Former NASA contractor Michael Laine's space elevator campaign has far exceeded his modest $8,000 funding goal. Here's how he did it.
Last week, an unconventional Kickstarter project gained Internet fame and soared past its funding goal within days of launching. Its mission? A lunar elevator experiment simulating a two-kilometer climb from the moon’s surface into space.
The project’s leader is Michael Laine, space enthusiast and former NASA contractor. On his Kickstarter page, Laine asked for $8,000 to run the test, which involves robots and helium balloons tethered to the ground. Laine, who said he’s been called a “crazy space cowboy,” insists he’s grounded.
“I’m a thoughtful risk-taker,” he says. “If I think the odds are going to be in my favor, I’m probably going to take the risk.” He took a chance on the crowdfunding platform and as of Tuesday morning,the project has attracted 2,015 backers and collected $61,604.
Grateful for the skyrocketing support, Laine says he’s committed to delivering what he promised. “Some people think Kickstarter is a donation site, and it’s not. It’s a value-for-value trade,” he says. “Someone’s giving me money and I have to either send a good or perform a service.”
Here, Laine shares his recipe for a successful Kickstarter campaign.
1. Map out a careful schedule. The other players in the lunar space elevator project include five other former NASA contractors and 22 technical advisors. Four months prior to launching their Kickstarter campaign, Laine and his team set a goal to place an operating space elevator on the moon before the decade’s end with a final price tag of $800 million.
“We started thinking, 'What does it take to land this system on the moon and operating by late December 2019?'” Their meticulous timetable, devised in terms of dollars and time, schedules the initial experiment for late October to early November in eastern Washington--pending Federal Aviation Administration approval on the location and date.
“I think we can do it,” he says. “But that means every day is precious and you have to find the cash.” Laine turned to Kickstarter for the first push.
2. Do your homework. A backer of nine Kickstarter campaigns, including a wildly successful one by musician Amanda Palmer, Laine kept close watch of flourishing projects on the platform. Using data provided by Kickstarter, he compiled information on the top 39 campaigns to emulate their methods.
“I looked at what made them tick,” he says. “How many dollars did they raise? What were the price points for each reward level? Which reward levels were popular or unpopular?” After tracking the campaigns for months, Laine decided Kickstarter was the right starting point for him and his team.
3. Pick the minimum threshold. Laine’s friends and peers often inquire about the curiously low $8,000. “Maybe I did underprice it, but I did it for a very specific reason,” says Laine.
In 2001, Laine was part of NASA’s original space elevator research team until the program folded two years later. Laine created research group LiftPort to continue the project, mostly paying for it out of his own pocket until funds ran out in 2007. In its peak days, LiftPort had a wide reach--about 60 universities around the world had a hand in the project.
When LiftPort collapsed, its support system thinned out. This worried Laine, who regrouped with his current team in 2011 to revive the project. ”I had no idea whether this was going to soar or flop,” he says. “So I thought: What is least amount of money to just do one simple balloon and robot experiment?”
Laine also aimed to gather a following. “I don’t want to discount the $8,000,” Laine says. “But the goal was to get people engaged--that was the No. 1 task.”
4. Build a community and engage. Communicating with his Kickstarter followers is essential for Laine. “That’s the key to getting Kickstarter to work,” he says.
In addition to tweeting about the project from his Twitter handle (@mlaine), Laine replies to the hundreds of messages in that flood his Kickstarter inbox--every single one of them.
“Whether they’re giving you a dollar or $500, you have to respond to them,” he says. “They’re ultimately your clients.” Comments on Kickstarter fuel Laine’s desire to push the project forward. One commenter mentioned Laine’s space elevator presentation at Princeton University in 2005: “I was only 15 then, but you opened the world to me. I am proud to back this project and all future projects you will do.”
5. Be realistic. The next step for Laine is to acquire $3 million for a one-year feasibility study to build an elevator on the moon. Laine had toyed with the idea of asking for $3 million on Kickstarter. “It’s not unheard of," he says. "Some campaigns are making millions but those are all product-based.”
Laine and his team brainstormed products to give backers but most resulted in promotional items, like T-shirts. “In the end, we decided to go for the experiment instead because that was more achievable and feasible,” says Laine, who hopes to draw in angel investors to finance the study.
But setting the more practical goal of $8,000 ultimately paid off. The additional funds raised means better equipment and extending the climb to 3- or 5-kilometer tests, a record distance for the team, which ran the test 14 times at shorter lengths in the past.
“That’s uncharted territory for us,” Laine says. “We can set our sights a little higher and go a little further.”