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.