Supporters of the Kickstarter campaign to build a fleet of X-wing fighters raised $721,036, while a competing campaign to design a Death Star battle station raised 328,613 British pounds, or just under $500,000. None of the supporters had to pay up, however, because the campaigns finished up far short of their funding goals.
Sorry, "Star Wars" fans: A real-life Death Star and the X-wing fighters to bring it down won't be built anytime soon. First the White House snubbed a petition calling on the government to build the Death Star. Now two Kickstarter projects aimed at building a fully operational battle station as well as an X-wing fleet have fallen far short of their multimillion-dollar funding goals.
That means nobody is out any money, which probably comes as a huge relief to those who pledged their backing to the joke projects.
Both the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance have something to brag about: The Death Star project, associated with Nick Petkovich's Gnut.co.uk in Britain, won pledges from 2,388 backers amounting to £328,613, or just under a half-million dollars. The X-wing fund-raiser, created by Simon Kwan in Shanghai, had fewer backers but raised more money — $721,036, to be exact.
"While we didn't meet meet our funding goal, we soundly beat the amount raised by the Empire for their Death Star!" Kwan wrote. "Take THAT, Dark Side ;-P"
The final tallies when the campaigns concluded on April Fools' Day would send most Kickstarter project creators over the moon, but the way Kickstarter's fund-raising system works, the creators can't cash in on those pledges unless the project goal is met. The goals were set high on purpose — about $30 million for the Death Star, and $11 million for the X-wing fighter fleet — so that backers could get in on the joke while staying off the hook for the money.
Even if they raised $30 million, that sum wouldn't even be enough to buy just the protective covers for a real-life Death Star's thermal exhaust ports, or a single sub-light propulsion thrust engine for an X-wing fighter. In the real world, the cost of building the comparatively puny, 450-ton International Space Station has been estimated at upwards of $100 billion. The estimated development cost for NASA's next-generation launch system is in the neighborhood of $35 billion. And for that price, you don't even get laser cannons.
Can the open-source community build a fully operational Death Star battle station?
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
The White House may have turned down the idea of building a real-life Death Star, but now it's the open-source community's turn. A Kickstarter crowd-funding project calls for raising £20 million ($31 million) to design a battle station worthy of Darth Vader. So far, more than £20,000 ($31,000) has been pledged. The funding deadline? April Fool's Day.
The $31 million would go toward fleshing out the project's initial schematic — basically, a round circle — and buying "enough chicken wire to protect reactor exhaust ports." As any "Star Wars" fan knows, those ports were the Achilles' heel of the fictional Death Star, giving Luke Skywalker the opportunity to blow the darn thing up long ago in a galaxy far away.
If the pledges don't amount to £20 million by April 1 (heh, heh), the project will fizzle out — and no one will be obliged to pay up. Makes you wonder how much would have been raised if the goal was $20,000 instead.
The creator of the project describes himself as a resident of Leicestershire in Britain, and he's associated with a website registered to Nick Petkovich. Efforts to contact the project manager weren't immediately successful — but based on the Kickstarter description, he's not planning to roll up his sleeves anytime soon.
Project risks? "The only risk is the power of the Force." Challenges? "The main challenge is assuring Kickstarter that this is a joke, and not a serious project. As proof, the goal has been set high enough to make successful funding almost impossible."
Hmm. I can think of at least three replies to that:
Michael Laine was just looking for $8,000 to restart the LiftPort Group and put it on a path toward someday building a space elevator on the moon — but with a few days left to go on his Kickstarter campaign, the venture has attracted nearly $70,000 and counting. Which actually poses a challenge: What will he do with all that money?
"I've got to tell you the honest truth: I am tired," Laine told me today. "This campaign has taken me places I didn't expect. ... Now we've been burning the midnight oil trying to figure out what's next."
Laine's experience is in line with what other space entrepreneurs are finding: Crowdfunding campaigns can capitalize on the enthusiasm that regular folks have about outer-space ventures such as ArduSat (which would put Internet users in control of a yet-to-be-launched small satellite) and Uwingu (which aims to "game-ify" space exploration in an as-yet-unspecified way).
For raising tens of thousands of dollars, crowdfunding is great. But what does that mean for the outer-space marketplace, where the price tags traditionally run into millions or billions of dollars?
"Seventy thousand dollars in itself is not enough to build LiftPort the way it used to be," Laine said. "Everybody is saying, 'Hey, Michael, this is great! You got the money!' I'm thinking, 'That's great, but where does the next check come from?'"
The $70,000 is enough to get LiftPort back in the game, five years after it faltered: Back then, Laine and his colleagues in Bremerton, Wash., were experimenting with balloon-borne platforms and tether-climbing robots. Thanks to those experiments, LiftPort was taking small but significant steps toward building aerial systems that could be used for wireless communications and surveillance. LiftPort's business plan relied on such incremental innovations to make the money required for higher-altitude ventures, eventually leading to the construction of a "railway" to outer space.
The plan didn't work. When a deal to make carbon nanotubes in a New Jersey factor fell through, Laine faced legal action in the Garden State. Regulatory issues were raised in his home state of Washington. He lost the company's building to foreclosure, and had to put his space-elevator dreams on hold.
Two years ago, Laine signed a consent decree that resolved the regulatory mess in Washington state. The New Jersey matter is still somewhat in limbo, but he intends to get that resolved as well. "I still consider it part of my to-do list," Laine said.
Right now, getting LiftPort moving again is the top item on that to-do list. He has lots of Kickstarter premium items to make good on, ranging from space elevator cards to T-shirts to carbon-nanotube wedding rings. He's also working on reassembling the old team, and drawing up the strategy for launching tethered balloons to higher and higher altitudes.
"We're going to aim for at least 2 kilometers," Laine said. "I never doubted that for a second. Three kilometers shouldn't be a problem. Five, I'm definitely wondering about."
Heavy-duty scientific balloons typically rise up to altitudes of 100,000 feet (30 kilometers) or more before they pop, but Laine said he has to be more careful with the balloons used by LiftPort. The fact that they'll be tethered to the ground is an additional complicating factor. And $70,000 — or more likely $50,000 once all the premium items are distributed — can take you only so far.
Laine knows exactly how far he'd like to go: "It turns out that Mount McKinley is 6.2 kilometers [above sea level]. It's a completely arbitrary goal, but you know what? Let's be the tallest thing in North America. If we can reach to Mount McKinley's height ... I don't know if we can do that within the budget that we have."
To address that challenge, and get closer to the Lunar Space Elevator Infrastructure that he's promising to build, Laine is talking with potential angel investors — and the fact that he's been able to raise $70,000 on Kickstarter in just a couple of weeks should make an impression. The way Laine sees it, the fact that more than 2,300 people have given to the cause is even more impressive.
"I'm very grateful to those backers," Laine said. "Everybody is focusing on the dollar amounts, but I'm focusing on the number of individual backers. That number is much more important to me."
LiftPort isn't the only space venture in the crowdfunding game. Here are updates on some of the other ventures seeking out the wisdom (and wherewithal) of crowds:
Uwingu touts its goal of funding space projects through a for-profit venture.
Uwingu: This high-profile, for-profit venture is aimed at generating revenue through a series of public engagement projects that relate to space exploration. Half of the proceeds would be made available to educators and researchers for space projects. As of today, Uwingu has raised more than $35,000 of its $75,000 goal, with seven days left for fundraising on Indiegogo. Five corporate sponsors have been announced: Ball Aerospace, Moon Express, Parabolic Arc, Space Daily and XCOR Aerospace. Uwingu's organizers say they will unveil their first online product later this year. One of the venture's first beneficiaries will be the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array, which is searching for signals from alien civilizations. Mars exploration has also been cited as a priority.
ArduSat: Engineers and space activists banded together in June to seek crowdfunding via Kickstarter for their plan to put a CubeSat into orbit and let stakeholders take pictures or run experiments. Over the month that followed, the group raised $106,330 — way more than their original goal of $35,000. Now the team is developing the hardware and software for the ArduSat mission, with the aim of securing a ride-along launch to orbit in the next 18 months or so.
SkyCube: Southern Stars' Tim DeBenedictis wants to put a CubeSat called SkyCube into orbit, and he's raising money for the mission through Kickstarter. As of today, almost 2,300 backers have pledged almost $100,000 — exceeding the original goal of $82,500. DeBenedictis figures the total cost of the SkyCube mission will be $200,000, with the launch cost accounting for $125,000 of that total. The aim is to launch the satellite next year as a secondary payload on a SpaceX rocket. Depending on their level of support, Kickstarter backers could get a chance to have their tweets broadcast from space, take pictures from orbit ... or get a T-shirt.
Tau Zero Foundation: Rocket scientist Marc Millis is a researcher who looked into Star Trek-style propulsion technologies while he was at NASA, and helped create the Tau Zero Foundation when he left the space agency. This week he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money for a book-writing project. The book would capitalize on a graduate-level textbook he helped edit, titled "Frontiers of Propulsion Science," and present way-out propulsion concepts such as warp drives and faster-than-light travel in a style that's aimed at popular audiences. The promised premiums include copies of the book, acknowledgments in the book, in-person presentations and Tau Zero memberships. The campaign has raised $545 so far toward the $56,000 goal.
In a Web posting, co-founder Peter Diamandis says that in the month and a half since the asteroid-mining project was unveiled, he and his colleagues "have been overwhelmed at the response from people begging to know how they can get involved." In an associated email blast, Diamandis and the company's other co-founder, Eric Anderson, say they've gotten hundreds of emails asking about the project.
The company — which counts Google billionaires Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, space billionaire Charles Simonyi and Texas billionaire Ross Perot Jr. among its investors — has said it plans to launch its first asteroid-hunting space telescope, the Arkyd-100, within two years. But what Diamandis and Anderson really want to do is launch 10 to 15 of the 44-pound (20-kilogram) telescopes in the next three years.
"To offer you a chance to actually get involved, we’ve been tossing around the idea of adding additional capacity in our production run, and either offering you access to a portion of our orbiting spacecraft — or — if there’s enough demand, actually build you an additional Space Telescope for your own use," Diamandis wrote. "We'd probably do this through a Kickstarter campaign, but ONLY if there's enough interest."
Among the ideas that Diamandis is floating:
$100 for a chance to direct the Arkyd-100 and take a high-resolution photograph of anyplace on Earth, or a celestial body.
A desktop-scale model of the Arkyd-100.
A half-day at the controls of a satellite, allowing you to take up to 50 photos from space.
Invitations to the Planetary Resources launch party.
Planetary Resources isn't the only venture trying to take advantage of the crowdfunding model. Last week I wrote about the ArduSat project, which involves another guy named Peter (high-energy physicist and former Wall Street investment manager Peter Platzer). ArduSat's organizers are seeking $35,000 in Kickstarter pledges for the development of a sensor-laden nanosatellite that could be run as an orbital time-share. As of this writing, the pledge amount is at $31,631 with 24 days to go — which means it's virtually certain ArduSat will hit its funding target.
I also mentioned the DreamUp project, which is offering space on the International Space Station's experimental racks for student-built experiments at rates as low as $15,500. DreamUp is a partnership involving NanoRacks and the Conrad Foundation, and has the added twist that American Express Membership Rewards points can be redeemed to cover the cost of flying an experiment.