It’s Time To Build A Space Elevator, Says LiftPort Group In Successful Kickstarter Campaign

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Liftport is turning to Kickstarter to gather a community excited about building a space elevator.

Building a tower into the Heavens is a prospect that is likely as old as human civilization itself, and for the last 50 years or so, scientists have proposed that the best way to realize the idea is to construct a space elevator. NASA scientists put together plans for such a tower in 2000, but those efforts have been toppled by funding cuts. Now, a once abandoned group of companies aiming to build the first space elevator has reformed and recommitted to the dream with a campaign on Kickstarter. The LiftPort Group launched the project in mid August with a $8,000 goal and had raised over $40,000 just past the halfway point.

For all the excitement about undertaking such an endeavor, the group's Kickstarter pitch speculates that a functional Earth Space Elevator is "a long way off. Perhaps 20-25 years. Before that happens there are some vital interim steps."

One step that is a significant change since LiftPort initially conceived of the project is to build the first space elevator not on Earth, but on the Moon. Citing that "several more breakthroughs" are required to build an elevator for Earth, the group says a Lunar elevator can be built with existing technology in about 8 years and serve as a precursor to building the Earth elevator. To accomplish this, a one-year feasibility study for building the infrastructure needs to be conducted that is estimated to cost $3 million, which is just a fraction of the estimated $800 million to $1.5 billion cost for a completed Lunar elevator with a payload of 40-240 kg, according to a podcast form the spring.

Additionally, a precursor to the Lunar elevator will initially be attempted, called the Tethered Towers. Based on the group's previous work using a ribbon as a tower, the plan is to design a robot capable of climbing 2 km or higher and building a tethered test platform suspended by high-altitude balloons. The previous LiftPort team accomplished a similar feat in 2006 when they had a robot climb 1.5 km up, but Michael Laine, President of LiftPort, stated in the Kickstarter description that the current team consists of a lot of new blood and needs a reachable milestone to fuse as an organization.

If the first tower is a success, the team will set out to tether a 3-5 km tower, which will present its own challenges because of the colder temperatures encountered at those altitudes.

You may be wondering, why a space elevator instead of just using good old rockets? Rockets require propulsion for lift, which is provided by the burning of fuel. Because of the total mass of a rocket and the speed required to overcome air friction and Earth's gravity, it take an enormous amount of chemical energy to be released and hence, massive quantities of fuel. That just isn't feasible for getting lots of equipment or people of this rock. A space elevator, on the other hand, provides a mechanical or even an electromagnetic means for ascending into orbit. This could not only be a safer and cheaper way to launch satellites, probes, and spacecraft into orbit, it could also be a very successful way for humans to pass to and from a tethered spaceport with ease.

Back in 2003 when the LiftPort Group got its start, a roadmap toward a Earth space elevator was within reach. Carbon nanotube research suggested that it would be possible to create long durable tubes that could stretch into space from Earth. Though growing long carbon nanotubes proved to be more challenging than first anticipated, the LiftPort 1.0 team had early successes on another front: making a climbing robot. With the sky the limit, the group marched into 2007 with 60 university partners and hundreds of volunteers when the economy started to slip. Additionally, the company was hit by financial problems and legal difficulties with the State of Washington. The company closed and the team dispersed.

Check out this 2007 NOVA scienceNOW piece on space elevators featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Laine believes now is the time to bring the space elevator project back and has put together LiftPort 2.0 to do it.

However, $8,000 isn't much of a goal to fund the R&D for a prototype, so what's this Kickstarter really all about? As the description makes clear, "The goal of this Kickstarter event is to rebuild our community." The collapse of LiftPort as a company also meant that the community of enthusiasts, advocates, and investors dispersed, pursuing other opportunities and laying the space elevator dream to rest. Resurrecting that community could be accomplished through a variety of strategies, including traditional or social media, but Kickstarter has proven to be the best boostrapping force around for getting affinity groups assembled, excited, and vested in a very short period of time. And, of course, media outlets are swimming in the wake of much of what's happening on crowdfunding sites (guilty!).

Whether Laine can accomplish this goal is still up for debate. Though the LiftPort website is touted as being a place to find lots of information about where the company is headed, it has an incredibly dated design and has minimal content describing the latest efforts. According to his biography page, Laine is also in the middle of an MBA program, which may just be the business savvy to complement his decade of space elevator research.

Regardless, his passion for the project is evident and that may be why over 1,300 backers have contributed to its funding.

In 1979, a novel called The Fountains Of Paradise was released by Arthur C. Clarke, which was based on an Air Force report envisioning how an actual space elevator could be made. That novel has served as inspiration for over 30 years. While many ideas from science fiction may have been deemed impossible or the stuff of fantasy, Clarke's vision of a space elevator continues to draw in the imagination of many. It's that same community of dreamers that LiftPort is hoping to draw together in this Kickstarter project, so that one of the oldest aspirations of humanity can be realized.

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 9 Responses

  • larsivi August 30, 2012 on 2:41 pm

    The website could indeed be better, but it has recently transitioned from the old to new software, and moving the data is far from an automatic process, thus taking more time than planned.

    As for the design, I believe this to be on the agenda, but there are limits to what the organization has been able to give attention to so far.

  • 12-String August 30, 2012 on 4:11 pm

    I haven’t read anything about space elevators, but it would seem to me the idea is completely preposterous. The rate of rotation at the earth’s surface is close to 2,000 miles per hour, and an elevator that reaches up to orbiting height would be at a point that would have to be orbiting much faster because of the distance its orbit would travel just to maintain its position above its base. Plus the fact that the weight of the elevator increases the more there is of it, so the base would have to be increasingly bigger to support it. Just think how much a standard elevator would weigh if it went up a million floors! In addition to this, are we sure the air between the surface and upper atmosphere all moves at the same rate? What causes the jet stream and how would it affect the elevator?

    • RMoon 12-String August 30, 2012 on 7:18 pm

      Ok, first, I am going to recommend that you actually do read about space elevators before you comment about them.

      On your first point, you are completely wrong. Why? Geosynchronous orbits. What are they? Well, you know how satellite TV dishes always point to the same spot? Ya, that is because the satellites broadcasting your football games are not moving relative to the Earth. These are all equatorial orbits (meaning along the Equator). A space elevator would follow these same rules.

      Second point… yes, it is obvious you have not read anything about them… or watched the video. A space elevator is a suspended structure, not a compression structure. Yes, there would be a tall tower on Earth, but the lion’s share of the trip would be on a relatively thin ribbon-cable being suspended from the orbiting (geosynchronous, remember?) platform. So the only way your ‘standard’ elevator comparison is accurate is that both are suspended by cables. A space elevator just does not need the building (the actual structure) to support the pulleys and motor at the top. Which a space elevator does not have, by the way. I would have a stationary cable and a climbing electric car.

      Finally, the jet stream. This may be the only place in your post that you partially address an actual problem. However, a very simple search and a little research on what, where, and how a space elevator would work, you would know that there are no jet streams at the equator. Storms and such would still be an issue, though.

      So, all in all, next time you see something that you think is ‘preposterous’, do a little research first. Blasting yourself into space on a sustained explosion seems equally preposterous if you know nothing about rocketry.

    • perkmeister 12-String September 8, 2012 on 7:11 pm

      You bring up a good point about the variation in orbit speed… On the earth’s surface at the equator the surface of the earth is traveling at roughly 1,000 mph. The geosynchronous destination point along the elevator path would be rotating around the earth at roughly 17,500 mph. Therefore, any mass you send up the elevator would experience lateral acceleration from 1,000 mph to 17,500 mpg as it moves up from the earth’s surface. Could the elevator withstand this lateral pressure as its cargo moves up the elevator?

      • turtles_allthewaydown perkmeister September 12, 2012 on 12:03 pm

        I’m not sure there are any lateral forces being experienced. Gravity (towards the center of the Earth) is being replaced by centrifugal force (away from the Earth) as you go out. The orbital period (1 orbit per day around the Earth’s center) stays the same. You think about those rides at a county fair where you’re pushed against the wall of a cylinder as it spins, other than the wind you’re don’t feel being pushed to the side, only outwards.

        Assuming you’re right, however, if you watched the video, you’d see they were talking about taking 5 days to reach geostationary orbit. That would give it plenty of time to adjust, and given that during rocket launches to the ISS, astronauts experience up to 3 g’s, and non-biological materials can withstand much higher pressures. So the cargo is fine, I assume the elevator itself can handle that, as the engineers would’ve accounted for that in their first draft; after all, this is only rocket science.

  • why06 August 31, 2012 on 10:34 am

    I don’t follow this stuff and my knowledge is extremely limited, but the only time I hear of a space elevator is in Sci-fi. The idea of building on on the moon is simply ingenious. It seems rather costly, but by removing the landing module, regular trips to the moon and back could be a regular thing! That’s simply incredible. Idk how much it will cost, but I sure hope someone funds it.

    Does the moon have any economic potential to pay for the elevator after its built? Just curious.

    • larsivi why06 August 31, 2012 on 10:57 am

      The total cost of the initial moon elevator is estimated to $800 million.

      As for the moon itself, it is expected that both tourism and mining will provide value, and if that is the case, that will also necessitate a population, whether permanent or in “shifts”.

  • turtles_allthewaydown September 12, 2012 on 8:50 am

    I wonder if it would be useful to have a partial elevator. Put a satellite in fixed geosynchronous orbit, and start extending a cable up and down from the satellite. Then you just need to get to low earth orbit, grab onto the cable and climb up. Matching speed would be an issue. It would be nice if the cable went down to say, 40 km up, where a big blimp could reach it, but then you need to deal with atmospheric wind on the cable. If it was consistent, it could push the satellite into a different orbit. If this can be overcome, then you’re saving more than 50km of cabling and the strength issues involved (as well as effects of lightning, routing airplanes around it, etc).

    • turtles_allthewaydown turtles_allthewaydown September 12, 2012 on 10:28 am

      Actually, you might be able to anchor the bottom end with a blimp. Power it from solar panels, either on the blimp or the satellite, and it could maintain a position and provide a ‘landing platform’ for the elevator. (need some method of docking blimps when transporting passengers or cargo).

      Saving the last 50km of a 50,000km+ long cable might not sound like much, but that last little part has a disproportionate amount of the design and legal headaches.