Space Crowdfunding: What’s the Secret?

Winners and losers among the space start-ups.

Arkyd telescope.jpg
Success story: Artist's depiction of the Planetary Resources Arkyd-101 space telescope.

With the advent of sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo in the past few years, crowd-funding has become a popular way to pay for everything from financing your trek across Europe to bankrolling indie movies. And with NASA perpetually strapped for money, it’s no surprise that crowd-funding has hit the space business too. 

But space projects are expensive, and not every campaign works. Planetary Resources asked for $1 million to work on its Arkyd orbital space telescope and ended up with more than $1.5 million, making it the most successful crowdfunded space project to date. But when Golden Spike attempted to raise $240,000 to jumpstart a human mission to the moon, they received less than one tenth of the requested amount. Both projects are technically feasible, if ambitious, and both involve respected experts and ex-NASA personnel. So why the difference? What makes for an effective large-scale funding campaign?

A study examining much smaller, non space-related science projects found that it essentially comes down to two things: communication and involvement. The study found strong links between the amount of social networking a project does and the number of hits the project’s website gets. Interestingly, “likes” on Facebook seemed to outweigh traditional media coverage for getting attention, and gaining early likes from friends and family made a crucial difference.

“We found that scientists who built an audience for their work and then reached out to that audience were able to achieve higher levels of funding,” says Jarrett Byrnes, the study’s lead author, by email. The area of study didn’t seem to make much of a difference, leading to worries that a public enamored of cute baby animals and celebrities might only give money to what the study calls “panda bear science.” But that proved not to be the case—the researchers’ ability to transmit their enthusiasm to the general public was what made the difference.

To guard against panda bear science, Byrnes and his companions at SciFund do some vetting before selecting experiments for funding. “Essentially, we ask….Is their project reasonable, or are they proposing to develop a perpetual motion machine? We try and get subject experts to take a brief look, but we’re not subjecting proposals to a full NSF-style review.” Then, says Byrnes, “It is up to the proposer to demonstrate why their project has high scientific as well as popular interest.”

For lessons on how to do that, would-be space crowdfunding projects might look to the recent campaign to revive NASA’s ISEE-3 satellite. The spacecraft was launched in 1978 to study the sun, and was later re-routed for another mission. After that, NASA decided it was done with the satellite, and shut it down. But its orbit meant it would come zipping back by Earth, and Keith Cowing and Dennis Wingo knew it. So they assembled a team and raised nearly $160,000 on Rockethub. Two thousand two hundred and eight people contributed, mostly in increments of $10-20. Most of it was used to recreate the long-disassembled communications equipment they needed to re-establish contact with the satellite.

The effort got widespread coverage in the media, including several stories in the New York Times and a boost from Google. Most of the publicity is due to Cowing, who is himself a prolific and influential blogger on the NASA Watch site. “I had guys clambering over the [radio antenna] dish in Arecibo [Puerto Rico], hanging hardware while people were still giving money, and people were saying, ‘This is great!’ ” he says. “I was live-tweeting everything we did. Every geeky expression that happened in the control room I threw out there, and people were telling me they got in trouble for not going to work, or skipping class, sitting on the subway reading it on their phone.”

“The bulk of the people that give you money don’t quite even understand exactly what you’re going to do,” says Cowing.  But success comes “if you tell a compelling story, couch this in a way that there’s adventure involved, but also a payback opportunity that people feel is important, that there’s something to be learned.”

One thing that may account for Arkyd’s success (and Golden Spike’s failure) is involving the public. Most crowdfunding sites prescribe a series of donation checkpoints, where the donor gets something in return. For example, for $25 Arkyd pledges to display your picture on a screen outside the orbiting telescope, and send you a picture of that as proof. Golden Spike, in comparison, offers to sign you up for their mailing list.

“Anecdotally, it seems like those projects who reward donors by allowing them to participate directly in the science are able to cross the $10K mark and achieve extraordinary levels of funding in some cases,” says Byrnes. “Whether this is a general rule or not is unclear, as we don’t have enough examples to draw solid inferences yet.”

If it’s true that you need to get something to give something, it’s probably no coincidence that the top crowdfunding project to date, by a wide margin, is the video game “Star Citizen,” which has pulled in $51 million so far.

“Given that space-oriented projects such as the Arkyd space telescope have managed to raise more than $1 million, we think there is tremendous potential to scale up,” says Byrnes.