BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Historically, U.S. space exploration has depended almost solely on NASA for funding, which left missions — and the researchers behind them — at the whim of the Congressional budgetary process.
Boulder planetary scientist Alan Stern said he's tired of weathering the federal funding storm — the 2013 budget proposed by President Barack Obama would cut funding for planetary sciences by 20 percent — and he's guessing he's not alone.
Stern is spearheading an effort to supplement government funding for space exploration, research and education with privately raised money through a new company dubbed Uwingu, which is Swahili for "sky."
The plan is to sell "space-related products" — the exact nature of which have not yet been unveiled — and to use the proceeds to fund grants for space science.
"As we've seen over the last few years, sometimes these funding cuts come out of nowhere," Stern said. "We need to diversify (our funding) so that scientists and educators can have a backstop, and in addition, we can add more capacity during the good times. ... We think we found the secret sauce. We've found the recipe, which is very different from the old model."
Stern said Uwingu already has one product largely developed and ready to go, but before the company officially launches, it needs to raise $75,000 to cover its initial expenses. To do that, Uwingu has turned to the crowd-funding website Indiegogo, where the company had already taken in more than $25,000 as of Friday. The campaign ends at midnight Sept. 14.
Uwingu joins other recent efforts to fund space exploration privately. Earlier this year, the private company SpaceX successfully docked its Dragon capsule with the International Space Station, and a handful of other companies are working on commercial space-flight projects that will ferry tourists on suborbital flights.
And this summer, plans for the first-ever privately funded deep space telescope were announced.
But unlike these other projects, Uwingu isn't backing a single mission. Instead, the company plans to fund a variety of projects using grants in a process somewhat similar to the way space researchers now apply for funding through NASA. Even so, it will be difficult, alone, for Uwingu to backfill the amount of money that could be cut from NASA in even a modest budget reduction. (The president is proposing a NASA budget of $17.7 billion.)
But that doesn't mean the Uwingu model doesn't have value, according to Emily CoBabe-Ammann, one of the company's principals who specializes in space education, another area taking a big hit in the president's proposed budget.
"Uwingu itself isn't going to solve everything," said Boulder-based CoBabe-Ammann, who heads her own science education and public outreach company. "But the way I like to think about it, if Uwingu figures out a pathway and a model that works, there will be a dozen others that follow that pathway, and that could be a game changer."
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