Taking a vacation on the moon by using a space elevator as transportation may still seem like science fiction, but it is closer to becoming a reality. I had the opportunity to interview Michael Laine, the president of the LiftPort Group, about his company's quest to build the space elevator. After a five-year absence, the LiftPort Group is back with a new Kickstarter campaign dedicated to reinvigorating interest in the projects.
Q: Can you briefly describe the history of the LiftPort Group and your connections to NASA? Can you also explain your 5-year absence?
A: Laine: I started out with NASA in 2001. Between 2001 and 2003, it was like a fairytale while I met brilliant people. The space elevator stopped being science fiction and became a project. Unfortunately, by 2003, NASA funding was running out. Then, the space shuttle Columbia crashed. Our study cost $500,000, but we were one of the many projects that were cut. I wanted to keep working on the project, and my real estate assets let me put together a team of 14 people. We did experiments with carbon nanotubes, but instead we found out that we were good at building robots. We had a robot climb a mile on a tethered platform. Some of our guys even won the $900,000 prize from NASA for power beaming. After the economy crashed in 2007, we closed down, and my team scattered. I used my buildings as leverage, and I lost everything. We didn't declare bankruptcy because I was sure we would be back.
What were you doing for the past 5 years?
Laine: Projects were still going on. We've had hiccups, but research never stopped even if it was just theoretical.
What are the LiftPort Group's current goals?
Laine: Last year, I asked, what can we do today? It's much easier to build a lunar elevator than a space elevator because of atmosphere and gravity differences. My mandate for the lunar elevator has three parts: current technology, Sputnik-like simplicity and a single launch solution. Basically, everything has to fit into one rocket. Right now, we have a team of volunteers, and we need $3 million, so we can do a feasibility study. We want to build an elevator on the moon.
Can you describe the difference between the lunar and space elevator?
Laine: I'm still dedicated to the space elevator. The lunar elevator would cost $800 million while the space elevator would cost $15 to $20 billion. We can build the lunar one today, but we still have to wait for the space one. The space elevator is still 15 to 20 years before becoming a reality. The lunar elevator is much closer. I think we can do it before this decade is over.
For the lunar elevator, we would take a small rocket and point it to the Lagrange point because this is there the gravity of the Earth and moon balance out. We would launch a rocket, start the elevator, so a robot could climb and dock with the space station. The lunar elevator would eliminate the soft landing problem. Whoever builds the lunar elevator will control the moon.
You recently started a Kickstarter project with a very small goal of $8,000. Can you explain what you hope to accomplish?
Laine: We have taken some heat over it because people think we are reaching too low. We can't do the entire lunar project for $8,000. We can do one experiment and let people know we are back. We used to have 4,000 to 6,000 people on our mailing list, but this information is from 5 years ago. We want to reconnect with the community and eventually get private capital. Six years ago, we built a robot that climbed one mile on a tethered balloon platform. This time, we want to do 2 kilometers, so it's just a bit more than a mile. The $8,000 will pay for all of the hardware for the experiment. This includes the robot, tethered towers and climbing gear. The tethered towers have a lot of potential beyond this experiment. With a communications package at the top of the tower, you get a much larger broadcast range or footprint. This has potential uses for wireless Internet, border security, crop monitoring and precision farming.
We surpassed our Kickstarter goal 4 days after launch and have over $10,000 in pledges. We will keep going for the next 17 days. Now, we are working on our stretch goals. If we get $20,000, we will add more sensors and get better data to climb higher. At $30,000, we will provide a live video feed for the public.
Over the weekend, you attended the 10th annual International Space Elevator Conference at the Seattle Museum of Flight. What were some of the highlights?
Laine: Dr. Ryan Laubscher gave a fascinating report on a carbon nanotube technology. He has reimagined the problem and is in the patent pending process, so he could only give limited information. There was another presenter who proposed using an aerogel to protect the ribbon and act like a debris sponge because one of our problems for the lunar elevator is the potential micrometeorites around the moon.
We had a moment of silence for Neil Armstrong. I actually received pledges on our Kickstarter campaign because of him. I had donors increase their pledges to honor Armstrong's memory.
What are you plans after this Kickstarter campaign?
Laine: We are starting conversations with private investors. We have a lot of intellectual property with tangible values here on Earth. There is a great deal of potential with observation and communication industries. For example, the carbon nanotube wedding rings I designed last year have some serious implications. We are going to end up with partners who have no interest in space while we want to focus on the lunar elevator system. This is the direction that private investing is going. We still have allies within NASA and would love to have their support, but I really think private capital will build the lunar elevator. Commercial space exploration is big now.
What do you think about competition? Google is allegedly working on a space elevator in a secret lab, and there are other groups working on the same project.
Laine: It's more about collaboration than competition right now. No one from Google has ever come to the space conference, but there are a lot of rumors. I have seen the photos of Google's whiteboard for global domination with a space elevator in the middle. Google also has the phrase buy France on that whiteboard.
How close are you to actually building something?
Laine: If we get the funding tomorrow, our team is ready to go. We have 150 people, and the technology is ready. We would spend a year doing our feasibility study for the lunar elevator. In 2 years, we could have a design. In 4 years, we would order a rocket. We just need the $800 million budget.