The Planetary Society’s LightSail spacecraft soared into the sky aboard Wednesday’s (May 20) Atlas-V launch from Cape Canaveral. The solar-sailing prototype is testing out an extraordinary method of propulsion that involves using the Sun’s energy to move through space. This means of space travel is called “solar sailing” and was envisioned by the Society’s late founder, Carl Sagan, nearly 40 years ago. Bill Nye, Planetary Society CEO, arrived at Cape Canaveral a day before launch to discuss the dream his team is now pushing to become a reality.
Wearing his signature bowtie and suit, Bill Nye and The Planetary Society greeted the media Tuesday, May 19, a day before launch, at the History Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Next to Nye stood a small replica of the LightSail spacecraft set to launch atop an Atlas-V rocket the following morning. Nye began his discussion by giving some background on the mission.
“We have video, I hope some of you have watched, on our website, of Carl Sagan presenting a solar sail model just about exactly the same size as this one to Johnny Carson,” Nye began. The LightSail Then and Now video posted by the Planetary Society shows a segment of the television show in which Sagan explains his idea of a solar sailing spacecraft. A scale model of the envisioned spacecraft, similar to the one standing beside Nye, displayed in Sagan’s lap.
One year later, in 1977, Nye was introduced to Sagan at Cornell University. He was studying mechanical engineering and signed-up for an astronomy course under Sagan—a course that significantly changed his life. A few years later Sagan began The Planetary Society and Nye became a member.
The Planetary Society was formed by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman in 1980. They created the organization to “prove and harness the popular interest in planetary exploration – a great government enterprise that was in danger of being discontinued.” People who were interested in space exploration were able to get involved and receive information by becoming members. To keep the organization growing, the Society of space enthusiasts needed a way to spark public interest and attract donations. The Planetary Society decided on funding new experiments and ideas that would be the precursors to larger projects in the future.
At a memorial service held for Sagan, Louis Freedman (executive director at the time) approached Nye with the opportunity to be on The Planetary Society’s Board of Directors. Nye later became the Society’s Vice-president and now serves as the organization first Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
LightSail is a citizen-funded project to send two small spacecraft into Earth orbit carrying massive solar sails. The Planetary Society believes that LightSail will have a significant impact on the propulsion of small spacecraft and CubeSat’s, and allow greater access for low-cost citizen projects to destinations within the Solar System.
The first LightSail mission, LightSail A, launched May 20, 2015, and is currently serving as a test flight for the primary mission in 2016. On that mission, LightSail will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy rocket and rendezvous with a small spacecraft designed by Georgia Tech called Prox-1.
The cost of the project comes to a total of nearly $5.45 million and the Society recently started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund their mission. This is the first time they used Kickstarter to fund one of their projects and so far they have been incredibly successful. Those who are interesting in donating to the LightSail Kickstarter can give as little as a dollar to the campaign, but larger donations warrant interesting prizes like having your name in space, patches, pins, a piece of the solar sail, and even a chance to party with Nye and his team at the 2016 post-launch party in Cape Canaveral.
“We have over half a million dollars- $580 thousand in less than a week. Which, from my understanding, is the Kickstarter record. We feel really good about that. So, we’re going to use that money for the main flight, which is LightSail B, nominally next May, but it may slip to somewhat later in the year because it’s spaceflight and it always slips,” jokingly said Nye to the media.
AmericaSpace sat down with Nye to ask him about his Kickstarter campaign and what he believes is the reason it is attracting so much attention.
“The idea is romantic,” Nye explained, “sailing in space- it appeals to a lot of people. I go to engineering schools and I do talks all the time. When I was graduating, and for years after that, ‘where do you want to go to work?’ NASA! Now, ‘where do you want to go to work?’ Virgin Galactic! SpaceX! People being graduated from engineering school now want to participate in space in a democratic, much more inclusive way instead of government programs. So LightSail- that’s for you!”
Nye told AmericaSpace that this is The Planetary Society’s and his first time using Kickstarter. He believes they are reaching a demographic of young kids at about age 12 to adults through age 52.
“Everybody is hip to Kickstarter,” he said. “It’s people of all ages!”
The Planetary Society is actively promoting LightSail on social media and using creative campaigns like “Selfie to Space” to raise public awareness. Participants can submit their selfie through The Planetary Society’s online Selfie to Space portal, then share on social media with the hashtag #SelfieToSpace and their post will appear on the Society’s page. Participants are encouraged to get their friends in on the fun, thus spreading awareness and excitement for space. This kind of engagement with the public is the same kind of engagement the Society envisioned when it was created nearly 40 years ago.
Jason Davis is the digital editor at The Planetary Society and spoke with AmericaSpace a few weeks back. In a previous AmericaSpace article, written by Emily Carney, she asks Davis about what their successful Kickstarter campaign says about the public’s interest in spaceflight. In his response, David said the fact that they are “on track to meet their goal within a couple days shows how eager folks are to contribute to space exploration.”
The Planetary Society began their campaign with a goal of $200,000 and reached it within days. As of May 22, the Kickstarter campaign is at over $689,000 and on track to reach their new goal of $1 million before June 26.
Video Credit: The Planetary Society. Carson Footage Supplied Courtesy of Carson Entertainment Group . Music by General Fuzz
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