A previous post asked if a not-for-profit organization might accelerate space development. The government sector’s work in space has been, at best, glacial. And while the commercial sector talks a big game, it is constrained by the need to return a profit to investors within a reasonable timeframe. Also, no billionaire has yet come forward to commit massive amounts of funding to space settlement like the way Elon Musk seems to be doing with his dream to colonize Mars (i.e. with few strings attached). So, the government can’t do it, the private sector can’t do it, and we have no sugar daddy benefactor. Maybe it’s time we did it ourselves?
The government can’t do it, the private sector can’t do it, and we have no sugar daddy benefactor. Maybe it’s time we did it ourselves?
What follows is a thought experiment to incrementally build a funding stream to settle space. Specifically, a not-for-profit organization will raise money to construct a permanent, crewed, sustainable, multipurpose space station. It might look like the NGSS, eventually. It might look something like PISCES. It might just be Refinery. Whatever it is, it’s permanent and it will lay the groundwork for full-fledged space settlement. Let’s get started!
Step One: Set up a goal. Let’s boil it down to a business school style vision statement:
The vision of our organization is to build a sustainable and self-replicating space station to advance full-fledged space settlement.
Step Two: Make a plan. Let’s get some volunteers to write a roadmap to that specific goal. The NSS has a “roadmap” but it’s vague on the details and jumps all over the place. Our roadmap will identify specific technologies that must be developed and challenges that must be met in order to achieve our vision. We here at Marotta Space Research have already started composing such a roadmap (stay tuned for more info on that!) but, eventually a wider group of experts will have to weigh in on it. At this step the organization has few if any financial resources. So, it is hoped that some ‘early pioneers’ might be persuaded to edit and improve the roadmap. Perhaps some visionary graduate and doctoral students could be involved as well?
Step Three: Get the word out. Once the roadmap is refined as much as possible with the meager resources available, it’s time to take the show on the road. Formally create a not-for-profit (with all the necessary forms and tax authorities etc). Ask to speak at conferences. Post on Facebook. Let the world know that a space station is being built and anyone can be involved.
Step Four: Kickstarter. The X Prize and NASA’s Centennial Challenges prove that monetary prizes are an effective way to solve technical challenges. The same solution should be applied to space settlement. The roadmap will reveal areas in which prizes may be an appropriate means to advance towards our goal. However, before cash prizes can be offered, funding must be raised. A Kickstarter campaign, as well as a general call for donations, will help to fund the initial pot of money for these prizes. Before donations are solicited, the group will have to be formalized into a non-profit (see step three above) or some other corporate body with sufficient oversight to accept and manage thousands, and possibly tens of thousands of dollars. Once the prize account is funded, prizes will be announced at another conference or similarly public event.
Step Five: Retain intellectual property as a future funding stream. Up to now, everything proposed has been pretty feasible. But now we start getting into some hardcore speculation. We propose that the Kickstarter prizewinners agree to pay royalties to the not for profit as a condition of accepting the prize money. The royalties (once the underlying technology is commercialized) should be structured so that their existence in no way hinders the development of the technology (and thus the funding stream). It is unclear if this is even possible. Would anyone compete for funding, which is surely going to be a modest anyway (tens of thousands of dollars at most) if they know they’d have to give some of it up, even 1%, if they win? Is this even legal? Does a not for profit cease being not for profit if it starts receiving streams of regular revenue from profitable sources? Let’s be optimistic (naive?) and assume that this works. The not for profit successfully starts receiving regular royalties in the range of tens of thousands of dollars per year.
We propose that the Kickstarter prizewinners agree to pay royalties to the not for profit as a condition of accepting the prize money. It is unclear if this is even possible.
Step Six: Directly fund research projects. The organization should use the modest funding stream described in step five above to directly fund research projects that will further progress toward the goal. These projects will almost certainly not fly in space, due to the limited monies available. However, that doesn’t mean that they cannot be eye-catching, effective and lucrative.
They can be eye-catching by being branded as “firsts:” e.g. the first autonomous mass driver, the first demonstration of power beamed from orbit to orbit or from the orbit to ground, the first autonomous separation of ores, the first production of asteroid simulant, the first autonomous closed greenhouse for waste recycling and air filtration for use in a home or apartment, etc. They can be effective because all of these examples (and many more) will advance progress towards the goal described at the beginning of this post. And they might be ‘commercializable’ because they might have commercial applications in other industries i.e. aerospace, mining, agriculture, etc.
Some of the research projects could be non-technical as well. For instance, obtaining the first wireless power transmission license from orbit to ground. Or assisting with the creation of a legal regime for property rights in space. Or creating financial models and governance regimes for future space businesses and space communities.
Step Seven: Leverage the intellectual property. It is hoped that some of these projects will result in intellectual property that is 100% owned by the not for profit (as opposed to being partially owned like those described in step five). This ‘in-house’ intellectual property could be leveraged (i.e. sold or licensed) to raise additional revenue.
Step Eight: Combine, and repeat. By combining donations, prizes, in-house research and intellectual property leveraging, and repeating that combination, the not-for-profit can eventually raise significant streams of revenue. It will probably take many years (decades?) of consistent revenue and demonstrated expertise to persuade an investor to lend an amount of money sufficient to commence on-orbit operations i.e. tens of millions of dollars. And there will be setbacks. But at least progress will be made.
Building a not-for-profit space station is a very ambitious idea. Some might even say it’s crazy? Relax, suspend disbelief, and just enjoy the post. As always, your constructive input is welcomed.
In closing, it is important to remember that this has already been done. A not for profit has already raised millions of dollars for space exploration. In 2005 the Planetary Society raised $4 million to build and launch an experimental spacecraft. It failed, so they went ahead and raised another $1.8 million to try again. Perhaps, with the right people and the right message, using a not-for-profit to fund space development is not so farfetched after all?