For decades, visionaries have dreamed about building space elevators that could carry payloads into orbit for a fraction of what it costs for a rocket launch — and even though that multibillion-dollar construction project is still little more than a vision, a crowdfunded experiment could soon take one small step toward outer space.
The test calls for launching a high-altitude balloon on the end of a string that will stretch as far as 4.5 miles (7 kilometers) in length — and then setting loose a robotic climber to make its way up the string, all the way to the top. It would be the most ambitious test ever conducted by the LiftPort Group, a Tacoma, Washington-based venture specializing in space elevator technology.
"This one, I'm worried about," LiftPort founder Michael Laine told NBC News. "If there's a problem, people are going to say, 'Oh, the space elevator is stupid.'"
Laine and other enthusiasts have been working for years to build the technical groundwork for space elevators, which have been described as "railroads to the sky."
The idea sounds almost laughable: Connect a super-strong tether between a point on Earth's surface and a counterweight that's positioned 62,000 miles (100,000 kilometers) out in space. Then, build elevator cars that can ride that tether to orbital heights.
If those feats can be accomplished, space-elevator advocates say the system could reduce the cost of sending payloads into orbit to 1 percent of what it is today. One of the concept's biggest advocates was the late science-fiction guru Arthur C. Clarke, who once said the first space elevator would be built "about 50 years after everyone stops laughing." (He later reduced that time frame to 10 years.)
The pressure is on
Two years ago, Laine launched a Kickstarter appeal to raise "a little money" for a balloon-borne, robot-climbing experiment. His target was $8,000 — but instead, he garnered more than $110,000 from almost 3,500 contributors. As a result, he kicked his plans up a notch. Now he's closing in on what's shaping up as a very public high-wire act.
"The Kickstarter backers want to see this happen, and I'm grateful for their support — but it definitely adds to the pressure," Laine said.
He and his colleagues at LiftPort are still working on the high-altitude balloon, the multi-wheeled climber and the Vectran polymer fiber to be used for the experiment. They're also dealing with the paperwork for the Federal Aviation Administration, which has to grant a waiver for launching the tethered balloon. If all those arrangements come together, the test would take place at a yet-to-be-disclosed location on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, sometime in the next couple of months, Laine said.
He acknowledges that this isn't a sure thing. "There's lots of ways this can fail," he said.
No stranger to setbacks
Laine is no stranger to setbacks: His space-elevator quest has already taken him through foreclosure and a thicket of legal tangles. But he soldiers on, with the aim of proving out the technologies that could come into play when it's time for the space elevator to be built.
"We never claim that this is true-blue space elevator technology," Laine said. "It's an analogy that helps us understand the problems."
LiftPort's aim is to take its experiments off Earth's surface and test them in the space environment. After the ballon experiment, the next step could be to hook up a CubeSat nanosatellite with a deployable tether and a mini-climber. Eventually, Laine would like to see a lunar elevator that's capable of transporting payloads to and from the moon's surface.
Advocates say the technology to create a workable space elevator for the moon or Mars exists today. All it would take is billions of dollars, plus a space transportation system that's capable of sustaining a massive off-Earth construction effort. But right now, those kinds of resources are nowhere in sight.
"If we put in a moon elevator, there are no customers," said Peter Swan, president of the International Space Elevator Consortium. "Until you get customers, the logistics infrastructure is silly."
Is this trip necessary?
Building a space elevator on Earth would be more attractive to customers — but the financial, technical and even meteorological challenges are even more daunting. How would operators deal with storms and lightning? Maintenance issues? Safety precautions and the potential for sabotage? Swan and other enthusiasts discussed such issues over the past weekend, during the annual Space Elevator Conference in Seattle.
But it will clearly take decades to get all the answers sorted out. A decade ago, Laine started counting down to what he hoped would be the "first lift" for a working space elevator, on April 12, 2018. For now, that countdown is on indefinite hold.
Ted Semon, a retired software engineer who maintains the Space Elevator Blog, noted that no one has yet been able to create materials strong enough for an Earth-to-space tether. "Set the countdown when you have the materials," Semon told NBC News.
Will the day that Arthur C. Clarke dreamt about ever come? You don't have to look very hard to find skeptics. "It will be a long time, if ever, before the economics of a space elevator makes sense," SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said in a 2008 interview. "Consider that no one has decided to build a bridge from New York to London, and that would be way easier than building a space elevator."
Musk has a different strategy to reduce the cost of getting to space, by making rockets more reusable. He claims that his vision could cut the cost of spaceflight to 1 percent of what it is today — which is exactly what space-elevator fans have been saying about their vision.
At last weekend's Seattle conference, it was Swan's turn to be skeptical.
"If he gets the price down, I'll applaud him," Swan told NBC News. "But I don't know how he can get around the rocket equation."