LightSail Soars, with Help from 23,331 Kickstarter Backers

Kickstarter’s Clarissa Redwine shares highlights from the launch of this sunlight-propelled, community-funded spacecraft.

Way back in 1976, on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, space exploration advocate and cultural icon Carl Sagan shared an idea. Revealing a scale model no bigger than a kite, he explained how a spacecraft didn’t need an engine or fuel to travel across the solar system. It just needed a little nudge from the sun.

On Monday, June 24, some 43 years after Sagan’s Tonight Show appearance, I joined hundreds of people at Cape Canaveral in Florida to witness the launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a Kickstarter-funded spacecraft called LightSail 2. At the edge of a balcony in the Kennedy Space Center, I gathered with a small group of Planetary Society members who had been handpicked to experience the launch with Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy) and his team.

Outside the center, supporters filled rows of bleachers and the excitement was as thick as the Florida night air. Among the crowd were scientists and engineers who’d worked on LightSail 2; Kickstarter backers who’d traveled from all over the world to attend the launch; and the creators of other space-focused Kickstarter projects like the Pioneer Plaque, Chop Shop, and ISS Above.

As we anxiously awaited blastoff, I wondered about the 23 other payloads that would accompany LightSail on SpaceX’s new multi-payload rocket. I’d discovered the night before that one of the small canisters was brought to Cape Canaveral by a group of people who were carrying out the final wish of a family member and friend who hoped to rest among the stars. This mission was years in the making 24 times over, igniting a unique sense of solidarity and community.

Bill Nye, the Science (and Planetary) Guy

A boost from the Kickstarter community brings LightSail to life

LightSail is a craft that moves through space thanks to the constant push of the sun’s photons against a large sheet of mylar. This thin, shiny sail looks like a piece of tinfoil stretched across the sky, as if someone was trying to wrap up a star and save it for later.

Imagining that this concept could spark the curiosity of a generation, Sagan and a team of passionate community leaders founded The Planetary Society in 1980 to encourage citizens around the globe to participate. Decades later, The Planetary Society invited the Kickstarter community to join the crew and help bring LightSail to life.

With the support of more than 23,000 backers and over $1.2 million in pledges, LightSail was finally on its way.

From “sailfies” like this one to predictions about when LightSail 1 would fall back to earth, the team brought their community along for the ride through constant updates. Images courtesy of The Planetary Society

While the Kickstarter campaign was live, the team successfully launched a mission to test the sail deployment; every step of the process was captured and shared with the backer community via project updates. In Nye’s own words, “It was the perfect day.”

After demonstrating that the solar sail would deploy while the satellite was in orbit, the next step was to line up another ride to space, successfully deploy the sail a second time on LightSail 2, and, finally, use it to affect the craft’s orbit.

The night before launch, Kickstarter brought LightSail backers together for a “Star Party” at the American Space Museum. This small, crowdsourced collection of artifacts is run by volunteers, and most of the items within its walls were salvaged or smuggled out of trash heaps around Cape Canaveral. In the museum parking lot, I walked from telescope to telescope, admiring the visible fourth moon of Jupiter and chatting excitedly with fellow backers about the big event to come.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, carrying LightSail 2 and 23 other spacecraft for the U.S. Air Force’s STP-2 mission, lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on June 24, 2019, at 2:30 am EDT. Image courtesy of The Planetary Society

Falcon Heavy blasts off with LightSail on board

A cheer echoed from the bleachers as the countdown began. Through binoculars, I watched the boosters heat up and clouds of gaseous oxygen creep across the launchpad. In the final seconds before launch, Nye reminded us all to stay in the moment and thanked everyone for their contribution to this community-driven step for science. Proud and elated, we counted down: three, two, one…

Liftoff! The Falcon Heavy rocket rose into the sky and the light from the engines began to expand across the fields and water between us. Surfaces started to pitch and shake as the rocket climbed higher and higher. Looking over the water as it vibrated from the 27 engines’ sonic waves, I felt as though the Earth itself was rippling.

After hugs and claps on the back, our little balcony huddle started to shrink as folks filtered back into the Kennedy Space Center to watch the live feed of the payload deployment. With a few minutes separating the drop of each pod, we stood around reflecting on the experience.

Brian Castro, a Planetary Society community organizer in the Bay Area, marveled at the glowing cloud of smoke that lingered in the sky after the boosters separated from the rocket. Wearing a bright vest covered in planets, rockets, and stars, Geo Somoza, from the famed Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, swore he’d seen heart-shaped plumes of smoke coming out of the rocket just before it faded out of sight. The creator behind ISS Above, who happens to be one of my favorite space enthusiasts, asked if everyone else had melted their retinas too, and we all chuckled at the hazy blob that used to be our pal Liam Kennedy.

Finally, I got a chance to catch up with my friend Whitney Pratz from The Planetary Society. She had experienced the launch with the larger community in the bleachers. “Just like at a big music festival,” she said, she gave herself over to the energy of the crowd. It was a galvanizing experience — for all of us.

Democratizing space exploration, one project at a time

LightSail 2 was the first payload packed into the Falcon Heavy deployer, called Prox-1, so it will be the last to be released. The target deployment date is July 2, which will allow it to be properly identified and tracked once it’s pushed into orbit. We’ll have to wait for what feels like an eternity to find out whether the sail will properly unfold and successfully change the orbit of the craft. LightSail 2’s mission is really just beginning.

Together, the Kickstarter community has supported a spectrum of space exploration projects over the years, from student science experiments enclosed in ping-pong balls to telescopes powerful enough to spot life on exoplanets. The launch of LightSail 2 was a defining moment — a celebration of how community can drive exploration, and how crowdfunding is making space more accessible to everyone.

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