D. Dowd Muska


Space Science: Not Just for Bureaucrats Anymore

June 06, 2013

If Kickstarter has the power to raise bucks for wearable instruments, a movie based on a canceled TV series, and countless mobile apps, can it crowdfund a space telescope?

Planetary Resources thinks so. The asteroid-mining company is asking for $1 million to help “launch the telescope, fund the creation of [a] public interface, cover the fulfillment costs for all of the products and services listed in the pledge levels, and fund [an] immersive educational curriculum for students everywhere.” Extra contributions will be used “for more access to classrooms, museums and science centers, and additional use by individual Kickstarter backers.”

With several weeks to go, the telescope is three-quarters of the way toward its goal. No surprise, really -- the thank-you gifts are neat. For $25, a donor gets “Your Face in Space” -- an image of his choosing “to display on the [telescope] … with the Earth in the background.” Two hundred dollars confers the title of “private astronomer,” with the ability to “point the telescope at any celestial object” and snap a photo. Ten grand offers perhaps the coolest perk -- your name assigned to a newly discovered asteroid.

It all sounds a little out there, so to speak, but Planetary Resources isn’t a motley collection of spazzy dreamers. It has the financial backing of Ross Perot, Jr., Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, and construction giant Bechtel. Its co-founders are “NewSpace” entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson. Its chairman and CTO is Charles Simonyi, a former Microsoft guru and two-time space tourist. (Kook-left director James Cameron is an “advisor,” but don’t hold that against the company.)

In announcing the crowdfunding campaign, Diamandis said, “In the last 50 years, space exploration has been led by national governmental agencies with their own set of priorities; and now we’re changing the nature of exploration. We’re developing the most advanced space technology ever made available to the public. Let’s explore the cosmos together!”

If clear-eyed space enthusiasts know anything, it’s that NASA doesn’t like to share. That’s why the bureaucracy’s scientists can’t be thrilled about Planetary Resources’s project. Another threat: Uwingu. Last summer, the startup declared that it would conduct a “series of public-engagement projects” to “generate funding for space exploration, research, and education efforts around the world.”

“Never before,” Uwingo observes, “has there been any significant source of non-governmental funds for space research and education.”

Headed by Alan Stern, the former boss of all NASA space science, Uwingu has already assisted the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array, “which searches for signs of intelligent civilizations in the universe.” In May, the LLC announced a “planet adoption campaign to give the public a chance to adopt and name almost any of the known exoplanets in astronomical databases.”

As a 2011 National Research Council report noted, in planetary science alone, NASA’s recent discoveries have been extraordinary. There is more water than previously thought on Earth’s moon. Mars has “extensive deposits” of “near-surface ice.” Titan’s methane cycle resembles Earth’s water cycle. Enceladus emits a plume of ice particles. Mercury has a liquid core. The Kuiper belt “includes many objects as large as or larger than Pluto and, intriguingly, a large proportion of binary and multi-object systems.”

At just over $5 billion in the White House’s FY 2014 budget, space science represents nearly 28 percent of proposed NASA spending. The agency’s knee-jerk supporters aver that its astronomers, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists are worth the money. But -- and you knew this was coming -- a nation facing $17 trillion in debt, and hundreds of trillions of dollars in long-term liabilities, has to start cutting costs. With voters enamored of nationalized pensions and a half-nationalized healthcare “system,” fiscal reality will need to strike at hundreds of smaller line items, from “legal services” to bicycle paths, passenger trains to “investments” in “green” power.

Spurred by visionary companies, manned spaceflight is shifting, at long last, toward commercialization. Space science could be the next escapee from the government ghetto. Planetary Resources seeks to orbit a telescope “both funded and directed by everyday folks who are passionate about space technology and the thrill of discovery.” Uwingu is comprised of “men and women who’ve decided to turn our profits into understanding of our universe.” Others are sure to follow.

It’s possible -- likely, even -- that a revenue model based on individual donors, charitable organizations, and for-profit entities will provide space scientists with more resources than NASA’s contentious appropriations process. In time, the people who earn their livings studying the heavens may come to appreciate coercion- and politics-free funding.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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