Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Our Future in Space



Greetings friends and welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am very pleased to be joined by three key members of the National Space Society’s team who are here to discuss their Kickstarter project Our future in Space.  

Lets go down the list, first off we have Paul Damphousse, Executive Director of the National Space Society.  

PD: Welcome to the National Space Society and our first Kickstarter campaign!

Next up is Ken Murphy, president of the Moon Society and vice president of his local chapter of the NSS.  

KM: Howdy everyone!

Finally we have Jay Wittner Founding Member Space Finance Group and Executive Director Space LIteracy Foundation  

JW: Good afternoon!

Honestly I love the idea behind your project, would you care to explain it to our readers? Is it basically a guided tour of the near future?

JW: The project is to create a video explaining to the public why space exploration and development are so important.  Before leaping into the future we’ll explain the benefits we currently enjoy from our investments in space: things like spin offs and our satellite network (TV service, communications, navigation, weather).  Then we’ll talk about many of the exciting developments already underway.  Then we’ll showcase the benefits space development can bring to humanity in the future...if we’ll roll up our sleeves and get to work.

PD:  We intend to reach folks where they are, by producing a high-quality, edgy film about the benefits of space to all.  We’ll also give a bit of a tease for our next project, a full-length IMAX feature film.


What brings the NSS to Kickstarter?  With the political connections you have and the long standing nature of your group one would assume you wouldn’t need outside funding for a straightforward project such as this.  

KM: NSS does not receive funding from NASA.  It is a member-funded organization like Sierra Club or United Nations Association.

JW: Like most nonprofit groups, there are many demands on the funds NSS has available.  We felt that this project was so important and so obviously beneficial to the entire space advocacy community that it was an ideal candidate for Kickstarter.  It’s a great way to get the space community involved and provides each Backer with the satisfaction of knowing that they are helping build the future with their contribution.   

PD:  Crowdfunding for space projects is quickly becoming popular and gaining traction among those who want to join like-minded people to support their efforts.  The NSS is a member-based organization -- the Kickstarter campaign allows us to fund the resulting film while also bringing attention to the NSS and our vision.

Before we go into more detail on the project would you be kind enough as to talk a bit more about the NSS itself.  Your project and website both mention that you’ve been around since 1987 and that “NASA and the space community know about NSS,” but that your group may be new to the general public.  

KM: NSS was formed in 1987 from the fusion of the National Space Institute, formed by Dr. Wernher von Braun, and the L-5 Society, a community-based organization of space activists that had sprung up after the publication of “The High Frontier” by Dr. Gerard O’Neill, both in the 1970s.  Early leadership of NSS included renowned author Ben Bova and current NASA Dep. Admin. Lori Garver.  More recently, current Virgin Galactic president George Whitesides served as ED in the mid-2000s..  NSS hosts the International Space Development Conference each year, sponsors art and writing contests, provides scholarships, supports outreach efforts like the NSS-Kalam Energy Initiative and Space Ambassadors, and publishes the well-regarded Ad Astra magazine.

PD:  The NSS is THE citizen’s voice on space.  Together with our 8000 members and over 50 chapters, we continue to advance our goals of developing a space-faring civilization and of using the vast resources of space for the betterment of humanity.

Do you think your group has a bit of a public outreach issue?  I’ll be honest I have been working in the space industry for over a decade and if it wasn’t for Ad Astra I’d have never heard of you.  In fact I did a quick survey of my fellow members of the space community (Space Network employees) and only two out of twenty-six people I asked have even heard of your organization.  If folks who’ve been working literally decades in the business haven’t heard of you, what are the chances of a random member of the public knowing about your group?  

KM: This is an issue that all organizations face in the crowded marketplace of ideas.  I would posit that part of the issue within the space industry is that NSS is not a professional advancement type of organization like AIAA, AIA, IAA, SWE, AWIS, and others, making membership in NSS less of a priority.  Even within the space advocacy arena, there are many organizations that pursue agendas more specific than NSS, giving them higher visibility with respect to certain aspects of space exploration.

Nevertheless, NSS represents a kind of umbrella organization encompassing the diversity of interests in space.  In that respect it plays an invaluable role in educating the citizenry on the many ways that space is important to the future of our nation and of the world.

PD:  Your point is a good one, and one that we’ve started to address under my leadership.  One common aspect of the space advocacy community is that we are really good at advocating to the space advocacy community...  It’s what I call the “echo chamber” or “preaching to the converted.”  When we talk just to ourselves we tend to reach an equilibrium and new exposure tends to decrease, not unlike what you just described in the informal poll of your network.

The Kickstarter campaign is one of many projects we’ve initiated since I took the helm aimed at bringing what the space advocacy community already knows to the mainstream populace.  It’s all about meeting people where they are, as I mentioned before.  Our mission and goal is to make the benefits and excitement of space accessible to all.

I only ask because I think a Kickstarter such as your should be doing quite well given the subject matter.  Who wouldn’t want to see a professionally done video describing our near future and not just the far off dreams of science fiction?  Whose idea was it to start this project and why?  

JW: I was speaking with Paul Damphousse about potential NSS projects for 2013 and how they might be pursued and financed.  During that conversation the concept of running a Kickstarter campaign to produce a top quality video explaining the importance of space development was proposed.  After the conversation, Paul and I each conferred with various colleagues and late last year we committed to the project.

PD: As I alluded to earlier, we have long-term plans to produce an IMAX film, an effort that is well-underway with our partners.  The Kickstarter campaign as a stand-alone effort is a good lead-in to that larger project.  And Jay and his team were the natural fit to put this campaign together based on their previous Kickstarter successes.

One of the key parts of  your proposed video in my opinion is answering the question, “Does space matter?”  How widespread do you think the idea is that, “Space doesn’t matter.  We have enough problems here on Earth.”  Do you see your video as a step in fighting that mindset?  

KM: Space does matter, but for many people the relevance to their lives is unknown or unclear.  The view that I typically see is that people believe that NASA is being shut down (even though its budget hasn’t declined materially), a view enabled or even fostered by the press, and so space must not be important if our government leaders aren’t going to spend money on it.  

The intent of the video is to show the relevance of space development, how it can help solve the problems here on Earth, the tools we have or will soon have to make it happen, and why now is the time to push for space development to bolster our future economic prosperity.

PD:  Sometimes folks think that space is some abstract, far-away place that has no impact on life here on Earth.  The fact is that “space” as we define it starts just a mere 100 km above our heads -- the International Space Station, for example, flies above the surface of the Earth at a distance less than that of DC to New York.  Space is all around us and we live within it, albeit protected by the atmosphere, gravity, and magnetic field of the Earth.  And our current and future activities in space -- from communications, to remote sensing, to imaging and weather prediction, to defense -- effect every single person on this planet,

It is imperative the people understand this, and that space is not a distraction but rather the way in which we’ll solve those problems mentioned here on Earth.  This is the mission of the NSS, to educate the public.

How important is public opinion for the future of space development?  Anecdotally from working in the industry it seems that our livelihoods and future all rest very much on public opinion.  

KM: The answer to this question depends in part on one’s perspective on how space development will unfold.  If one believes that only the government can fund and operate in space, then such development will always be subject to the whims of elected representatives holding the public purse strings. In this case public opinion is more important as it informs legislators on how to vote.  If space is not a priority or even an interest of the citizenry, then neither will it be so of the legislators.

If one considers that private industry will be developing space infrastructure and assets, then public opinion is largely irrelevant.  As long as companies are providing products and services that are of interest to consumers and other companies (or the government), then they will prosper.

The real answer is that space development will be a collaboration between industry and government, as it is in most every other sector of the economy.  NASA and other government agencies have a strong role to play in that development, and so public opinion is important, but as the private sector gains steam through capital investments  and commercial successes then the space industry will develop with NASA, not because of it.

What are some examples of the stories you want to tell in the video?  What’s the latest bit of space news to catch your eye and make you go, “See?  This is why we do this.  This is how we get ourselves into space in my lifetime and not wait for the next generation.”  

KM: The story that I want to tell is how we have the pieces right now to start putting the energy and resources available to us in space to use for the benefit of Earth, both directly and indirectly.  We can’t continue befouling our cradle and hope that we’ll have a wonderful and beautiful future.  By using the energy and resources of space we can start remediating the damage we’ve already done and start working towards a planet that is a much better place to live.

JW: For me there have been a few recent moments that caught my notice.  At the Society’s ISDC conference in Washington, the SpaceX Dragon capsule reached the space station during the first day of the conference while Administrator Bolden was presenting.  That really started ISDC on a high note.  More recently the announcement by Bigelow Aerospace that they would be sending an inflatable module to ISS could mark the beginning of a new era of space development.  In general commercial operations have the capability to take action more quickly than governmental agencies...this is why the growing commercial sector is so exciting.

PD:  We very well could be on the verge of a “tipping point” with regard to the future of space.  And this is in no small part is due to the recent surge in new commercial space ventures and activities.  These activities may be somewhat unknown to the general public but will have a huge impact on our future -- this will be a major aspect of our film.

We will highlight the impact companies such as Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, XCOR, and Blue Origin are having to name a few.  Plus we will reveal the long-term plans of companies like Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, and Golden Spike to explore the moon and mine the asteroids in our solar system.

The mystique of space seems to have worn off since the Apollo program.  Even more so with the ending of the shuttle program.  I’ve even gone so far to describe the feeling here in the Space Network as well as the Deep Space Network as a feeling of ennui falling over everything.  Do you see us more at the end of something great or the start of something greater?  What kind of optimism and energy are you trying to share with this project?  

KM: My view is that we are in the pause between what was, and what will be.  That moment when the players are gathering their forces for the next push and laying the groundwork for success.  The old ways are crumbling under their own ossification, and it is that creative destruction which is starting to enable a real genesis of a human spaceflight industry beyond the usual NASA handmaidens.  This is why there is a proliferation of small niche companies to address specific aspects of that development.  This is healthy for the industry, even if many companies will eventually fail, as they will serve as fertilizer for those who come after.

I think we’re also seeing a shift in generational mindsets.  Whereas older generations (say 50+) were nurtured by an ongoing series of government successes in their youth, younger generations (say <50) have not been so fortunate, having seen a long period of largely status quo efforts.  An occasional big mission to the outer solar system, lots of missions to Mars, a Shuttle, now gone, circling in LEO, and a space station that took two and a half decades to build and now we can’t get to it.

The old paradigms have to change, and the existing power structures can either embrace that change or fight them until they become irrelevant by the march of history.  Embracing the change will hasten the benefits.  Trying to keep the old ways going will only stifle efforts to advance.

How busy would the folks at the Space Network be if instead of the occasional big mission to the outer solar system there were instead a network of probes strategically placed at Lagrange points around the solar system using the Interplanetary Superhighways?  These could collect data on the asteroid belt from Sun-Mars L2 and Sun Jupiter L1, serve as communications relays at the Venus Equilaterals, watch the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud from Sun-Saturn L2, collect ongoing data on all the bodies of the solar system.  And we could bring them home periodically to facilities in Cislunar Space for servicing, repair and upgrade, effectively Hubble-izing our space assets so that we don’t continue to throw expensive equipment into the void.  How much data traffic would that generate for y’all?

PD:  The past is prologue.  The future in space before us is more exciting than ever -- we intend to convey this excitement through our film.

With NASA seemingly taking a lesser role in space development where do you see the future advancements coming from?   Liftport Group?  Planetary Resources?  Virgin Galactic?  Lasermotive?  

KM:  Future advances are going to come from a combination of NASA and private industry.  My background in finance makes me hesitant to point to specific examples that will be a success, but there are certain things to look for.  The fundamental question is how is the company’s product or service of benefit, making it valuable to others.  How that value is defined is one of the great wonders of the free market.  It may well be that there is a market for subscriptions to asteroid datasets from governments, universities, foundations and companies.  I do believe there is great potential in microgravity science, and the suborbital efforts we’re seeing represent a logical step from the short timescale of drop towers and vomit comet flights and automated sounding rockets, to monitored experiments on suborbital flights, which can be used to provide initial verification of experiments destined for the ISS or lab benches on private stations.  Private companies have an incentive to produce more customers, and so seek out new people to bring into the space fold.  NASA may have a mandate to reach out, but lacks any real incentive to do so.  Absent huge increases in the NASA budget (unlikely), the space industry will have to grow through the infusion of investment capital into the sector and a blossoming of niche efforts to provide the tools and services for a robust space future.

Star Trek only happens if we make it happen.  The government isn’t going to make it happen for us.  We can keep dreaming about what might be, or we can make it happen.

Where is the video going to be shown?  I see at the $55,000 stretch level you plan on sharing the video with the entirety of congress, but if you don’t hit that level do you still plan on sharing it with them?  Just on a more one on one basis in your usual meetings?

JW: If we reach the $55,000 funding level we’ll provide a DVD copy of the video to every member of Congress, the governors of all 50 states, and other government leaders.  If we don’t reach that level, it will be shared with government leaders in other ways.  We’ll have the capability of hand delivering the video to certain members of Congress and their staffers during our annual Legislative Blitz in Washington.  We may also make it available in download form through the NSS website.

How hard was it to bring in the filmmakers you have lined up?  Jeffrey Marvin, Nigel Ashcroft, Christopher Riley, and Timothy Ferris don’t strike me as folks who just sign up for a project on a whim.

JW: We realized early on that it was critical to the project that our video be professionally produced. We needed a team  that was fully qualified to do this.  The ideal team would have such impeccable credentials that everybody would know that the video would be great.  We’re delighted at the team we have in place and appreciate their working on our project.   

You are asking for $35,000 to produce a fifteen minute video, isn’t this number a bit high?  Or does all this talent come with a hefty cost?  Any reason you didn’t set the project to your $500,000 stretch goal level of a full feature length presentation?

JW: Several people have suggested that we could create the video for less than $35,000 and that’s certainly true.  Our goal however is not to produce the video at the lowest possible cost, our goal is to produce a video that’s compelling, professional, and helps us finally get the space message to a broader audience.  As the first Kickstarter project ever tackled by NSS, we felt that we wanted a funding goal we were almost certain we could achieve.  Very few Kickstarter projects have ever reached $500,000 so we decided to incorporate a stretch goal structure for the campaign.  

How did you discover Kickstarter?

JW:  Ken and I are both members of the Space Finance Group.  Our objective is to help worthy space organizations like NSS obtain funding so they can achieve their objectives.  We’ve all been aware of Kickstarter for some time, but when we researched Kickstarter on a more formal basis we concluded that it was a fantastic platform that the space community could really benefit from.

Michael Laine is a friend of Kickstarter Conversations and the creator of the successful Space Elevator Kickstarter.  How important was his experience with Kickstarter to your decision to come here.

JW:  There are several organizations similar to Kickstarter, such as Indiegogo and RocketHub.  Each operates somewhat differently, but we felt that the web traffic enjoyed by Kickstarter was so much larger than the other sites that Kickstarter was the right choice.  The great success that the LiftPort space elevator campaign enjoyed also gave us additional confirmation.  

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

JW: We’re engaging with our Backers in various ways and will continue to do so.  We’ve already sent out a couple of updates and have a third about to go out.  We’re responding to the various questions and comments that come in.  We’re already closing in on the $35,000 goal figure, once we pass that we’ll probably incorporate new content as the focus shifts to the early stretch goals.
Our Future in Space - A National Space Society Video -- Kicktraq Mini
What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  

KM: I’m in the process of putting together a Google+ Hangout for Wednesday, February 6th that will feature new voices for space from a variety of groups involved in our space future, including Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), NASA Academy, Yuri’s Night, and Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC).  

NSS affiliate The Moon Society has been providing support for the campaign through its Facebook page (4K+ likes) and newsletter, and NSS is reaching out to its other affiliates to engage their support.  NSS has also been advertising on Facebook, and is using Kicktraq for analysis of the day-to-day results.  The media has been generally unreceptive, but there was a Yahoo News article on the campaign.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

JW:  Lots of people seem to vastly underestimate the challenges involved in mounting a Kickstarter campaign.  If the desired project has any external deadline, be sure to start well in advance.  I’d suggest starting at least 90 days prior to when you plan to launch.  At the very beginning determine: who you think your Backers will be, will you bring in a consultant to help, and how you will market your Kickstarter to your target audience.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

JW:  Lots of Kickstarter campaigns are fun, some are a bit silly, and some are even educational.  It’s rare however that a Kickstarter campaign is really important to our future.  At NSS we’re designing the future and this video is a tool to share our vision of the future with the public.  By the time you read this our campaign will have about 10 days left.  Join us, let’s build the future together.  

PD:  The best future is the one we make happen.  We encourage folks to visit our Kickstarter campaign, back it, and spread the word.  This is but one small step on the road that future we all want to see.

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!