The crowdfunding platform Kickstarter is popular with inventors of fashionable bike helmets, hover boards and even a smart frying pan that tells you when to flip a steak. But last week the site that has funded thousands of films, games and gadgets launched a funding effort for something much bigger: a mission to the Moon.

On 19 November, under the banner of ‘Lunar Mission One’, a UK-led consortium announced a goal to put a lander on the Moon by 2024 and to retrieve and analyse samples from 100 metres below the lunar south pole. The mission itself would cost around US$1 billion. For starters, it needs $1 million by 17 December. As Nature went to press, it has more than half of that.

Attempting to invert the fund-raising model for science missions, the project would get its cash by encouraging many thousands of people to give a few dollars. In return, investors get the chance to preserve a little bit of themselves in a time capsule that will fill the borehole: either in a digital form, in a ‘memory box’, or with a strand of hair. The latter would cost as little as $80.

This is not the first science project to seek crowdfunding. For example, last year, synthetic biologist Omri Amirav-Drory, founder of the company Genome Compiler, raised $480,000 on Kickstarter to create glowing plants. Nor is it the first private venture to shoot for the Moon — the companies that compete for the Google Lunar X Prize are the most notable.

So how seriously should we take the new Moon shot? Certainly the institutions involved are solid enough. University College London and RAL Space, part of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council and a partner in more than 200 space missions, have assessed the feasibility of the mission. The Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, is working on the educational side. High-profile celebrity scientists and former UK science ministers have clamoured to back the venture, and seasoned academics from universities across the United Kingdom have built the mission’s science case.

The promised science is interesting. Europe has never sent a lander to the lunar surface, and no nation has ever visited its south pole. Permanently shadowed craters there are thought to contain water, and digging deep into the surface could answer countless unsolved questions about the Moon’s history. And the timing is good. Space science is basking in the glow of ESA’s Rosetta mission, which landed a probe on a comet earlier this month.

But $1 billion? Organizers aim to fill a gap in public funding in a way that neither detracts from existing space missions nor puts governments in a predicament. The mission gets funding only if people care enough to contribute, says Richard Holdaway, director of RAL Space. “It’s not about deciding whether to spend money on a space programme or a new hospital,” he says. “It’s democracy at its greatest level.”

Perhaps wary of pouring cold water on an aspirational and ambitious plan, sceptics have been surprisingly hard to find. The effort is plainly ambitious. But, the message seems to be, where is the harm in trying? If Lunar Mission One misses its funding target, the programme simply stops, having broken the first rule of any sales effort — offer a product that enough consumers want.