On Philadelphia's waterfront, the SS United States is quietly rusting. But in the alternate reality of the Internet, the ship looks spick-and-span - and it is growing more painted and more populated by the day.

With the goal of bringing a fresh coat of paint and a second life to the real ship as well, a group dedicated to preserving the historic vessel launched an online fund-raiser Wednesday. The initiative, called Save the United States, asks donors to purchase virtual pieces of the ocean liner, which set the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing on its maiden voyage in 1952.

Contributors can pinpoint exactly which pieces of the ship they want to buy, at a rate of $1 per square inch. As they stake their claim to more inches, they earn the ability to add photos, messages, and colors to their virtual patches, then share their creations via Facebook and Twitter.

Early participants have already tacked memorabilia and messages onto pieces of the ship that hold special meaning for them. Dan McSweeney, whose father was a first-class steward on the luxurious ocean crossings, purchased part of the American flag hanging from the ship's mast, then uploaded a photograph of his father with fellow stewards. Charles B. Anderson bought the captain's cabin in honor of his father, who occupied the real space as captain for 12 years in the days when the likes of Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, and John F. Kennedy strode the deck.

Anderson added a photo of his father with the ship's designer and a cocker spaniel named Choata Peg, who sailed a total of two million miles on the ship during his 13-year life onboard.

Forty-one million square inches are available for purchase through the fund-raiser, according to Susan Gibbs, the executive director of the SS United States Conservancy. The conservancy needs to drum up nearly $25 million by the end of the year to keep the ship from the scrap heap.

Philadelphia-area philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest saved the ship from being sold for scrap metal once before, by donating $5.8 million for the conservancy to purchase the ship and keep it docked in the city for 20 months, of which less than five months remain. The conservancy hopes to collect $25 million to alleviate some of the disrepair afflicting the ship and continue to keep it afloat until a developer takes it over.

According to McSweeney, who heads the search for a developer, three leading candidates - one in New York, one in Miami, and one locally in Chester - have emerged. All are interested in converting the vessel to a floating hotel, with retail and restaurant spaces, alongside a museum about the ship's historic past. The project would cost about $250 million in total for the developer, Gibbs estimated in June.

She said she hopes the new online fund-raiser, spread through social networks, will tug at the heartstrings of ordinary Americans before the developer comes through.

"It's not just a ship. It's something with much broader resonance," she said. "It speaks to people who have never been on a ship. They don't care about ships per se, but they care about great American symbols, and accomplishment, and America's history and future."