Next floor: Outer space

Tacoma’s Michael Laine, the visionary behind the LiftPort Group, holds a prototype of a climbing robot that test the mechanics of the group’s robot space elevator that could someday climb a carbon nanotube cable into space.
Tacoma’s Michael Laine, the visionary behind the LiftPort Group, holds a prototype of a climbing robot that test the mechanics of the group’s robot space elevator that could someday climb a carbon nanotube cable into space.

Talk about your elevator pitches.

At New Tech Tacoma on Feb. 11, Michael Laine presented his idea of building an elevator to space.

That’s not a metaphor.

“Imagine you have a ball and a string and you swing it over your head. The string stays straight. Now expand that to an earth-sized system,” Laine said.

A counter weight in space — a space station or satellite — is at one end. The other end is attached via cable to a platform on Earth. Using the cable, a device could ferry payloads and people into orbit. It would be the world’s longest Muzak session.

“You’ve literally built yourself a ladder that you can climb back and forth to space on,” Laine said.

Though the idea was first put forth over 100 years ago, the technology to make it happen didn’t exist until recently.

Laine was part of a NASA research team that in 2003 looked into the idea of building a space elevator. NASA passed.

The Port Orchard native moved his LiftPort corporation to Tacoma from his hometown in 2014. He has backgrounds in business, marketing, logistics and operations. But not space engineering.

Laine leaves the technical details to his team of 30 volunteers scattered around the world in a variety of disciplines.

Since before humans started sending dogs, chimps and then themselves into space, the field has attracted dreamers. Only recently, when some of them had billion-dollar bank accounts, have those dreams become reality.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX delivers cargo to the International Space Station and has landed a reusable rocket booster. Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson unveiled his latest passenger spaceship Feb. 19. Amazon head Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin company are also in the game.

But Laine is no billionaire. He admits funding is one of his biggest hurdles.

“Private investors write us checks every once in a while. Sometimes they are big and we can do big things, and sometimes they are small and we do small things,” Laine said.

He’s taking it one step at a time.

“We’ve taken this big idea and broken it down into lots of little parts,” Laine said. “We tackle one part at a time.”

When the question of orbital debris presenting a hazard to a space elevator, as portrayed with a lot of theatrical license in the movie “Gravity,” LiftPort commissioned a study.

Musk and his SpaceX company are making an earth-based elevator less attractive. Reusable rocket technology could dramatically cut the cost of putting payloads in orbit, currently about $10,000 per pound, according to NASA.

“I’m not sure that the Earth elevator is financially viable at this point. If costs to (reach) orbit drop to $5,000 per kilo (or less) a high school team can hold a bake sale and a car wash and put a satellite in orbit,” Laine said.

So, Laine is first looking at the moon, which is far more expensive and difficult to land on compared with delivering payloads in Earth orbit.

“We can build an elevator on the moon which becomes basically a precursor technology. We build it out and then build it here later,” Laine said. He estimates a basic system would cost $800 million, about the cost of the most recent Narrows bridge.

Spaceships from Earth would dock at the Lagrange point, a gravitationally neutral point between the moon and the Earth. From there, cargo and personnel would use the elevator to reach the moon’s surface.

“Getting to the Lagrange point is super easy. We have 13 different nations and 30 different rockets that can do that,” Laine said.

The creation of a material that could be used as the cable that elevators would use for an Earth elevator is still coming, Laine said. But for the moon, the technology exists: carbon nano tubes. The tubes are highly dense structures made out of carbon at the molecular level.

The bigger question is: Why build a moon elevator to begin with?

NASA and even former President George W. Bush have talked about returning to the moon for scientific purposes. A moon base could be the staging ground for a future Mars base.

Early robotic prototypes sit on shelves in Laine’s office. His team is building its 18th version, this one about 8 feet long.

LiftPort is one of several organizations and universities working on a space elevator. But he said he has the only incorporated space elevator company.

“It’s an ad hoc global community,” Laine said.

Laine moved to Tacoma because of its economical advantages and burgeoning tech industry.

“This is a town that builds things,” Laine said.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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