Seattle’s Space Elevator Man
After a decade of disappointment, could there be new life for the space elevator?
Among the myriad out-there ideas for hurling humans into the final frontier, the space elevator most resembles science fiction: Conceived more than 50 years ago by Russian engineer Yuri Artsutanov, the concept consists of a laser-propelled lift that would carry cargo or astronauts 62,000 miles into orbit along a carbon cable tethered to a platform floating in the Pacific Ocean. Physicists and engineers will grudgingly tell you the technology exists but that intangibles (what happens if space debris slams into the cable?) and the cost (estimates fall in the $10 billion range) make it virtually impossible in the near term. Michael Laine knows this; the 44-year-old Port Orchard man lost a fortune chasing his dream of building one. And that’s why he’s set his sights on what he believes is a much easier goal to reach: building an elevator on the moon.
Over the years Seattle’s been the launch point for several wannabe space explorers eager to pick up NASA’s slack. Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen are funding private rocket programs, and, just last April, Bellevue-based Planetary Resources announced its plans to mine asteroids for pricey minerals like platinum. But the space elevator was first. Ten years ago this August, Laine and his then–business partner, Brad Edwards, hosted the inaugural Space Elevator Conference in Seattle. They were flush with cash, thanks to a $570,000 NASA grant, and just a few months removed from going public with their ambitious plans to lasso the stars by 2017. Despite decent credentials—Edwards was a well-respected physicist from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Laine was a refugee of the dot-com boom—their peers scoffed. (Even the government suit who awarded the pair their grant said the elevator was 50 or 100 years away.) Fueled by starry-eyed optimism, though, they kept crunching numbers and refining the formula for their carbon cable.
Even the NASA suit who awarded the pair their grant said the elevator was 50 or 100 years away.
The partnership didn’t last long, but it was money—not the improbability of success—that grounded them. Laine wanted to find commercial investors while Edwards wanted to partner with the government. Just over a year after hooking up, they split and started their own elevator ventures, but neither ever came any closer to reaching space. Edwards is a techie at heart, and the politics of space exploration eventually wore him down. Today he works for a Bellevue company that’s developing ocean-measurement technology. “One of the key things of being a scientist is to be realistic about what you’re doing,” he says. “Technologically we could do this in the next 10 or 15 years. But realistically it’s going to take much longer, and I had to ask myself whether I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”
Laine’s not willing to let it go that easily. After a series of risky financial maneuvers sunk his company, LiftPort, in 2007 and attracted the attention of the securities regulators, he fell into what he described on his blog as a two-year “catatonic rage.” But then last August, over margaritas at the 2011 Space Elevator Conference, he and a few fellow geeks started sketching ideas on the back of a napkin. A terrestrial-based elevator was, they agreed, too expensive. But for a fraction of the cost—by their estimates—they could sink a cable into the moon that manned spacecraft could “ride” down to the surface. As crazy as it sounds, Laine is so committed that he applied for a $500,000 NASA grant in June and hopes to hear back by August. “It would be a welcome piece of news if I could walk into this year’s conference and say we’re back under NASA’s umbrella,” he says. “That would practically inspire a standing ovation.”
If all goes according to plan, when does he expect to get off the ground? About 10 years.