‘it has to fly before it can fly.’ There’s this culture of risk aversion, because people don’t want to try things that are risky because it’s so expensive. ‘Oh, it’s just going to be space junk, you can’t do anything with something this small.’ Long story short, we didn’t get any funding."
Then NASA announced a grant program that would allow research and education satellites to hitch a ride to space on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, scheduled to deliver supplies to the International Space Station in March. Manchester realized this was his chance. If he and his group could just come up with the money to build the spacecraft, they had a good shot at landing one of the six free spots.
He knew some other scientists who had tried, both successfully and unsuccessfully, to fund their research on Kickstarter. If he promised backers that they could adopt one of the microsatellites, he thought, maybe people would bite.
"Space is inspiring," he said. "It’s one of those things that captures the imagination but it’s not somewhere that ordinary people get to go. There’s space tours, but that’s the domain of millionaires that can afford a $20 million ticket. This is the beginning of trying to put space in the hands of everyday people."
Manchester’s project could still turn out to be space junk. Shajahan Merchant, who gave KickSat the highest possible donation of $10,000, says he wouldn’t mind either way. An accomplished software engineer who now runs a tech consultancy, Merchant was browsing Kickstarter out of curiosity when he came across the KickSat campaign. Skeptical at first, his excitement grew as he dug deeper.
Donating was a no-brainer, and of course he circulated the link among friends. Manchester had offered the privilege of pressing the "big red button" to deploy the satellites as the top reward on his Kickstarter campaign, but Merchant felt he couldn’t deprive the young scientist of the thrill. "We’ll do it together," he said.
Manchester keeps backers updated on every stage of the project, from radio testing to solar cell manufacturing. For Merchant, it’s been quite an education. He and his wife and two children, ages 5 and 8, now sit around the dinner table discussing what five-character message to beam back.
"I feel like a kid, to be honest," he said. "When I tell friends, colleagues and coworkers that I’m backing a space project, their reaction is, 'really? You're supporting a space project? You're not a multi-billionaire.' The ability for me to participate — just that in itself is amazing."
There’s a common misconception that enthusiasm for the national space program has been on the decline in the US since 1969, when the Moon mission united the country around a common goal. But in reality, government-led space exploration has never been especially popular.
An opinion poll conducted after the lunar landing showed just 53 percent of Americans thought it was worth the cost to taxpayers. That’s because even though space research gave us GPS and Tempur-Pedic mattresses, it’s still hard for the average person to relate to in daily life. With so many problems here on Earth, a $17.7 billion budget to send robots to collect sand on Mars strikes most Americans as a frivolous hobby.
By contrast, a crowdfunded project that actually sends something to space seems like a good buy. These projects aren’t more obviously useful than NASA’s efforts, but they’re low-cost and harmless (Copenhagen Suborbitals and their lawless water launches being the exception, perhaps). They also make their case for space much more effectively than NASA. The ability to raise funds from individuals is creating a powerful class of space evangelists who tweet, make videos, hustle up press, send trinkets in the mail, and email back and forth with their backers. Campaigns filter into Facebook feeds, where friends urge friends to donate.
The crowdfunding boom is taking spacecraft down-market. The cost of the Mars Curiosity, the most recent high-profile NASA effort, is estimated at $2.6 billion over eight years; the total cost of NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program is estimated at $209 billion. It’s possible to send things to space at a fraction of those prices, but until now that market only existed for researchers and students. Crowdfunding opens it up to a much larger customer base: everyone.
What crowdfunding is good for, in the words of the Space Finance Group, a startup that aims to help space entrepreneurs raise funding, is the "easy stuff." After examining successful space campaigns to see what works, Space Finance Group is offering Kickstarter consulting services to space entrepreneurs. Its first effort is a campaign for the National Space Society, which is raising $35,000 to produce a video about why space exploration is important.
"I think there have been enough barriers where NASA has pioneered technologies and has demonstrated things that will work, that then the private sector can follow along in NASA’s footsteps," said co-founder Jay Wittner, himself a lifelong space enthusiast. "There’s no shortage of really good space ideas. I think that Kickstarter offers a new opportunity, a new door to go through."
At the same time, the crowdfunding-for-space phenomenon feels sort of like a galactic science fair. One Kickstarter project sent a Captain Jean-Luc Picard action figure to 120,000 feet in a high-altitude balloon, just 6,720 feet shy of where daredevil Felix Baumgartner made his jump. In California, a DIY volunteer space organization raised $12,466 to send 1,000 ping pong balls containing student "experiments" like marshmallows, plant seeds, and miniature satellites to 100,000 feet; Kickstarter named it one of the best projects of 2012. A number of projects allow backers to send tweets or short messages back to Earth from space, which a cynic might consider the ultimate in inanity.
"On the face of it, yes, it's a good thing, and I would be sour indeed to point out that it's of a piece with our general interest in farting around in very low Earth orbit," grumped Warren Ellis, the comic creator, space exploration advocate, and Kickstarter habitué, in an email. He seemed a bit disappointed in the offerings that have come up through crowdfunding. "Ultimately, though... doesn't it almost feel dated to you? Doesn't it feel like consumer-level satellite toys should be a thing that already came and went, a little bit?"
The important thing about crowdfunding is that it gets people to participate, countered George Takei, who has become something of a pop space icon thanks to his role as Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek series. Takei backed DeBenedictis’s project, a satellite called SkyCube that comes with apps for iPhone and Android which backers can use to request images from the satellite and tweet from space.
"Government will always be the key factor in true exploration of space," Takei said in an email. "But grassroots efforts inspire and cultivate the kind of mentality that pushes our leaders to take risks and think beyond their tenures to their legacies. I'm proud to have gotten the word out about this small project... if it means a few thousand more imaginations have been fired."
"I didn’t know whether they were in it for a T-shirt or an elevator on the Moon."
The most ambitious space campaign to get fully funded on Kickstarter came from the startup LiftPort Group, which raised $110,353 in seed funding to build a space elevator on the Moon within the next eight years.
A space elevator is essentially a cable between a ground surface and a satellite, extended far enough into space that centrifugal force will keep the line taut. Spacecraft can then attach to a robotic climber that zooms up the cable, replacing the need to use rockets to escape Earth’s gravity and making the trip to orbit faster, for about a fifth of the current cost. "Once you’ve got that, you’ve built yourself a ladder that you can climb back and forth into space," says LiftPort president Michael Laine.
Laine is an entrepreneur, former NASA contractor, and graduate of the International Space University in France, a 25-year-old institution that educates space professionals and entrepreneurs. Laine, 45, is tall, cocky, and eloquent. He describes himself as a "cowboy," gives lengthy interviews to anyone who asks, and is unafraid to curse.
Laine’s Kickstarter campaign ended on September 12, 2012, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s famous Moon speech. The project’s 3,468 backers included three science fiction authors, four investors, three people with a net worth of more than $25 million, and a member of the Scottish Parliament. Laine knows this because he and some of his team members went through the list of names and Googled every one.
"Here’s the thing," Laine told The Verge. "I didn’t know whether they were in it for a T-shirt or an elevator on the Moon. Are these guys in it for the long haul and the big idea, or is it just simply the novelty factor? It’s crazy. It’s terrific."
By now, Laine’s met many of the backers. He travels frequently to speak at conferences, meet with potential investors, and scout prospective partnerships, crashing on backer couches along the way. He’s difficult to reach by email and is always "really rushed" or "just returned from my epic trip" or "swamped in meetings and the day changed a bunch." His volunteer assistant Michelle Cadieux, also a LiftPort backer, coordinates his hectic schedule. We finally met when he had a 24-hour layover between Seattle and Reykjavik, during which he headed to a downtown Brooklyn office building to schmooze with a group of New Age-y space enthusiasts having a small birthday party.
Laine started working on space elevators in 2001 as a contractor for NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts, a now-closed arm of the agency that once worked on ambitious, futuristic concepts. In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded on the way back from a 16-day mission, killing all seven astronauts aboard and raining pieces of spacecraft over Texas. In addition to being one of the most heartbreaking tragedies in the agency’s history, the crash meant that NASA had to reshuffle its budget in order to investigate the cause. That reallocation, compounded by NIAC’s own dwindling budget, put an end to the space elevator.
Laine and his colleagues left NASA and founded LiftPort, a private company dedicated to space elevator research. The idea was to work on the necessary technologies — carbon nanotubes, advanced lasers and solar cells, robots, and wide-range communications — and commercialize those innovations in order to fund the real goal of eventually building an elevator.
The first incarnation of LiftPort chugged along for four years before running out of money. Laine had managed to buy an office building in Bremerton, Washington, where he lived and where LiftPort was headquartered. He borrowed against the property in order to fund LiftPort, which grew to 14 employees. "I made a very conscious decision to pay my team instead of paying the mortgage," he said.
The building went into foreclosure six times, but Laine was always able to pull himself out. The charm failed on the seventh try in 2007, just after the subprime lending crisis drove real estate prices down across the board. Laine owed $1.8 million on the building at the time, he said, and it went to auction after an investor backed out at the last minute, leaving him $50,000 short of the sum he needed to pacify the bank. The foreclosure left LiftPort out of an office and him out of a home.
Things got worse, though. Laine had also scrounged up a modest $117,542 for LiftPort from 85 individual investors. Most came to small investor presentations, he said, and the largest single contribution was around $15,000. Still, the project sounded suspicious to someone in the Securities Division of Washington’s Department of Financial Institutions, which accused Laine of violating securities laws. "The state said I didn’t provide enough details in my ‘risk analysis’ section of the prospectus for investors to make a clear decision," Laine said. "I responded with, ‘it’s an elevator to space… the risks are obvious and extreme.’"
Laine settled with the state without incurring a penalty, but the matter stretched on for three years. LiftPort was dead anyway by that time, despite Laine’s best efforts. Discouraged and out of money, he and his colleagues disbanded later that year. "It was a low point," Laine said. "Our collapse made the front page of MSNBC."
Four years later, LiftPort is back with a new goal. We still don’t have the technology to build a space elevator on Earth, Laine says, due to a number of logistical issues including meteorites, space debris, and the lack of a material strong enough to use for the tether. However, he claims it will be significantly easier to build an elevator on the Moon, where gravity is weaker and there’s practically no atmosphere.
The cost of building a robotic version of this elevator would be close to $800 million, Laine estimates, and $1.2 billion for a system that could transport humans. Just a one-year feasibility study would cost around $3 million.
However, LiftPort requested just $8,000 on Kickstarter to cover startup costs and build a community to provide long-term support the way Copenhagen Suborbitals has. Laine studied successful campaign creators including KickSat and musician Amanda Palmer, and it paid off — he got funded 13 times over.
The barrier between ordinary people and the final frontier has been broken
LiftPort only has four paid employees, but about 70 volunteers with PhDs are helping with the risk analysis, Laine said. Most of this free labor came out of the Kickstarter campaign, where the most popular reward turned out to be a laminated LiftPort membership card.
"So when it’s one alpha geek talking to another alpha geek, one guy’s like, ‘I’m working on the space elevator. What do you got?’" Laine explained. "It’s one thing to have it on a T-shirt, but to have somebody carry around this in their wallet all the time, that’s a different kind of person. That says there’s a little bit of emotional commitment there."
Space is emotional. We’d never have tried to get there if it weren’t, given all the obstacles and uncertainties. Future crowdfunding efforts might not look anything like today’s Kickstarter campaigns in the future: one campaign on Indiegogo raised $79,896 for Uwingu, a foundation that will fund space projects, suggesting that nonprofits and private foundations could start raising money for space the way the American Cancer Society does for cancer research.
Still, the barrier between ordinary people and the final frontier has been broken. As long as there are entrepreneurs to dream of going to space and backers eager to come along for the ride, even total amateurs can raise enough money to pursue their dreams and share that thrill with others: a touch of stardust, at a very affordable price.
Video Production Team: Sam Thonis, Jordan Oplinger, and Jason Miller
Design team: James Chae and Scott Kellum
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