Lunar elevators and asteroid mining: Kickstarting the next chapter of space exploration

Privately funded space missions might sound like the preserve of the financial elite, but the truth is actually a little more pedestrian. Speaking at Expand New York today, Michael Laine (LiftPort) and Chris Lewicki (Planetary Resources) both extolled the virtues of people power, and the critical role it will play in the future of private space exploration. Head past the break to find out how you might play a part in the next chapter of space research.

Lewicki was first to sing the praises of Kickstarter, not just for the financial resources, but also the community it brings with it. When asked about the role crowdfunding had played in his projects, Lewicki's response was simple. Not only was it critical financially, but it also provided confirmation that they were on the right path. "What we're doing is an incredible undertaking. It's more about answering a question than raising the money. Is the public interested in what we're doing?" The answer to that was a resounding "yes." His team's ARKYD telescope blew through its million dollar target, raising an additional $500,000 on top. But the real reward, claims Lewicki, was the overwhelming public interest. The following day, his team received more than 1,000 unsolicited job applications from people just wanting to be involved.

Laine had similar stories. For him, the human resources that come with crowdfunding were as valuable as the monetary ones. So impressed was he with some of the people that supported his team's Lunar elevator project, he actually invited them to be on the board of advisors. "The connections and relationships you build with those people are really important. The community is really paying off." Lewicki agreed, pointing out that crowdfunding is as much a benefit to the bad ideas as the good ones. After all, if it doesn't meet its target, you've just been given some pretty solid feedback. "And you only put 30 days into it," he said.

Of course, government-backed space projects are still crucial. Something like Curiosity is only possible with the kind of resources available to NASA, but Lewicki was keen to highlight that this level of endeavor comes at a cost. "When failure isn't an option, projects get really expensive. A private company would never be able to do anything like this. But also, private projects don't come with 50 years of baggage."

While we're still quite a few years out from seeing Laine's Lunar Elevator or Lewicki's commercial asteroid mining become a reality, there are real-world rewards coming to Earth already. As anyone who owns a NASA space pen knows, when you undertake a huge research task, you have to innovate, and it's these new discoveries (or Intellectual Properties) that are providing real-world products today. Laine cited breakthroughs they've had in robotics and materials that are finding their way into tangible products very soon. Lewicki echoed the sentiment, with some of his team's work having value for defense departments as well as the private sector.