Interview: Space Elevators Inch Closer to Reality

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Mock up of a space elevator by Flickr user Flying Singer.

Rockets are expensive. Elevators are cheap. Well they're cheaper than rockets. Even 100 mile tall elevators. This is the idea behind a push to build a space elevator, and it dates back to the 1950s, or by some accounts, 1895.

The challenges of building such a big elevator are, well, astronomical. But a growing number of aspiring private space explorers think the time is right to boldly ride where only astronauts have gone before, in the process expanding the thrill of space to new populations and reducing the cost of lunar exploration dramatically.

NASA thinks the idea could work. The space agency paid out a $900,000 prize in 2009 as part of a competition for early phase testing. See the (admittedly blurry) video below for some highlights from the 2009 Space Elevator Games competition.

Today a new group, LiftPort wraps up a Kickstarter fundraising campaign that has pulled in over $90,000 to fund the next tall test in the coming months.

The Takeaway interviewed the president of  LiftPort Michael Lain about his progress and plans. Listen to the full interview above.

A few excerpts that offer a taste of his dream:

"The general idea is pretty straight forward. Imagine you have a ball on a string and you are spinning it over your head. The string in the middle stays straight, right? Now expand that to an Earth-size system. The Earth rotates and you have a counterweight, a satellite, deep out in space with a very long, very strong string. The mechanics are exactly the same and you've literally built yourself a ladder that you can climb into space with using robots instead of rockets."

He says he already has enough money to start testing.

"We're going to start working on what we refer to as a tethered tower. We have been building robots for a long time and what we are looking to do is break a couple records. So, what we are using is high altitude balloons tethered to the ground with a robot climbing back and forth and we're probably going to break the system by trying to reach Mt. McKinley altitudes of 6.2 km. That would make us the tallest thing in North America. We think that's a pretty exciting goal to reach towards."

A space elevator would need to be more than 100 km, but 6.2 is a start.

The Economist reports a second company, X-Tech, has also been founded to explore construction of a space elevator. The magazine cites estimates that a space life could eventually be built for $10 billion, a "modest sum" compared to rocket exploration programs that would achieve the same access and aims. Plus, if billionaires are paying hundreds of millions of dollars already for a peek out a window in high orbit on Virgin Galactic, then it might not be a bad business plan to offer up walks on the moon's surface -- via elevator -- for a meteoric markup.

Here's LiftPort's video vision for how a space elevator could work. Below that is video from the Space Elevator Games: