The 62,000-Mile Elevator Ride
Rockets are old news. The hottest idea in space enterprise is a tether to take us all the way from Earth to orbit. Meet the startups that think they can make it happen.
(Business 2.0) - Every world-changing wonder has to begin somewhere. But it would be hard for the space elevator to have a less auspicious start than it got last October in a foggy office parking lot in Mountain View, Calif. This was the setting for the first Space Elevator Games, sponsored by NASA, which offered a $200,000 prize to the first team that could make a machine climb up a 164-foot tether, powered by nothing but a mirror and a beam of light from a 10,000-watt bulb.
A short ride
In fact, none of the home-brewed contraptions on display could reach higher than 40 feet. The device that got the most attention was built by Vince Lopresti, a wheelchair-bound Texan, and that's because he made it from an old wheelchair frame. Ask him why he did it, and he gazes skyward. "I'm doing it to get off this rock," he says with a smile.
The theory behind the elevator is simple. First proposed 111 years ago by a Russian scientist, it was popularized by Arthur C. Clarke in his award-winning 1978 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, and goes like this: Earth is constantly spinning. So if you attach a counterweight to it with a cable, and put it far enough away--62,000 miles--the cable will be held taut by the force of the planet's rotation, just as if you spun around while holding a ball on a string. And if you've got a taut cable, you've got the makings of an elevator.
As strange as that sounds--push the "Up" button, climb in, and soar off into weightless bliss--don't be surprised if it happens. The space elevator is where the PC was in the 1960s: The theory is solid, the materials exist, and people in garages are starting to tinker with the next step. Two Seattle startups are competing to build the elevator. Both believe they can do it within 15 years at a cost of $10 billion. NASA and China's space agency are eager to help make it happen.
A cheap trip
And no wonder: A working elevator would reduce the cost of launching anything into space by roughly 98 percent. The $500 million it takes to launch the average satellite (insurance not included) would be a thing of the past. Business won't have seen anything like it since the railroad. "All of a sudden," says Brad Edwards, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory astrophysicist who founded Sedco, one of the startups, "space will be open for real activity."
The cable, known to elevator scientists as a ribbon, would be dropped in stages from space and hooked up to a floating platform similar to an offshore oil rig. An elevator car roughly the size of a Boeing 747, able to carry hundreds of people or 200 tons of cargo, could climb and descend the ribbon at a speed of 120 mph. That means the first trip to geosynchronous orbit (22,000 miles) would take seven days, but scientists say that could be reduced to four days by the time the first passengers make the journey. (Still, bring a good book for when the view of Earth gets dull.)
Not only would an elevator slash launch costs, but it would increase the amount of cargo capacity for orbital trips. More than 90 percent of the space shuttle's weight is fuel, with cargo making up less than 5 percent. On the elevator, no fuel is necessary, because the car would be electric, with power cells energized by a ground-based laser beam.
So why hasn't anyone tried to build one yet? Because the material needed for the ribbon didn't exist. Until 1991, no substance came close to being strong, lightweight, and durable enough to do the job. Then a Japanese scientist stumbled on an arrangement of carbon atoms that became the strongest material ever tested: carbon nanotubes. Nanotubes are as much as 100 times stronger than steel, yet weigh only a fifth as much.
A carbon nanotube string the width of sewing thread could easily lift a large car. A nanotube elevator ribbon would need to be no thicker than plastic food wrap. Nanotubes would also make the elevator car light, though large. "This material is applicable to everything," says Ken Dividian, former director of operations for the X Prize Foundation and the current NASA contractor overseeing the Centennial Challenges program, which helped coordinate the Space Elevator Games. "NASA is very interested in this technology."
A handful of companies worldwide, like Carbon Nanotechnologies in Texas, Mitsui in Japan, and Nanoledge in France, are already producing purified nanotubes. The longest nanotubes yet produced measure only a few inches, but that doesn't prevent them from being ribbon-ready. "The nanotubes themselves don't need to be 62,000 miles long," Edwards says. "Cotton fibers aren't long enough to make your shirt--you bond them together."
The real problem is that, at $500 per gram, nanotubes are currently too expensive, and worldwide production is estimated to be less than 100 pounds per day. That's why Michael Laine believes commercializing nanotubes is the key to building the elevator. Laine is a former Marine instructor and CEO of three Seattle tech startups. He was approached by Edwards in 2000, and together they started a company called HighLift. They split after three years, when Laine wanted to have an IPO sooner rather than later. He founded the LiftPort Group; Edwards founded Sedco. Now the two are pursuing the same goal on opposite sides of Puget Sound.
LiftPort is focused on the short-term earning power of nanotubes. Laine recently set up a 15,000-square-foot nanotube facility in Millville, N.J., with plans to mass-produce the "longest, strongest" nanotubes possible. He's chasing the success of carbon fiber, a similar material that has blossomed into a $2 billion market--enhancing the strength of golf clubs, race cars, and Boeing 777s. "Long before you see an elevator climbing into the sky, you're going to see bridges, buildings, cars, and boats designed in a fundamentally different way," Laine says. "Every industrial process we've got, we're going to throw out the window."
Not that Laine believes nanotube sales alone will score him $10 billion, but it's a model that will attract money from VCs and angel investors who have shied away from the unconventional idea of the space elevator itself. So far, Edwards's companies are funded by small grants from NASA and other research institutions; Laine's are funded by a dozen or so individual investors. "We're not under the illusion that we could bankroll this," Laine says. "We'd have to be the size of GE to pay for it out of cash flow." Instead, he plans to follow "the standard for infrastructure development"--40 percent government financing, 30 percent private equity, and 30 percent private debt.
Finding the funding
Who will bite first? The Chinese government has made no secret of its ambitious space program and carbon nanotube research. Nor has Japan. "Whoever builds the first elevator will have a virtual monopoly on all future ones," Edwards says. "The political and economic structure of the world could be completely different 50 years from now." Risk to the infrastructure would be minimal. The floating platform will ideally be anchored on the equator, Earth's calmest area with the fewest lightning strikes and storms. The ribbon will have the highest melting point of any material ever produced and be flexible enough to withstand high winds.
Would the space elevator be a giant cargo freighter to the stars, or would tourists enjoy the ride too? Laine and Edwards are skeptical about the commercial viability of space tourism. Still, Edwards estimates that for about $20,000 per person, a group of as many as 30 could go up in the elevator for eight hours, reach reduced gravity, see the curvature of Earth and the sky darken in the daytime, have a picnic, and come down. It might not be the thrill ride that U.S. businessman Gregory Olsen took in a Russian shuttle last year, but he paid $20 million. This would be for the price of a Toyota Camry.
In the meantime, NASA's Centennial Challenges are focused on the power-beaming and tether-climbing aspects of the elevator. Competition, the agency believes, is the best way to drive applications for technology that already exists. The next Space Elevator Games, in June, will be a far cry from the homemade robots struggling up a few feet of tether. NASA has upped the prize money to $400,000, and 45 teams have already signed up.
"These are reputable teams," Edwards says. "The question this time isn't going to be who gets up the ribbon, but how fast they're going and how much weight they are carrying." Lopresti and his team will be back, with precise diode lasers and a crash-test dummy to prove that their climber can handle humans. "We're going to show NASA we mean business," Lopresti says. "Space business."
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From the March 1, 2006 issue