Crowdfunding a billion-dollar Moon mission
by Jeff Foust
|“The genesis of this project is the notion that government money is increasingly squeezed or limited, and that opens up other possibilities for funding,” said Iron.|
Those efforts, though, pale in comparison to what a British company unveiled last week. Lunar Missions Ltd. announced plans to fly its own lunar lander mission, dubbed simply Lunar Mission One. That spacecraft, planned for launch in 2024, will land on the rim of the South Pole-Aiken Basin—the solar system’s largest impact crater—on a scientific mission, but one funded primarily by the general public.
“The genesis of this project is the notion that government money is increasingly squeezed or limited, and that opens up other possibilities for funding,” said David Iron, founder of Lunar Missions Ltd., in a phone interview last week before the company publicly announced its plans November 19 in London.
Iron has experience with unconventional approaches to funding space projects. He originated the financial structure for Skynet 5, the British military communications satellite program developed as a public private partnership. He also advised the European Commission on such partnerships for the Galileo satellite navigation program, although that effort eventually became a more conventional government-funded program.
Iron hopes the public will step forward to fund the mission. “Essentially, this is a very large scale crowdfunding, and we get members of the public to pay for the entire mission,” he said. He estimated that the overall effort will cost on the order of $1 billion, with $800 million for the spacecraft mission itself and the remainder covering the costs of public engagement, education outreach, and other activities.
The bulk of that money will come, he said, from sales of digital space in the “time capsule” that the spacecraft will carry to the Moon with it. People can purchase space for photos, messages, or other content, including DNA. That time capsule will also include a public archive of information about civilization and the biosphere, he said.
The company has yet to work out details of its pricing, but Iron believes that the demand is there among the public to fund the mission. “The market research suggests the demand for it is there,” he said. He was vague about what that research entails, although the company’s website states that their research “demonstrated a strong interest in the mission and the digital memory boxes” in both the US and the UK.
About 15 percent of the global population would be able to afford one of those “digital memory boxes,” the company states, and its planning is based on just one percent of that population would actually purchase one. “This delivers a mid-point projected revenue of £3billion (around $4.7 billion),” it concludes.
|Iron said sponsorships would not contribute a major share of project revenue. “We’re not going down the Mars One route.”|
Elsewhere on the website, the company states that it expects the average price for a digital memory box to be about $80 (the actual price will vary depending on the amount of space the customer wants.) That would require finding 12.5 million customers in order to raise the $1 billion needed for the mission. That’s actually slightly more than what the company expects the market to be, based on a current global population of 7.2 billion people.
The best market research, though, is in the form of actual sales. To help better gauge the market, and generate revenue to support the next phase of mission development, the company unveiled a Kickstarter campaign last week as it announced plans for the mission. The goal is to raise £600,000 (US$938,000) over the next month.
“We’re using this not just to raise money, but also to prove the market: to give us a better indication than we have so far that people will put their hands in their pockets to fund this,” Iron said.
The initial results, so far, look promising: the project raised more than £200,000 (US$313,000) in its first 24 hours, and as of early November 24 had garnered pledges of more than £325,000 (US$508,000). The publicity surrounding the project’s launch helped contribute to that surge of funding, although the daily totals have dropped in successive days as that publicity died down. That profile is not unusual for crowdfunding campaigns, which typically see surges in giving at both the beginning and end.
Prior to the beginning of the campaign, Iron said he was optimistic that they would reach their goal, a requirement for getting any of the pledged funds given Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing funding model. That optimism was based on feedback he said they were getting from Kickstarter company officials. “They are encouraging us to think that we’ll be successful,” he said. “They’re fairly confident we’ll be able to reach our million [dollars].”
|“At the end of the day, this is primarily a science mission,” said Holdaway.|
While the company plans to raise the bulk of the mission’s costs from the public, through Kickstarter and later time capsule sales, Iron said they are not excluding other sources of funding. One possibility is through corporate sponsorships and media rights, an approach being pursued in particular by the Mars One venture, although Iron said that would likely account for only a small fraction of the mission’s overall costs.
“I don’t that they will make the case. I think they will be augmenting the public subscriptions, but I can’t see that, by themselves, they would fund anything like the level needed” to support the mission, he said of sponsorhsips. “We’re not going down the Mars One route.”
Government agencies may also indirectly support the mission, he said, through support of the companies that will actually develop the lander and its various components. “National agencies will help them financially, not by giving us money, but by giving them money,” he said, potentially in the form of technology development needed for the mission. “We anticipate a form of contribution in-kind.”
The attention Lunar Mission One has received for its fundraising approach has overshadowed the mission itself. “At the end of the day, this is primarily a science mission,” said Richard Holdaway, director of RAL Space, part of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
RAL Space performed a six-month study of the mission, which Holdaway described in an interview as a “pre-Phase A conceptual design,” prior to the mission’s public rollout. That study examined the general feasibility of the mission, a risk assessment, an identification of the key technologies.
One of those key technologies is the spacecraft’s drill. As currently planned, Lunar Mission One will carry a drill designed to go at least 20 meters below the lunar surface, and perhaps as deep as 100 meters. That drill will collect rock samples that will be returned to the lander for scientific analysis and, perhaps, caching for a future sample return mission.
That drill, coupled with the proposed landing site at the South Pole-Aitken Basin, makes the mission scientifically compelling, Holdaway believes. “We can do drilling and get core samples that go back 4.5 billion years,” he said, which would date back to the formation of the Moon.
The Moon’s south pole has also attracted interest because permanently shadowed craters there may contain water ice, either as grains mixed with the lunar regolith or in larger deposits. However, Holdaway said that lunar ice isn’t a current scientific goal of the mission. Instead, the spacecraft would likely land at a place on or near the basin’s rim that is in sunlight, and has a view of Earth, most of the time, constraints driven by power and communications.
The concept of a mission to the South Pole-Aitken Basin is not a new one. The most recent planetary science decadal report, published in 2011, identified a sample return mission there as one of the five highest-priority medium-class missions that NASA should pursue in the next decade as part of its New Frontiers program.
Project officials hope that science turns out to be as compelling to the public as the time capsule. They want to capitalize on public interest in space science generated particularly in the UK and the rest of Europe by ESA’s Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which deployed the Philae lander a week before the crowdfunding effort started.
“One thing that has been a big deal here is the Rosetta mission,” said Holdaway. “The public had really been captured by the science in a way that most of us didn’t expect.”
|“This isn’t a conventional product. This is a global experience,” Iron said. “We’ll soon pick up our billion dollars.”|
The project’s timeline—ten years until the mission flies—means that it may arrive years after competing GLXP teams, who themselves as plans for follow-on missions. Iron, though, does see those efforts as competing with Lunar Mission One. “We see them as suppliers,” he said, contributing to the development of the mission as contractors. “We think the Google Lunar X PRIZE guys—the Moon Expresses, the Astrobotics—would be able to supply the spacecraft, perhaps.”
Those contracts, he suggested, may be incentive-laden: a base fee for the mission, plus rewards for mission success. That could even include payment per meter drilled into the lunar surface. “It’s designed to be attractive to industry, but incentivize them to do what we want to happen.”
Lunar Missions Ltd. is open to working with a wide range of partners. “We think this is a people’s project,” said Iron. That could, he added, include China, which has its own lunar exploration program, but can’t easily cooperate with Western nations in the current geopolitical climate.
“We’ll go global with the science involvement” in Lunar Mission One, said Holdaway.
A lot could change, geopolitically or otherwise, between now and 2024. And those plans assume that the venture really can raise the better part of a billion dollars, $80 or so at a time. While the Kickstarter is off to a strong start, even raising $1 million in a month is below the rate they will need to generate revenue in order to get to $1 billion in 120 months.
Iron, though, didn’t sound daunted by that fundraising task. “This isn’t a conventional product. This is a global experience,” he said. “We’ll soon pick up our billion dollars. This is about people, the Earth, and society.”