Fly me to the moon

In the halcyon days of space exploration, when the USSR was sending the very first satellites into orbit, and Neil Armstrong was about to take his first (small) steps on the moon, NASA's finances accounted for a staggering 4.41% of the US federal budget. In the last two years, that figure has dropped below 0.50% for the first time since 1960, and with the long, slow decline in funding has come an equally steady slide in the US government's appetite for space exploration. 

The idea of crowd funding, where a large number of individuals pledge a small amount of cash towards a big project, may not be new, but it has been given a new lease on life through websites such as Kickstarter, which help people with innovative ideas reach a global audience. To date, Kickstarter has helped fund filmsvideo gameselectronics and more. Recently though, Kickstarter, and other sites like it, have begun to be used to fund missions to the final frontier.

The most ambitious and headline grabbing of them all is a new crowd-researched venture to send a manned submarine to Jupiter's ice moon, Europa. The fledgling mission hopes to take an amphibious vehicle farther than humanity has ever traveled before, to dive deep into the freezing oceans of Europa. At the moment, the project simply aims to connect people around the world to begin researching the mission funding for the operation will come much later. 

Europa is regarded as a suitable destination for human exploration due to the commonly held theory that beneath its icy surface lie great oceans of water in liquid form. Scientists suggest that Europa is one of the most likely locations in the Solar System to be capable of hosting extra-terrestrial life. Some have postulated that microbial life akin to that found in Earth's deepest oceans may already exist there. So compelling is this possibility that the European Space Agency is planning a mission tosend a robot to Europa in 2022

For von Bengston though, sending robots into space holds no interest. "If you send a piece of equipment to a part of space then you didn't actually go there. Robots are stupid mindless machines. They are not curious, they don't come up with ideas or solutions." 

von Bengtson's understands the criticism, but says that working towards a manned mission to Jupiter's moon fulfills another critical purpose: to inspire. He says that inspiring people is essential to kickstarting the kinds of discussions he hopes the operation will produce. "If we had talked about putting a solar panel into the sky, I guarantee we would not have got a dime in crowd funding. You need to have both the human and the pioneering aspect to attract interest."

Away from Operation Europa, von Bengtson and Madsen have aimed to muster this same enthusiasm to build support for their project to send a manned rocket into space. The Danish designer estimates that with the support he has received online, the project could come to fruition by 2020: "we are in a completely different age now," von Bengtson says. "You can reach everybody around the world. With the internet you can share your thoughts and ideas immediately and you can send money around the world. Copenhagen Suborbitals wouldn't be possible if you didn't have the internet. Everybody is able to join forces."

One of Manchester's former research associates, Michael Johnson, has a similarly ambitious project called Pocket Spacecraft that allows anyone to buy into a mission to send a thousand tiny spacecraft to the moon. Investors will be able to track their small ship, from its design and construction through to launch and onward to the moon. Manchester said: "I think that crowd funding is enabling new types of missions to be flown - smaller, cheaper, and riskier missions - that may not have been funded under traditional models. It is not going to replace the multi-billion dollar national space programs. Those programs, in fact, did the basic research that has enabled the current crop of crowd-funded space projects, including my own. The kind of sustained long-term research that governments have traditionally funded is still very much needed and I hope that it continues."

"If they want, our donors can come to Denmark and see the test of our rocket engines for free. Many like to do that, but most are just happy to be a part of the project. They find it important, and they find it interesting to follow. That dialogue is very important."



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