Today, the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance a publicly accessible space telescope, called ARKYD. It is continuing a trend that I hope will continue: space-centered crowdfunding campaigns. Some are successful, some less so, but each one further normalizes the idea that the government no longer needs to be the primary player in space exploration.
The telescope itself is not a particularly impressive piece of technology. However, I would argue that the technology isn’t the point. Instead, the exciting aspect is demonstrating the feasibility of an entirely private space venture (funding, building and launch) that doesn’t rely entirely on billionaires with cash to burn.
As noted in this article, Planetary Resources and its backers could fund the project without the Kickstarter funds. A friend of mine pointed out that this raises a few issues. I don’t see any of them as a problem:
1. Planetary Resources shouldn’t take other people’s money because they already have enough to fund the project and the Kickstarter money won’t fully fund it anyway.
The president and chief engineer of planetary resources freely admits “Though that total wouldn’t fully fund the construction and launch of a public-use ARKYD, the money would mean there was an “appropriate level of interest” among the public for the project to go forward”
The point is interesting, that Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sources don’t have to just be about raising money that wouldn’t otherwise be available, but can also function as a sort of ad hoc prediction market.
2. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sources are for small independent projects to get funding, but are now being taken over by large companies that don’t actually need the money.
The independent projects are still there and still being funded. The great thing about the whole process is that it is entirely voluntary – nobody has to give money to anything they don’t want to (as opposed to, say, government projects.) Projects like ARKYD simply expand the kind of projects available to fund – an option they clearly appreciate considering the amount of money already donated. If anything, large companies launching crowdfunding campaigns helps the smaller projects because it draws more attention to crowdfunding as a whole.
3. Crowdfunding is just a sneaky way for big companies to get around investor protection laws because if the project doesn’t go through, they owe the contributors nothing.
I honestly don’t see any difference between people spending money with the expectation of a profit and spending money with the expectation of awesome. Either way, there is some amount of risk involved as well as smart spenders and dumb spenders. If anything, the crowdfunding campaigns of a ‘non-indie’ company (where’s the line? I’d say a bunch of guys who’s business plan is to mine asteroids are pretty far out there) is more accountable because they have a reputation on the line.
The bottom line is that the more space related anything going on, the better. The closer we can get space activity to the Silicon Valley model of ‘try fast, fail fast’ the better, and these crowdfunding attempts are a step in the right direction.