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What the Air and Space Museum’s Kickstarter could mean for the future of space exploration

If crowdfunding can help restore Neil Armstrong's space suit, maybe it should aim even higher.

The National Air and Space Museum is soliciting money via Kickstarter to preserve the space suit Neil Armstrong wore on the moon. (Eric Long/Smithsonian Institution)

Monday was the 46th anniversary of the first mission to send human beings to land on the moon. With each passing year, the spectacular achievements in spaceflight of the ’60s feel a little farther away, a little more historical. All the more so to people like me, who would like to see our space program push out further into the cosmos.

So July 20 should have been an auspicious day for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum to unveil their first-ever Kickstarter campaign. Titled “Reboot the Suit,” the campaign aims to raise $500,000 toward the conservation, digitization and display of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit from Apollo 11. The Smithsonian has owned the suit since NASA donated it in 1971, but time has degraded the materials, and it’s in storage to protect against further damage.

By Thursday, just four days into the Kickstarter campaign, it was already 84 percent funded.

The public response hasn’t been entirely positive, though. Within a few minutes of the announcement, I received a Facebook message from an old friend who knows about my interest in the history of spaceflight, about which I’ve written a book.

“Don’t you think it’s sad,” he wrote, “that a museum can’t afford to take care of such a priceless artifact?” The idea of the Smithsonian asking citizens to contribute amounts as low as $1 felt to him like a cheapening of our nation’s space history. As the day went on, more friends wrote me with similar questions about whether the Kickstarter campaign, which promises rewards such as T-shirts, stickers or behind-the-scenes tours, was “tacky” or “graspy.” Others seemed to express something more like pity for a venerable institution forced to ask for handouts (one used the metaphor of kids holding a bake sale) to carry out the most basic of its mandates.

I find myself at a loss as to what to tell these concerned friends. The sadness or disgust they feel when they contemplate the fact that a museum responsible for our national treasures is asking for spare change mimics closely what I feel when I ponder NASA’s history.

For people who love spaceflight, who take pride in what our nation has accomplished and hope to see those achievements in science and exploration continue, the current state of our investment in NASA is depressing — just 0.5 percent of the federal budget, a tiny fraction of what it was at its height (the greatest share of the budget NASA ever saw was 6 percent, in the run-up to the Apollo moon landings).

In polls, a majority of Americans say they want and expect to see NASA continue to be a leader in spaceflight, to return to the moon, to land humans on Mars. These same polls show a majority of Americans want to see NASA’s finding remain the same or be cut. There is a fundamental disconnect between what we want and what we are willing to pay for. But the Kickstarter campaign could become more than just a fundraising plea. It might be a new way to include everyday people in the museum’s missions, and it might offer us another way of thinking about how to fund expensive, worthwhile projects — such as space exploration.

In turning to social media-savvy outreach, Air and Space is just imitating the agency whose triumphs it celebrates. NASA has had great recent success creating connections with followers through Twitter, Instagram and other social networks. When we can watch the daily activities of the crew of the International Space Station, the progress of a probe toward its planetary destination or an experimental test of the new Orion capsule, we can feel attached to the space program in a new way.

Decades ago, of course, no one needed daily tweets from astronauts to get the nation united behind the Mercury or Apollo missions. Spaceflight used to be far more central to American national pride. As a child, I spent my weekends exploring the Air and Space Museum, surrounded by the artifacts of the daring exploits of the past. I understood, even as a 6-year-old, that the beautiful and antique-looking spacecraft all around me — the Apollo 11 capsule, John Glenn’s Friendship 7, Skylab — had all been created by NASA, and that NASA was part of the federal government.

For a kid growing up in Washington, government seems ubiquitous and all-powerful: as the owner of most public buildings, as an employer of many of our parents, as an object of adult scorn. But walking through the museum, an alternate impression of the government emerged: as an institution with at least one agency committed to daring, beauty and the pursuit of knowledge. As I got older, I learned that the Smithsonian itself was also part of the government. In the ’80s, my after-school visits to the museums were curtailed by budget cuts that shortened the Smithsonian’s hours; it was my first exposure to the idea that government does not always fully fund the things it claims to value.

These days, though, it seems that spaceflight alone doesn’t capture our collective imagination quite as much as it used to, either in the museum or out of it. The Cold War, whose geopolitical imperatives underpinned so much of the earlier era, has been over for practically a generation. And besides, interest had been waning since before the last moonwalkers climbed back into their lunar lander and headed home toward Earth. The actual flights to land on the moon spanned only three years. The shuttle flew for 30, and if NASA hopes to hold our attention until its next rocket is ready to fly, it will need to continue to help us care about our space program in new ways.

Just what we are spending on that space program, whether we care about it or not, is part of the issue. Space projects seem expensive at a level that is hard to grasp, and people tend to overestimate NASA’s budget (people guess as much as 20 percent of total federal spending, which is actually more than the nation spends on defense). Others who don’t want to see NASA’s budget increased do want more space exploration — they just don’t like NASA’s way of going about it. Some of the people I know who care about spaceflight the most also have such a deep mistrust of government that they believe a private company like SpaceX will do more, better and cheaper than NASA. That drive toward the private sector started in the ’80s, when contractors on the shuttle took over much of the work that had once been done by NASA employees. We may not have been aware of it, but space has been on a long march toward privatization for a while

Someday in the future, crowdfunding models like the one the Air and Space Museum is using to preserve Armstrong’s suit could actually help finance serious space exploration, though of course, such a campaign would have to raise billions, not just hundreds of thousands. This is not a new idea: Armstrong’s fellow Apollo 11 veteran Buzz Aldrin has been promoting his ShareSpace idea for years — a lottery that would let citizens pay small amounts for the chance to be chosen for a seat on a spacecraft.

Another project, Mars One, seeks to send a group of volunteers to create a permanent settlement on Mars using donations and proceeds from a reality TV show. Crowdsourced projects have already sent satellites and other objects into space, including an experimental light sail designed by the Planetary Society, which raised more than $1 million on Kickstarter.

It’s not clear why small private donations should make people uncomfortable, anyway. A third of the Smithsonian’s budget of $1.4 billion comes from private sources; that’s mostly income from James Smithson’s original endowment of 1846, but museums also seek large donations that differ from the Kickstarter concept only by the number of zeroes in the sums solicited. Air and Space has been the beneficiary of gifts large and small — for example, the Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex of the museum near Dulles International Airport, was named for a donor who gave $65 million to establish the site. Both the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall and the Lockheed-Martin IMAX Theater are named for major donors.

Ultimately, both space and the museum dedicated to it will force us to confront the same kinds of questions: Do we want our government to fund the things we value, like historical preservation of national artifacts, or spaceflight, or education? Or do we want smaller government, with more individual agency over what our money funds? Is it empowering to be invited to own, in some metaphorical sense, a small piece of Neil Armstrong’s lunar-dust-caked spacesuit? Or is it depressing to be asked for spare change from the same government that 50 years ago spent billions to send Armstrong to the moon?

It seems we want to have a lot of things both ways. If NASA is going to take us back to the stars, and if the Smithsonian is going to continue to care for our past and research our future, they will need to find the resources to do so, however they can.