It started with a Reddit link. Entrepreneur Chris Larmour was browsing the site one night when he saw a venture that sent a balloon up into the stratosphere with a camera on it. "It's a nice project," he said. "But I've probably seen it hundreds of times in the past few years."
Larmour has bigger plans. With new company Moonspike, he and Kristian von Bengtson, former cofounder and lead spacecraft designer of Danish aerospace company Copenhagen Suborbitals, want to send the first crowdfunded rocket to the Moon. They just launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise £600,000 (about $1 million) to get them further in their plans.
The weather balloon images got Larmour thinking: How hard is it to get to the Moon these days? "People were flying there 50, 60 years ago, the technology is well-understood," he said in a phone call alongside Von Bengtson. "What if we made it really easy, if we said we only want to send one gram to the Moon? We didn't want to put a lander there, we didn't want to put a man on the Moon or anything like that; we just wanted to send one gram."
Larmour emailed Von Bengtson out of the blue, asking if he could build a Moon rocket. The response: Yes, but have you got any money?
"Life without having your own space programme is not really as exciting as it could be."
Not long before Von Bengtson received Larmour's email, he'd left Copenhagen Suborbitals—which is trying to build its own rockets—"for personal reasons."
"I don't at all regret that decision, but I have to say life without having your own space programme is not really as exciting as it could be," said Von Bengtson. Moonspike was born, with Larmour drawing on his business background and rustling up some initial funding from friends while Von Bengtson made some initial calculations of what sort of rocket they might need.
The project aims to design and build a 22-ton, three-stage, liquid-fueled rocket from scratch. The rocket will launch into lower Earth orbit, from which it will launch a small spacecraft to land on the Moon. "Landing is a very broad term," Larmour clarified. "We expect the spacecraft will arrive at the Moon with quite a high velocity."
While most Reddit-inspired ideas could fairly be described as ill-advised, and it's hardly unusual for wildly ambitious Kickstarter campaigns to fall flat, Larmour and Von Bengtson come across as people who don't mess around. If they don't quite reach the Moon, they're going as far as they can. They're working on the project full-time with a dedicated tech team of seven people.
"I feel that we've got a chance of getting this done," said Larmour. "I still feel it's a big, big challenge. And it's incredibly difficult still. But I do think it's in the realm of possibility, that's for sure."
For his part, Von Bengtson sounds unconcerned about the technological challenge. "For every technical challenge, there's a technical solution," he said stoically. After all, it has been done before—the US put an actual human being on the Moon decades ago.
But as that's the case, why bother?
"A lot of people say, 'Well, we've already been to the Moon,' and I don't really find that argument valid," explained Von Bengtson. "No, we did not. Somebody else did—for instance the US government with a huge budget did it 50 years ago—and that's not the same."
This "for the people" ethic reveals itself in the crowdfunding campaign, which offers backers the opportunity to send images or other data with the spacecraft's payload, and in Moonspike's commitment to transparency. From the campaign launch on Thursday, a feasibility report is available to read on their website and they promise to provide regular updates.
"The least of my problems is going to be profit tax."
The biggest challenge Larmour and Von Bengtson think they'll face is legal. As Moonspike is UK-based, they're regulated by the UK Space Agency and will need to get a launch licence. Larmour pointed out that the UK is also much more used to launching satellites than trying to smash something into the Moon.
"In order to assure the authorities that we're not going to put people's safety at risk or any national security… we're going to have to jump through a lot of hoops," said Larmour.
He started the project with two rules. "The first one was no scams," he said. "If we're going to take other people's money we've got to genuinely try to do this; even if we fail at the end, people have to feel like we've made a serious attempt. The second one was no jail time."
That's not just for their own good but because they're hoping to open up a path to space away from governments and huge commercial enterprises, and know that if they screw it up, the next people to try will struggle to make headway.
While it is a company, Von Bengtson sees Moonspike as "between the larger amateurs and the big business players like SpaceX." Their mission is more about adventure than any real commercial intent, at least for now. "The least of my problems is going to be profit tax," said Larmour.
Naturally, $1 million won't get you to the Moon, however stripped-down your mission; the company hopes to raise that to keep them going for the next year or so, during which time they aim to refine the rocket's design, find a space to build it in, and started trying out subsystems such as navigation systems and engine designs.
Later on, Larmour plans to look for investment from other sources, but as he explained, venture capitalists and angel investors are probably unlikely to put money towards a "frankly crackpot scheme" before they've proved themselves a bit.
It's a literal moonshot, and Larmour concedes that whether they succeed is a "massive if." But right now it at least looks more likely than Mars One.
Pushed on their motivation, Larmour goes back to his idle thought that started everything off.
"I just want to see if some guys can get something on the Moon."