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How Philanthropy Jump-Started TESS, NASA’s New Exoplanet Research Mission [Alliance blog]

Marc Kastner is president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. He was the dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2007 to 2015.

 At 6:51 pm EDT on Wednesday, April 18, the rocket carrying TESS, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, thundered skyward. The astronomy community has been waiting impatiently for TESS to begin its mission to discover thousands of planets around distant stars, picking up where Kepler left off.

As I reflected on TESS’s journey this week, I thought about how such a wonderful project came to be. In the mid-2000s, as then-dean of science at MIT, I played a small role in getting it started when it was just an idea, proposed by George Ricker and his team at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. The prospect of a new satellite focused on exoplanet research was exciting, but also daunting. Clearly such a project would require hundreds of millions of dollars, a sum that necessitated government funding. In fact, the proposal alone would require significant resources to pull together; it generally takes about 1% of the project cost to prepare a good proposal. We estimated we needed more than $2 million to carry out preliminary studies of the technology that would be needed and to construct a proposal that NASA would take seriously. How could we fund such an ambitious project?

Private Philanthropy: A Penny that Buys a Pound

The challenge is that federal grants can only be used for the research proposed when they are funded, not for developing a proposal for new research. We had to look to other sources to fund the proposal stage. We found two internal sources that could help: the endowment established in 2004 for the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, and MIT general funds, which come largely from income on the MIT endowment. Both endowments were the result of generous gifts, by The Kavli Foundation for the former, and by numerous donors to MIT over decades for the latter. In addition to roughly $1 million from each of these sources, individual donors provided an additional $500,000.

Ultimately, TESS was a $337 million project funded by the federal government, jump-started with our $2.5 million philanthropic “investment.” This was not the only time that philanthropic funding stimulated government funding; other notable examples were the Brain Initiative, initially funded by The Allen Institute, The Gatsby Foundation, and The Kavli Foundation, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, initially funded by Bill Gates, Charles Simonyi, and others.

Flexible Funding through Unrestricted Gifts and Endowments

TESS would not have been possible without philanthropy; for this I felt deep gratitude. Gratitude to those who gave MIT unrestricted gifts, often contributing to our endowment, trusting that we would use the money wisely. The Kavli Foundation and the donors to the MIT endowment may not have had a search for extra-solar planets in mind when they entrusted us with their gifts. Yet the flexibility they provided allowed us to leverage their funding to secure government funding more than a hundred times the initial investment.

The launch of TESS has filled me with wonder, not just for the science and technology that allows humans to explore space, but for the generosity and trust of philanthropists who made this kind of endeavor possible. The initial support from these philanthropists has helped launch a project that will provide rich data on exoplanets for decades to come.