Sep. 7, 2012 at 8:57 PM ET
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: 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.
Planetary Resources: Billionaires already have provided their backing to this telescope-building and asteroid-mining venture, but Planetary Resources is also floating some potential premiums for crowdfunding, including spacecraft models, T-shirts, engravings on the spacecraft, or opportunities to point an orbiting telescope at objects on Earth or in space. The ideas haven't gotten to the Kickstarter stage yet, but Planetary Resources has been using its Facebook presence to gauge interest in the various options.
More about crowdfunding:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.