Yesterday I read a blog by Ruth Suehle, an employee at Red Hat and blogger on OpenSource.com, that suggests that crowdsourcing and other forms of voluntary collaboration could replace taxes for funding some or all of the costs of space exploration in the future.
I found this an intriguing idea. Could crowdsourcing — the technology-enhanced combination of small donations of money, time, and in-kind resources — pay for space exploration? If it can’t pay for it completely, could it supplement or replace tax money that currently goes into NASA and other governmental organizations that do the research necessary to provide a foundation for the work of commercial entities such as Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and other nascent space technology firms? These firms are an essential part of space exploration in the future; without them, space will not be explored. However, they would never have got started without the decades of expensive basic research done by governments, educational institutions, and other organizations who do not have to provide short- or medium-term profits to investors. That research must be paid for somehow.
For those who aren’t familiar with crowdsourcing, I’ll provide some background. What is today called “crowdsourcing” started over a decade ago. The first major experiment I know of in what has come to be called “crowdsourcing” was the SETI@Home Project. The original SETI project analyzes data from the Arecibo Radio Telescope and other radio telescopes that “listen” to the cosmos for signs of radio broadcasts by non-human civilizations. Unfortunately, analyzing that data at a speed that would simply keep up with data collection required a powerful and expensive supercomputer. The
nuts fine, upstanding, but poor scientists at the SETI project couldn’t afford a supercomputer.
SETI@Home was born when a few SETI scientists collaborated with some programmers who were interested in their research to create software capable of turning idle time on a large number of personal computers into a virtual supercomputer. The original SETI@Home software linked personal computers together across the Internet to process small packets of SETI data when the computers were otherwise idle. SETI@Home made that software available to its supporters, who installed it on their personal computers. Voila — a supercomputer that cost the SETI project only their internet connection and resources necessary to manage the process.
Since then, other groups, organizations and even companies have borrowed the idea of building technological infrastructures capable of using idle computer time, microscopic donations of money, or large numbers of other types of very small donations to accomplish large tasks. Pharmaceutical companies used the SETI@Home model to analyze data from experiments to develop drugs to treat various diseases. A number of web sites were set up to allow people to give or lend small amounts of money to individuals and small groups for various purposes, connecting the lender or donor with the recipient directly. Bankers and larger lenders such as Mohamed Yunus of Grameeen Bank (the recipients of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize) turned the original idea on its head and began lending small amounts of money to poor entrepreneurs, who used that money to start businesses that lifted themselves, and often their neighbors and communities, out of poverty.
This movement to use technology to combine small amounts of resources and money to accomplish big tasks has come to be called crowdsourcing in the past couple of years, and it is transforming the charitable and non-profit worlds. It has shown itself capable of generating enough resources to pay for or support major efforts that would otherwise have required large amounts of capital from conventional sources such as government grants, grants from large foundations, or loans from banks.
Space exploration is likely to be the most expensive effort the human race has ever undertaken. Depending on what you include in the category, it may be the most expensive by orders of magnitude. Since the risks of space exploration are huge and the benefits, although even larger, are likely to be long term, commercial sources of funding are difficult to find and expensive when available. I’ve watched with frustration and sadness for much of life as the early efforts of NASA were undercut by severe restrictions on funding due to other U.S. government priorities. Worse, micromanaging by non-scientists in Congress and the White House often resulted in the money that was available being used unwisely. Government money always has strings attached.
But could it generate enough resources to fund space exploration? I’m not sure. However, I am sure that it’s worth a try. Perhaps Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and more recently Craig Connects, could look at setting something up to connect those doing basic research into science and technologies necessary for space exploration and settlement with those who want to support these efforts directly? Does anybody have other suggestions for people and resources that might be interested in helping build a means of funding space-related research via crowdsourcing? Post them here!