The explosive growth in crowdsourcing as a viable means of raising capital for artistic and product design projects has leaked into the most adventurous and daring of human endeavours - space exploration. Via crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, engineers and dreamers have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for launching satellites, making spacesuits or even creating space elevators. Space is not the exclusive domain of the State, but groups of like-minded individuals connected by their passions and the Internet.
On July 14th, 2012 Tim DeBenedictis launched a Kickstarter campaign to design and built a satellite that can take pictures of Earth, broadcast tweets and eventually inflate a visible balloon, visible from space. On September 12th the campaign closed, raising $116,890 and nearly $40,000 over their target. Coincidently the final day of the campaign was the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's famous speech to commit the United States to landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Donations came from all parts of the World in exchange for broadcasting time on the 'Skycube' or the opportunity to take pictures from orbit.
As of January 19th, DeBenedictis has been overcoming engineering hurdles, communication problems and design challenges. In December they tested parts in a vaccuum chamber, placing the "main processor board, power system, radio, and cameras in a hard vacuum chamber with pressures below 5x10-5 Torr, at temperatures up to 80 degrees C (180 degrees F), for more than 6 hours.". The hallmark of Aerospace Engineering is rigorous testing - crowdfunded space exploration is no different. But is it scaleable? Can we manage the risk adequately to get a man into space?
In Denmark, Copenhagen Suborbitals has been designing and testing their own brand of rockets, capsules and launch systems (covered brilliantly by The Verge a few days earlier). Staffed with former NASA engineers and designers, sponsored by companies like Dassault Systems and funded by monthly subscriptions, donations and crowdfunding campaigns, Copenhagen Suborbitals has been getting closer and closer to their goal of launching a human into space. They have already tested their rocket 45 times, gone through 3 re-iterations of their capsule and completed 4 rocket launches. While it's proven that one can raise money from the crowd to launch rockets, can you crowdsource design and engineering solutions.
In a way, KickSat accomplished this. Zac Manchester, a grad student in Aerospace Engineering at Cornell launched his own Kickstarter campaign to raise $30,000 for a satellite filled with hundreds of smaller 'microsatellites'. These tiny ChipSats could be programmed by participates to do things like take readings or transmit information (only about 5 characters), powered by small solar cells. After a few days to weeks, the ChipSats burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry. As of this moment, KickSat is slated to be launched in late 2013 by hitching a ride up to space on FalconX's resupply mission for the International Space Station.
In the future, it might be possible to raise money to put your own CubeSat into space, carrying experiments or sensors designed by legions of engineers and designers and connected via platforms like GrabCAD and their own passion for exploration (GrabSATs, anyone?). It's a brave new world out there, finally within the grasp of people rather than larger entities, aided by the rapid drop in costs in everything from design, to computing to micro-electronics to launch-costs.