WASHINGTON — A European entrepreneur and engineer are betting they can raise nearly $1 million in a month-long crowdfunding campaign that began Oct. 1 to start work on a spacecraft to land on the moon.
Moonspike, a company registered in Britain but with its engineering team based in Copenhagen, plans to develop a spacecraft to crash-land a tiny payload on the surface of the moon, as well as a rocket to launch it. The effort, its founders say, is driven as much by curiosity about whether the project is feasible as by any commercial opportunities.
Chris Larmour, a former executive in several European technology companies, said the idea of Moonspike came to him early this year after watching videos of high-altitude balloon flights. “I wondered if we could do something different, and the first thing that came into my head was, ‘How hard could it be to get to the moon these days?’” he recalled in an interview.
He later discussed the idea with Kristian von Bengtson, who was one of the founders of Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish organization attempting to build a one-person suborbital rocket. Von Bengtson agreed that the concept was feasible, although challenging. “You have to look at it as some kind of engineering adventure,” he said.
As currently planned, Moonspike will develop its own three-stage rocket to launch a spacecraft weighing 150 kilograms. That spacecraft will deliver to the moon a small impactor with a payload weighing as little as one gram. The payload will consist of flash memory loaded with images and other data provided by the mission’s backers.
Larmour said Moonspike decided to take on the additional challenge of building a launch vehicle to adhere to the spirit of his original concept. “I started this journey asking the question of how hard it would be to get something to the moon, not asking how hard it would be to pay someone else to get it there for me,” he said. “We need to build a rocket to prove to ourselves and others that this can or cannot be done by a small, dedicated group of people.”
Moonspike, though, is keeping an open mind to commercial applications, particularly for its launch vehicle. “We’re not trying to beat SpaceX, but you never know where this will take us,” von Bengtson said. “It might lead to other missions later on.”
Larmour said he expects Moonspike to cost “tens of millions” of dollars, most of which he expects to raise later in the project from individual investors or venture capital firms. Moonspike is planning to raise an initial 600,000 pounds ($910,000) through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter in October.
That funding will go towards initial development of some of the key subsystems of the spacecraft and launch vehicle over the next year, including tests of rocket engines. “The money will be transferred into production very quickly,” von Bengtson said. “From that, hopefully we can create a foundation to go to the next step of financing.”
Backers of the crowdfunding campaign will have the opportunity to add their data to the mission’s payload, and also will have access to regular updates from the Moonspike team as they work on their spacecraft and launch vehicle. Larmour and von Bengtson said they plan to be “completely transparent” about their efforts to win trust from backers and potential future funding sources.
As part of that transparency, the Moonspike team acknowledges they’re not sure when the mission itself will launch. “I think there’s a tendency in the space business to overpromise and underdeliver,” Larmour said. “It will be several years, to be sure, but I can’t be more precise.”
One immediate challenge for Moonspike is raising that initial funding. Kickstarter operates on an “all-or-nothing” basis, meaning that projects get the money pledged by donors only if those pledges meet or exceed the stated goal. If Moonspike falls short of that goal, it receives no money.
“We don’t have a Plan B. It is all or nothing,” Larmour said, adding that he didn’t think it was feasible to raise that initial round of funding from other, more conventional sources. “We’re hopeful that we’ll get a very good response.”
Moonspike is not the first lunar mission to use crowdfunding to raise money. In 2014, Lunar Mission One, another British venture with plans to develop a large lunar lander, raised more than 670,000 pounds ($1.01 million) on Kickstarter, exceeding its goal by more than $100,000. SpaceIL, an Israeli team competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, raised nearly $285,000 earlier in 2014.
Von Bengtson said Moonspike spent months working on this crowdfunding campaign and was optimistic about its chances. Having left Copenhagen Suborbitals in 2014, he is glad to be involved in another space project. “I have found out, on a personal level, that life is quite boring without having a space program.”