Moonspike: Behind the scenes of the company that tried to use Kickstarter to get to the moon

[Update: Since this piece was written, the Moonspike crowdfunding period on Kickstarter ended unssuccessfully, raising just £78,962 of their £600,000 goal from 1,045 backers.

A statement on the official site reads, “Even if we receive no funding from this campaign, it has been great to see so many people offering fantastic support from all around the world. We are going to spend some time reviewing our options and objectives, and then we will give an update about what this means for the Moonspike project in the future.”]

Landing on the moon, as President John F Kennedy famously told us in 1962, is hard. Since the shutdown of the Apollo programme in 1972, only a handful of space agencies – Russia, Europe, China, Japan and India – have managed to successfully convey an inanimate object to the surface of our nearest astronomical neighbour.

Now, however, a band of amateur space enthusiasts led by entrepreneur Chris Larmour want to join that exclusive club. They’ve launched a Kickstarter funding campaign for a project called Moonspike. “The purpose of this is to see if a small team of dedicated and skilful engineers can build a rocket and send a small data payload to the moon,” said Larmour. “We might fail, but let’s really do it properly.”

The birth of the idea was hardly Hollywood material – it came while Lamour was browsing the link-sharing website Reddit in January 2015. “I saw one of these weather balloons going up into the sky with a GoPro attached to it taking pictures of the horizon,” said Larmour. “I just watched this, and I thought ‘can’t we just do something different?’ Then this little thought popped into my head: how hard can it be to get to the moon these days?”

Larmour mulled it over for a couple of days, looking for answers to that question, and stumbled across the website of a team of amateur Danish rocketeers. For about seven years, a group called Copenhagen Suborbitals has been building and launching privately-built rockets from a ship in the Baltic sea with budgets far smaller than Lamour had in mind for Moonspike. “I was very impressed with what the Copenhagen Suborbitals guys had done on really tiny budgets, in very short timescales,” he said. “They’ve launched some quite large rockets.”

First stepsmoonspike_trajectory01

He emailed the organisation’s founder, architect Kristian von Bengtson, and the two swiftly struck up a rapport. Von Bengtson had quit Copenhagen Suborbitals in February 2014 over a disagreement with fellow founder Peter Madsen, and busied himself in the meantime working on architectural sketches for the Mars One programme, which has been much-maligned. While von Bengtson declined to discuss the criticism levelled at Mars One, he did say in general terms that it’s important for space projects to get off the drawing board. “When time goes you need to begin to show progress in a certain way,” he said. “For me, coming from Copenhagen Suborbitals where it was all about the hardware, not about the drawings, I think that’s a better way to engage the public.”

That’s why, when Lamour’s email came through offering a real budget, von Bengtson jumped at the opportunity to build something again. “I did discover after leaving Copenhagen Suborbitals that life is pretty dull without having a space programme,” he said. The pair swiftly established that the goal was technically feasible, and began planning how it might be achieved.

“When Lamour’s email came through offering a real budget, von Bengtson jumped at the opportunity to build something again.”

Originally, the goal was solely to see if it was possible to put something on the moon with a small team, and the pair had no plans to conduct any kind of research mission with their spacecraft. But that changed when they started talking to researchers about the design of the capsule. “The reason we call it Moonspike is because the payload is contained in a small titanium spike,” Lamour said. “That spike is intended to penetrate the surface of the moon, and it turns out that there is quite a lot of interest in lunar penetration with instrumented penetrators.”

The titular spike will sit on top of a three-stage, 22-ton rocket, which an engineering team built largely from Copenhagen Suborbitals’ volunteers’ designs. “You can create this rocket maybe tens or hundreds of different ways, but we’ve decided on a feasible production method and technology we believe we can handle,” said von Bengtson. Details of that method will be published alongside the Kickstarter in a “feasibility report” so that potential backers can check out the designs before choosing whether or not to support it. “People can see that this is actually feasible, and they’re very welcome to provide feedback,” he added.

A million dollarsmoonspike_rockettext01

Moonspike is seeking a million dollars to fund their lunar expedition, but Lamour acknowledges this won’t be anywhere near enough to actually get their spike to the surface of the moon. “Frankly a million bucks isn’t enough – we’re going to need some tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “I can’t tell you exactly how much – it depends how much we get right and how much we get wrong along the way. I think this project is just too risky, at this stage, to take to a more institutional investor. Kickstarter, for me, I think they’re quite risk-tolerant investors – but what they’re not tolerant of is people abusing their trust. We’re offering to take this forward in a very realistic and pragmatic way, and not waste money on silly things.”

“To many of you, that’s going to ring alarm bells. No-one likes being called “risk-tolerant” with their money.”

To many of you, that’s going to ring alarm bells. No-one likes being called “risk-tolerant” with their money. When asked what happens if the Kickstarter delivers but the search for further funding falls flat, Lamour is somewhat elusive. “We’ve been having discussions with Kickstarter along the way,” he said. “They’ve guided us that your goal should be to achieve the project you set out to achieve. That doesn’t mean you want to get to the moon, it might just be a phase along the way. It has to be a significant step along the way – like we’re going to create the first rocket motor and demo that it’s working.”

As well as the aforementioned feasibility report, von Bengtson promises that backers will get weekly updates on what’s happening. “You’re literally going to be able to see every week: ‘we’re working on this’, ‘this is what it looks like’, ‘this is the test’,” he said. Backers will get a range of perks depending on the size of their contribution – from small rocket parts and mission patches to factory tours, logos on the rocket and even engraved names on the spike itself. “Even if this project does not ultimately reach its goal, we hope to offer plenty of rewards here on Earth to make people feel they were valued participants,” said Lamour.

Moonspike declined to share the contents of its Kickstarter page with Alphr in advance of publishing, but what Lamour does say is that the Kickstarter cash will allow the company to set up a factory, recruit core members of staff and start designing, developing, building and buying components to start actually building the rocket. During that process, he’ll hunt for further investment from more traditional sources. “The total plan is multi-year,” he said, and declined to name a launch date. “We approach this project in a serious way, and that means understanding that there will be some unforeseen hurdles and delays, whether technical, regulatory or financial. So making a prediction is really difficult.” Longer-term, Moonspike’s business plan is R&D. “Our goal is to build this machine and get it to the moon, and we are fairly sure that that launch and delivery capability will open doors to longer term return on investment,” Lamour said.

Free access to anywhere on the planetmoon

Another easy criticism of Moonspike’s plan is that the team are reinventing the wheel, especially as Russia achieved pretty much the same goal with its Luna 2 probe back in 1959. But von Bengtson bats away that interpretation. “I don’t think so,” he said. “First of all, there’s not really been been progress in these matters for a long time. What you see as new efficient ways of access to space actually come from new initiatives like SpaceX, who are going to kill the market completely.”

“Secondly, why should I be at the mercy of public transportation to space?” he asked. “Why can’t I create my own transport system or logistics into low earth orbit, or space, opening up this for others as well. I think free access to anywhere on the planet or in space is necessary, just for progress and innovation in general. That’s why it’s important to do this.”

“It’s going to be a struggle for Moonspike to get off the ground – metaphorically and literally.”

Of course, the spectre of Elon Musk’s private spaceflight firm, SpaceX, looms large over Moonspike. SpaceX is the most successful non-governmental spaceflight project in history, and despite Copenhagen Suborbitals’ list of notable achievements, it’s nowhere close to being in the same league. Meanwhile, the list of private spaceflight firms that are trapped in the “research” phase is longer than a trip to Mars. It’s going to be a struggle for Moonspike to get off the ground – metaphorically and literally. On top of the technical and regulatory challenges, there’s also the challenge of just persuading people that the goal is as feasible as their numbers purportedly show it to be.

“I really want to try and do this genuinely,” said Lamour. “And I know it’s going to take some energy and some money to get there, and a lot of sweat and form-filling-out and regulatory hurdles to get through, but I’m willing to do it if we’re really going to take a shot at it.” Von Bengtson added: “We’re not waiting for a chance of jumping on someone else’s ride, we’re creating the entire infrastructure ourselves. In that process there’s a lot of science to be added. Taking what’s best of what happened at Copenhagen Suborbitals and basically taking it to the next level, where I can have better and more dedicated people, it’s just amazing. I feel confident that this is going to be a lot of fun.”

You can back the Moonspike Kickstarter campaign here.

Image: David DeHetre used under Creative Commons

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