Crowdsourcing Breakthrough Propulsion Ideas

by Paul Gilster on September 10, 2012

Making Progress on Star Trek Physics is Marc Millis’ foray into crowdsourcing, a just announced project on Kickstarter. For those new to the concept, Kickstarter allows the general public to make donations to projects that are described on the site. A deadline is established and so is a minimum funding goal — if the goal is not reached by the deadline, no funds are collected. $275 million have been raised for various Kickstarter projects thus far and Millis is hoping to catch this wave in support of a new book on breakthrough propulsion concepts that is aimed at a broad, general audience.

Centauri Dreams readers will recall that Millis and Eric Davis co-edited 2009’s Frontiers of Propulsion Science, published by the AIAA. The first compilation on topics Millis analyzed as head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project, Frontiers was lengthy (22 individual essays in 739 pages) and written specifically with a graduate-level and professional audience in mind. The new project does something equally unusual, explaining recent research on these matters from the ground up, supported by the diagrams and artwork of the graphic designer Alexandre Szames.

From Millis’ description on the Kickstarter page:

Contrary to popular belief, NASA and other organizations do NOT routinely fund such far-future work, since this research appears to be beyond foreseeable returns on investment. Another impediment is that potential sponsors find it difficult to tell the difference between those crazy ideas that might become breakthroughs and the more numerous, genuinely crazy ideas.

The funds will be used to write enough material to secure a publishing deal and to assist some of my fellow practitioners to deliver fresh content and produce new graphics. I need to know by mid-late September if I’ll have the resources to do this. At that time, I will have to choose between various options for my future. My top wish is to do this book as my next step.

Let’s see how crowdsourcing works for this kind of project — small contributions can add up fast when seeded on the Internet. In addition to Millis’ book concept, the idea is being explored by a number of space-minded organizations, as Alan Boyle points out in a recent Cosmic Log article. Michael Laine’s LiftPort Group, for example, has been using Kickstarter to raise funds for work on space elevator technologies. SkyCube is an attempt to launch a CubeSat on a SpaceX booster, as is the crowd-sourced ArduSat. Let’s hope this smaller fundraiser on BPP ideas can be equally effective.

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{ 21 comments }

Ron S September 10, 2012 at 10:24

I am surprised that the book itself is not included in the minimum level of contribution. It is, after all, the product, and the contributor should at least expect to get the product. This is the norm on Kickstarter. It’s not a matter of cost since the minimum could be an e-book. Offer a signed copy (even with a personal message) of an attractive hard-cover for a higher price.

In any case, I am reluctant to contribute myself since this looks to be a repackaging of what we already know. Therefore I don’t benefit.

However, if it’s done well it may be of interest to a broader audience. In fact, this could be turned into an objective where a larger contribution can get copies of the book into one or more institutions or libraries of the contributor’s choice, exposing the work to more people. This is (or should be) about promoting the cause of interstellar travel, not selling to those of us who are already on board.

Rethink those price tiers. Make it about promoting the cause, not funding completion of the book. This is just my opinion of course.

Paul Titze September 10, 2012 at 10:50

Sounds like a good idea, although from what pledges have been given so far hope Marc somehow manages to still get the book done. Doesn’t have to be a hardcopy if the funds fall short? Try http://www.lulu.com

Cheers, Paul.

Greg September 10, 2012 at 11:42

Made a donation, I’m hoping Marc beats the 18 day period by 10 days.

Subzero Kari September 10, 2012 at 12:54

Cool! Monkeys will donate~* “Moon shmoon…!” ;-) Good luck!!

Marc Millis September 10, 2012 at 13:26

Folks,
It it obvious from the Centauri Dreams ‘comments’, that we can’t please everyone. I am seeking support to apply my one-of-a-kind skills and insights to deliver a product that many have been asking for (many have trouble grasping the graduate level book). I don’t think that others can meet this need well. It would be wasteful for me to work on things that I’m not good at. And, lastly, I cannot do this for free. I have bills to pay like the rest of us. There are not day-jobs on this kind of revolutionary research (it goes beyond impatient returns on investment), not even at NASA (Been there, done that). Furthermore, the emergence of the 100YSSO and those other groups, plus the recession, have disrupted the support I was getting.

I am new to this sort of fundraising, and will make mistakes along the way. I do not know if this will succeed. If it fails, I may have to accept a ‘real’ job doing what others could also do. I’d rather continue pushing the edge-of-knowledge in my unique manner.

If everyone who subscribes to Centauri Dreams just gave $2, then I’d be in the clear and back to meaningful work, instead of job hunting.

Marc

James September 10, 2012 at 13:32

Excellent! I will make a pledge latter tonight when I get home.

Ron S: from what I read on kickstarter the book appears to be for simpletons like myself. If I’m wrong maybe Paul or Marc can clarify specifically what type of audience the book is intended. Also, I’d be willing to kick in a few extra bucks to help distribute to a wider audience if the pledge amount is raised by the deadline.

I hope that this is a successful kickstarter program because I want this to be the first of many kickstarter projects for faster propulsion in space. I can envision raising money for promotion and to do actual research into FTL speeds or sub-light speeds.

Marc Millis September 10, 2012 at 15:39

James,

I’m going to try and make it as understandable as I can to those who are not tuned into the topic. I will attempt many illustrations and analogies to more familiar things. I don’t want to ‘dumb it down,’ but rather ‘distill it’ into more digestible form. And even for the experts, I suspect this book will make it easier to grasp the concepts in the scholarly ‘Frontiers’ book. Comprehending an equation and knowing facts is different than ‘understanding” it. The scholarly book had the equations and facts. It did not have introductory tutorials to walk a newbie through the material. Its that tutorial stuff I’m going for this time, with as little jargon as possible.

Marc

Ken Del Piero September 10, 2012 at 17:01

Marc,

I’m strongly in agreement with Ron S. !

Rather than getting defensive (“can’t please everyone) it might serve you to listen to the comments with an open mind. I would strongly suggest that you read Michael Laine’s comments about how he/they researched other successful campaigns and as a result structured their levels with a heavy emphasis on lower cost offerings.

Please trust that I am offering MY comment from a strong desire to see you succeed.

Good luck!

Ken Del Piero

JohnHunt September 10, 2012 at 17:32

Uwingu will one day also be a good source of funding.

coolstar September 10, 2012 at 17:36

I think Ron S. has given some sound advice on this. I’m a big fan of kickstarter but I’m pretty lukewarm on this project. Sounds as though this would be, in essence, very similar to funding an advance for an author working on a project. In this case, this would be a pretty decent advance for what amounts to a self-published work. Plus, in my not-so-humble opinion there has been WAY too much in the way of speculative physics both published and produced for the mass media in the last decade. While some people might wish to become as popular (in some circles) as Michio Kaku, I think we already have more than we need of that type of work. As they say on the interwebs, YMMV.

Keith Cooper September 11, 2012 at 8:46

I think there is a lot of potential in this initiative, and having an introductory level, non-academic text would certainly be useful for me. If we want to expand the interstellar community and promote Tau Zero further then having the means to introduce the possibilities to a wider audience is essential. coolstar, I disagree – there may have been plenty of books on speculative physics but how many are focused on propulsion applications? Surely that’s what Tau Zero is all about. I think there’s a big difference between this and a typical Michio Kaku/Brian Greene book.

My only query is exactly how the book is going to be made and what the money is paying for. $56k could practically pay to self-publish the book and sell it through Tau Zero, but in the description Marc talks about finding a publisher, who would surely pay for everything including an advance, so I’m a bit confused. Once I understand how this is going to be made I’d be delighted to donate to it.

I also wonder if Kickstarter projects like this could give a bit more power back to authors and readers. Publishing houses are pretty much dictated to by the market, the wholesalers and if an alternative source of funding could be found on places like Kickstarter it would bypass the publishers and let readers and authors get the books written that they want to see written, rather than what the supermarket chains want to see on their shelves. So I’m really interested in seeing where this goes.

Marc Millis September 11, 2012 at 10:02

Regarding the amount, and comparison to advances… So far I have had little luck with publishers since (as was explained to me) they are still figuring out how to deal with the e-publishing situation and are reluctant to enter into new agreements…. Unless you already have a solid proposal, which includes at least 3 chapters already written. Right now, while dealing with the Tau Zero situation, looking for paying work, etc. I do not have time to devote to writing such lead material unless I knew could pay my bills for several months while assembling the necessary materials. This includes visiting some of my colleagues to make arrangements for their content contributions… in the context of this book.

And, no, I’m not trying to be another Kaku. I only intend to cover the propulsion physics, and unlike other authors, I will cover the notion of “space drives” and related opportunities & issues. Usually this topic gets lost in the shadow of the more provocative faster-than-light notions, even though it is easier to pursue and has broader applications.

Thanks to those who shared compliments.

Marc

Athena Andreadis September 11, 2012 at 10:38

1. Giving the product (in this case, the book) to contributors is an absolute requirement in kickstarters from tier 1 contributors on up.

2. The goal of $56K is way off for what amounts to a self-published repackaging of already known facts plus speculation. $10K is a generous estimate for such an effort.

3. If this is serious and wishes to be taken seriously, it needs to mention a publisher and an approximate publication date. Even better if it shows a list of chapters and an paragraph-long outline.

Good luck.

Athena Andreadis September 11, 2012 at 10:44

Marc, I just saw your latest entry about writing the lead. The reluctance of publishers has nothing to do with transition to an e-book environment. They always need to be persuaded about the merit of a project. For non-fiction, a complete outline and three chapters are minimum requirements (for fiction, they expect the entire work). If you don’t have that, what is your basis for attracting a publisher?

Paul Titze September 11, 2012 at 10:55

Hi Marc,

Just a suggestion why not bypass publishers altogether? Write an ebook and make it available for purchase through the TZF / Amazon / lulu / AIAA. There’s no real need to go through a publishing firm these days especially for a relatively small interstellar reading audience. I for eg don’t carry any physical books with me anymore for eg as all the papers/books/reading material are on my iPad. There are already excellent texts out there that cover the basics ie Centauri Dreams/Prospects for Interstellar Travel/The Starflight Handbook/Deep Space Propulsion and Frontiers of Propulsion Science. You’ll find that most likely a lot of your targeted audience are tech savy as well.

As for funding I doubt there is an avenue to make a living out of interstellar propulsion physics, most people I would think do this in their spare time after hours between their day job? It’s hard but needs to be done as governments/NASA lack the foresight. Anyway I hope the Kickstarter funding comes through.

Cheers, Paul.

Gregory Benford September 11, 2012 at 13:34

I just contributed–good luck!

JoeP September 11, 2012 at 15:42

Kicked in a pledge. Good luck Marc!

Emil Vinterhav September 12, 2012 at 8:09

I kicked in a pledge too! I look forward to a good read and nice artwork to inspire my kids. :)

JoeP September 13, 2012 at 9:59

Krauss’ book, The Physics of Star Trek, leverages the “Star Trek” name and I though this likely had great effect on sales. Any way to find such sales numbers? That data might greatly support Marc getting a publisher lined up along with a decent advance, even if the Kickstart falls through.

Athena Andreadis September 13, 2012 at 20:46

Publishers expect a pitch memo, an extended outline, chapters (three minimum and more to be produced on demand) and a target/marketing plan, unless someone is a celeb and/or a proven bestselling author. I wrote The Biology of Star Trek and I had to do all this — the Star Trek name is not a magic wand.

Peter September 28, 2012 at 12:42

I don’t have $49 K, but I’d still like Marc to write this, and I’d buy it once it’s published.

Can you do it in your spare time Marc?

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