Nonprofit Organization Seeks To Raise a Billion Dollars To Fund Space Science Missions

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BOSTON — A new nonprofit organization seeking to develop a Mars sample-return mission and a space telescope by the mid-2020s says it will need an “all of the above” approach to raise money for those missions, including asking scientists themselves to contribute.

The New York-based BoldlyGo Institute announced plans June 3 to develop those two missions using private funding, an effort that will require a “billion-dollar-class” investment from philanthropic and other sources over the next decade, but one that would allow scientists to get around NASA budgetary constraints.

“We’re replete with outstanding missions that don’t fly because we’re resource limited as a community,” said Jon Morse, chief executive of the BoldlyGo Institute and former director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, in a presentation about the organization’s plans during a session of the 224th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) here. He cited in particular flat budgets for NASA’s astrophysics and planetary science programs. “This is a big part of the motivation for the BoldlyGo Institute,” he said.

The first of the missions BoldlyGo intends to pursue is Sample Collection for Investigation of Mars (SCIM), a Mars flyby mission that would dive deep into the martian atmosphere. The spacecraft would collect atmospheric dust during that flyby and return it to Earth.

The SCIM mission concept dates back more than a decade to when it was a finalist for NASA’s first Mars Scout mission, a competition won by the Phoenix Mars Lander. Laurie Leshin, the principal investigator for the original SCIM proposal, said at the AAS meeting that the organization was working with industry partner Lockheed Martin to update the mission concept, which she estimated had a total cost of a few hundred million dollars (Leshin, who is married to Morse, served as deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate before returning to academia in 2011.)

BoldlyGo’s second planned mission is ASTRO-1, a space telescope with a primary mirror 1.8 meters in diameter. Slated for launch in the mid-2020s, the telescope would be equipped with ultraviolet and visible light instruments to carry on observations currently performed by the Hubble Space Telescope. “This is for the post-Hubble era,” Morse said.

The organization is working with Ball Aerospace, Exelis and Corning on the design of ASTRO-1, including a complement of instruments. Morse later described the observatory as a “probe-class” mission, which in NASA nomenclature typically refers to missions with total costs of no more than $1 billion.

In his AAS presentation, Morse acknowledged the magnitude of the challenge BoldlyGo faces to fund these missions. “We know our fundraising is daunting,” he said. “We’re talking about billion-dollar-class investments that we’re looking to raise philanthropically over the next decade. We’re looking for an all-of-the-above strategy.” The organization has so far raised seed funding to cover its initial operations and is working on “significant” donations in the near future, he said.

One unusual element of that strategy is to ask scientists who plan to use ASTRO-1 to contribute. Morse said he foresees having scientists contribute up to a couple of hundred thousand dollars each in exchange for a share of observing time on the mission. Those contributions would be spread out over several years in installments small enough that Morse envisions scientists using crowdfunding to pay for them.

The funds raised through scientists’ contributions would not go to building ASTRO-1 but instead support the “scientific productivity” of the mission, such as data archives and observing tools. Those funds would also demonstrate the seriousness of support for the mission as BoldlyGo seeks larger donations. “Scientists showing that they have ‘skin in the game’ will help the overall fundraising effort, because it demonstrates widespread vested interest in the success of the endeavor,” Morse said.

BoldlyGo will also seek other sources of funding beyond contributions from scientists and philanthropists, such as corporate sponsorships. Morse added it is possible that NASA could also support the organization’s missions, such as funding an instrument for ASTRO-1 through a “mission of opportunity” competition.

BoldlyGo is not the first nonprofit organization to take on the challenge of funding space science missions. In 2012, the B612 Foundation announced plans to develop Sentinel, a space telescope designed to search for near-Earth objects. The foundation has estimated the mission’s total cost at $450 million.