Gravity can be a grueling taskmaster. Anyone who’s walked up a dozen flights of stairs knows this. Getting into space is that much harder. It takes hundreds of thousands of pounds of thrust and over half a million gallons of propellant to lift something like the Space Shuttle off the ground. Wouldn’t it be easier to just build a giant elevator?
That’s what a company called LiftPort — a private group spun out of a 2001-2003 NASA study — proposes. Imagine robots that could climb into the sky without rocket propulsion — or don’t, because LiftPort’s already done it. Imagine a tower to dwarf all towers, composed of carbon nanotubes and reaching up through the ionosphere tens of thousands of miles into space. Imagine using that tower to deploy payloads and people into space at a fraction of the current cost.
The only problem: You’re talking about a project that’s estimated to cost billions, is still decades away (if it happens at all) and, according to LiftPort, still in need of several “breakthroughs” to make it workable.
Enter the Moon. No, not an elevator to the Moon, because there’s that pesky orbiting-the-Earth catch (among others), but a space elevator on the Moon. LiftPort president Michael Laine says that’s what needs to happen next in the grand scheme of things, so he’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the ball rolling.
Laine’s “Lunar Elevator” would consist of a two-kilometer ribbon extending from the Moon’s surface into space, climbable by a robotic car and held aloft by helium balloons. Once it’s functioning, he claims it would allow us to “soft-land” cargo on the Moon’s surface, travel “1000 times farther for 1/10th the price” and “transport three dozen people to the Moon per year.”
Call it a proof of concept for the much grander and costlier Earth version, and Laine says he hopes to make his Lunar Elevator a reality in less than a decade.
“Before we can build Earth’s Elevator, we’ll need to build one on the Moon,” writes Laine. “It is significantly easier, and much much cheaper. Importantly — we can build it with current technology — in about eight years.”
How much is “much much cheaper”? LiftPort’s Kickstarter project, which runs through Sep. 13, only asks for $8,000, which sounds impossibly low — because it is. But Laine admits he picked that amount primarily to establish a community of supporters. The short-term goal, which involves running a one-year “feasibility study,” is to raise $3 million.
The long-term funding goal to make LiftPort’s Lunar Elevator happen? A cool $800 million.
And if LiftPort eventually secures that kind of cash, builds and successfully deploys its Lunar Elevator, then makes its proposed two-kilometer record climb? Laine says his company will aim for a three- to five-kilometer record, though he notes that the group would have to deal with thermal issues like frozen lubricant, seizing motors and weakened materials at higher altitudes. Presumably the price tag goes up to do any of that, too. And it’s still a long way from an Earth-based ground-to-space tower, but at least it’s a step in that direction.
So far, so good: As this goes to press, the Kickstarter project was at over $38,000, or nearly quintuple its stated goal.