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The rocky road to space funding through crowdsourcing

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The Mars Society has just announced an exciting new crowdsourcing initiative, giving space enthusiasts everywhere the opportunity to participate in an ambitious new mission. The international non-profit organization based in Lakewood hopes to raise $100,000 by April 21st to fund the next steps in their effort to conduct a one-year simulated Mars mission at their research station on Devon Island, high in the Canadian arctic.

While $100,000 seems a trivial amount of funding for a respected group like the Mars Society to raise through crowdsourcing, history reveals the outcome is anything but guaranteed. Sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer hit-and-miss results since they don’t provide any consistent or reliable way for a donor to quickly browse the list of available causes using intelligent filters - like space exploration, for example. As a result, most people on these sites (let alone the public at large) will never become aware of many crowdsourcing projects of great interest to them.

Mars-365: high risk, high reward

Conducting a one-year mission in the Canadian arctic requires courage and a healthy spirit of risk-taking seldom seen in the space community since the end of the Apollo era. Browsing the Mars Society’s Mars-365 mission plan, one can’t help but notice the many known dangers facing the crew.

Simulation astronauts must deal with earthly threats from wind, cold, darkness, and polar bears in addition to Mars-realistic challenges of equipment reliability, crew isolation psychology, health and exercise, communications, exploration logistics, food storage and preparation, entertainment, mission support interactions, longer length-of-day, spacesuit wear and tear, and in-situ resource utilization. Earlier simulations have included several of these factors, but the Mars-365 mission brings the simulations to a whole new level of realism. It’s the closest we can come to the “Mars on Earth” mindset driving the past decade of Mars analogue studies.

The biggest challenge by far

Despite the daunting technical and psychological issues, the Mars Society’s biggest challenge is fund raising. Their total budget to complete the year-long simulation hovers near $1 million dollars. Few non-profits have the ability to raise that level of funding on their own.

Crowdsourcing was supposed to offer a solution, yet most projects fight to be noticed on the crowdsource sites. Kickstarter seems dominated by small “local” causes, making it hard for projects with wider geographical scope and benefit to be noticed. Indiegogo search results use simple pattern matching, requiring a potential donor to know the name of the project ahead of time. Some projects can be found through “recommendations”, though why some projects are recommended - and by whom - remains a mystery.

The key to successful crowdsourcing remains advertising outside the site. Groups like the Mars Society can send a direct link to their crowdsource page to thousands of members. Since a donor can’t navigate to a web page they don’t know about, each crowdsource page effectively become an extension of each group’s site. Without a better search mechanism, the greater donor community can’t find these pages.

A problem with massive scope

Forgetting the rest of the world for the moment and concentrating only on the United States, 78% of the American public (about 250 million out of 320 million people) consistently supports the space program on surveys and would like to see NASA funding increased. If each of these American space supporters knew about an effort like the Mars-365 mission and donated a dollar to support it, the Mars Society could raise nearly $250 million dollars. If only 1% of American space supporters heard about the project and overcame their inertia, a fund raising drive could still raise millions of dollars.

Yet most crowdsourcing efforts fail spectacularly for space or technology projects. Few come anywhere near their funding goals. Professional fund-raising groups with far wider reach and better political connections continue to dominate the donations landscape, even on the crowdsourcing sites.

Project Moon Dust, a recent Kickstarter project to package educational materials related to lunar regolith simulant has only raised $700 of its $40,000 goal at the time this article was written. The Kickstarter campaign expires on March 7th, so the odds of reaching the goal seem remote. As disappointing as these results must be for the sponsors, they are typical. Most crowdsource projects meet a similar fate.

Some worthy causes do come close to meeting their goals. Mars-One recently raised over $313,000 to fund the next steps of their project to send real crews to Mars in the early 2020’s - a useful outcome for sure - but the project fell short of its $400,000 goal. With more time or world-wide awareness, the drive could easily have reached its modest goal.

Rare crowdsource projects surpass their goals, though the donation amounts remain pitiful compared to the potential donor base. A Kickstarter campaign for Planetary Resources’ ARKYD telescope project recently raised $500,000 over their $1 million goal. Planetary Resources drove to success through media advertising and the support of a small pool of ultra-wealthy sponsors.

Other crowdsourcing options may provide a better alternative for donors who wish to support worthy space exploration projects. Over its short two year history, Uwingu has launched several creative fund raising campaigns and has funded several worthy space science projects. As of February 26th, any donor can name a crater or region on Mars via the Uwingu site. And if Mars craters aren't grand enough, donors can name whole exoplanets through a previous crowdsourcing effort.

The rocky road to funding Utopia

As this article is written, the Mars-365 project has only generated $5000 in donations on Indiegogo, 5% of its goal. As members of a future-focused technological society, we simply must do better. What amazing things can we accomplish in space if a mere 0.1% of the world-wide public collectively stops wasting donation dollars on dubious political extensions, starts supporting worthy, future-oriented projects, and - most importantly - can find those projects through crowdsourcing?

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