Space Elevator: April 2007

So what's it like to pour your soul into your vision and after years of building it up seeing it come crashing down? In an open and frank ongoing commentary on the Liftport blog, Michael Laine is chronicling how he got to this point in his quest to build a space elevator, what's happening now and what may happen in the future.

Here's an excerpt from one of his blog postings today:

"I will have many blog postings over the next several weeks, chronicling our success and progress – and if needs be, failure… We will go on. It is harder than it was before. It’s not commonly known, but I -personally- was the main person bankrolling this project. There were others, at a much much smaller level of financial commitment. The largest of our other investors had only $15k at risk. Most were in the $2-5k range. In contrast, I used my own resources to capitalize the day-to-day operations. I have only taken $30k in salaries in the last 5 years, combined. The project lived in my building – rent free – for the past 4 years. I have personally invested about $400k into the company. So, add that all up, and with deferred salary, deferred rent, and cash from my checkbook, and I have committed somewhere near $1M of my own assets to this idea, this vision, of how the world could be…"

Whether you agree with his approach to building his vision into reality you have to give him respect for the effort.

I too believe that building a space elevator is a noble cause. One that could someday open the way to a larger human presence in space. The image you see to the right of this post is just a small part of a larger painting that hangs on my office wall. I commissioned renowned space artist Michael Carroll to paint it. For the most part I have kept quiet as Michael and Liftport went about their business these past few years. The reason is simple, if they succeeded, well that would be good for all of us. However if they failed it would be bad for all of us. It was even suggested that once the problems surfaced at Liftport that it would be best if I kept quiet about it, after all it would hurt the effort. But you see, I approach the space elevator concept from a very no nonsense businesslike approach. Vision and passion will only take you so far in the real world. You need resources, read lots and lots of money, you need new materials, new technologies, well you get the point. So to get a space elevator built you need to start with practical matters, solve some of the basic problems, such as material development then move onto the next problem. Solving some of these practical problems can lead to spinoffs that can generate revenue that will fund the next stage of development. Take a look at the spinoffs from research and development at NASA to see what's come out of public R&D funding.

So here's an interesting shield technology experiment being tried at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK:

Scientists at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory plan to mimic nature. They will build a miniature magnetosphere in a laboratory to see if a deflector shield can be used to protect humans living on spacecraft and in bases on the Moon or Mars.

I wonder if the technology could someday be adopted to protect parts of a space elevator.

According to Alain Boyle over at the MSNBC's Cosmic Log Michael Laine and the Liftport Group have decided to regroup and focus on balloon-borne platforms.

From the article:

As of today, Laine said LiftPort will "shift 100 percent into commercialization of balloons." He said the plan would be to test balloons that could loft observation or communication platforms up as high as 150 feet for three- to 10-day windows, and extend that capability to monthlong stints at an altitude of 1,000 feet - depending on the regulatory go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration.

According to the article, Laine as decided to try and make a go of it until September to produce a commercially viable product.

Editorial by Marc Boucher

Starting a business from the ground up is extremely tough. I know, I've done it a few times. So I'm not surprised to read that Liftport has shut down operations. This is according to what's posted by Brian Dunbar in the Liftport blog.

Building a Space Elevator will not be an easy endeavour. The hurdles to overcome are numerous. Currently a community effort, led by Bryan Laubscher, is underway to build a roadmap that outlines the steps needed to build the first space elevator. Some companies will choose to follow the roadmap, others will not, others still will focus on a particular niche of the roadmap. No one company today will start from scratch with the stated business aim of building a space elevator and succeed, it’s too soon. Companies today interested in the space elevator need to focus on technologies, materials needed for the space elevator and produce tangible spinoff products that can be made the foundation of a business. The space elevator is no ordinary product, so applying traditional business models and fundraising techniques won't work.

Liftport created their own roadmap, one in which they stated that in 25 years they would start sending cargo up an elevator. What investor today who is thinking about a return on investment would consider such a long term investment? None who have the funds to get such an endeavour off the ground. And in applying traditional business models this is in part where Liftport went wrong. And I feel for those who made emotional decisions to invest in the Liftport Group. In fours years Liftport went from one company to a group of four companies. This was all part of the fundraising strategy. And while they got a lot of people excited, raised expectations and did do some work, for the most part what was produced was hype. And hype is not a product, and without a product and with your expenses mounting the day will come when your business fails.

Tethers Unlimited's "Multi-Application Survivable Tether" (MAST) Experiment today reached orbit as a secondary payload on a Dnepr rocket as a part of the University CubeSat program.

The MAST experiment consists of three picosatellites. For launch, these three picosatellites stack together into a volume about the size of a loaf of bread. Once on orbit, the picosatellites will separate and deploy a 1,000 meter long Hoytether™ structure.