A group of independent rocket engineers wants to send the first-ever crowdfunded rocket to the Moon. The group — known as Moonspike — has come up with a design for a rocket that will deliver a 1-gram payload, shaped like a spike, to the lunar surface. To help fund the project, the engineers have launched a Kickstarter campaign today, with the goal of raising $1 million in 30 days.
It's not the first space mission to turn to crowdfunding to get initial investment money. A project called Lunar Mission One launched a Kickstarter campaign in November to get the preliminary funds needed for sending an uncrewed robotic lander to the Moon's South Pole. That endeavor met its funding goal, but it will rely on a pre-made rocket to deliver the spacecraft. Moonspike wants to build a rocket completely from scratch with the help of private donations and crowdsourced dollars. If they pull it off, it'll be the first rocket of its kind; currently, all rockets that launch into space are built by government-run space agencies or private companies.
The main goal is to show that this rocket can be built and launched
Moonspike doesn't aim to do any science on the Moon, though. The rocket will only carry images, video, and other data from Kickstarter backers inside a radiation-shielded memory vault; the spike-shaped vault will then be jammed into the lunar surface by the rocket. The main goal is to simply show that this rocket can be built and reach its destination. "We wanted to do this with the smallest task attached to it," said Moonspike co-founder Kristian von Bengston. "Just 1 metric gram to the Moon, and then we'll see where we can go from there."
Von Bengston is the co-founder of the Danish aerospace non-profit Copenhagen Suborbitals, where he used to design suborbital spacecraft. He left the organization in June 2014, but since then, he said he had been itching to get back to work on another rocket project. Coincidentally, entrepreneur Chris Larmour presented von Bengtson with that opportunity in January, when he reached out to the engineer to see if he might be interested in developing a rocket to go to the Moon. "I saw all these videos of balloons going up into space with these cameras attached to them," Larmour said. "I thought what’s the next step after a balloon? How hard can it really be to go to the Moon?" Larmour said he isn’t interested in making money off the concept; he just wanted to see what could be done.
Von Bengtson latched onto the idea, and for the past nine months, the duo have been working on a design for the rocket they'd like to build. The concept calls for a 22-ton, three-stage rocket that will stand at more than 77 feet tall. Von Begtson says most of the rocket's weight includes the liquid fuel and hardware needed to get the spike into lower Earth orbit. Once the rocket is in space, only 330 pounds of hardware is needed to take the payload the rest of the way.
The Moonspike rocket design. (Moonspike)
The pair promise a space mission that's extremely transparent. With the launch of the Kickstarter campaign, Moonspike is also releasing all the design specifications for the rocket, as well as a detailed feasibility study on the project. And if they receive the initial $1 million through the campaign, they plan to give all their backers nearly unlimited insight into the rocket development process. "You’ll see the research and development in production," said von Begtson. "Within the first year, we’ll have navigation systems, prototypes of turbopump systems, and a whole range of technologies on our site. We’re going to show everyone how it’s done."
Of course, $1 million won't be enough to fund the entire project. The average cost of launching an Atlas V rocket into lower Earth orbit hovers around $225 million. "The cost of building a rocket that can actually launch a payload to the Moon is probably going to be several million dollars," said James Muncy, an independent space policy consultant at the Space Frontier Foundation. "I don’t know if you can crowdsource that kind of money."
$1 million won't be enough to fund the entire project
That's why Larmour and von Begtson say the crowdsourcing is just a start; private donations will likely make up the rest of the costs. There are also many logistics about Moonspike that are still unknown. The mission doesn't have a definitive timeline or launch date, and the group doesn't know which launch pad they'll use. Larmour says that Kickstarter backers will be alerted to these details as soon as they're determined. There are also a number of regulatory hurdles to overcome, such as obtaining a license for the launch vehicle through the United Kingdom Space Agency. Von Begtson says they have a lawyer who is experienced in the legal requirements for launches and will help them get the necessary permits.
Despite the risk and limited specifics, Muncy says he welcomes the initiative. As a proponent for commercial spaceflight, he says that the more players in the field, the better. "I can’t tell you whose rocket is going to be the best rocket, but if we have competition where people are trying their own approaches, we’ll get to a lower-cost access to space," said Muncy. "That will, in turn, create a whole bunch of new industries."
The details inside the Moonspike rocket. (Moonspike)