BETTING ON A LONG SHOT
Bryan Laubscher has staked his career on carbon nanotubes and the space elevator. A former physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, he formed Odysseus Technologies in 2009, and has four other investors, including Ted Semon, president of ISEC. From his garage shop Laubscher works with CNTs with the goal of drawing them into a tether. While he has mostly learned what does not work, he filed for a patent on a so-called nanotube detangler in May, and a second patent for a CNT growth technology that he keeps under wraps.
“The space elevator breaks the rocket paradigm” because it does not carry its own fuel, Laubscher says. He believes chemical technology is near its limit, bound by the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation to deliver only about 5 percent of its initial mass into Earth orbit. Those inefficiencies meant that it cost $64,000 for the space shuttle to put one kilogram into low-earth orbit (LEO); an elevator, Laubscher calculates, could do it with 17.2 kilowatt-hours of electricity—about two dollars’ worth.
He sees the space elevator as the future analogue of the Transcontinental Railway that opened the American West—once the infrastructure has been put in place at great effort and expense, transport becomes cheap, and new opportunities abound. “Once you're at LEO,” Laubscher says, “you're half the way to anywhere.” Still, he was clear that “the space elevator is far in the future.”
Peter Swan sees space-based solar power as the ultimate savior of a world starved for energy, and the space elevator as the only way to economically place the required infrastructure in space. The vision is of satellites in orbit, above clouds, weather and the atmosphere, collecting sunlight and beaming power to small surface dishes via microwaves. “Africa could skip the 20th century for telecom and power wires,” he says, and emergency power could be beamed anywhere to the surface.
“The space elevator would be a nonlinear event in history,” Swan says. He and colleagues are even designing organization charts for elevator operations at its presumed ocean-based floating anchor station (the community favors a low-lightning spot near the equator in the eastern Pacific ocean) and its on-shore marine base in San Diego.
But not everyone is as confident about the elevator's fruition. Brad Edwards, who co-authored the 2003 book, The Space Elevator, that has since served as a template for all elevator discussions, dropped out of the field after years spent trying to make it a reality. “Technologically we could do this in the next 10 or 15 years,” he recently told the magazine Seattle Met. “But realistically it’s going to take much longer, and I had to ask myself whether I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”
Arthur C. Clarke famously said the space elevator would be built 50 years after everyone stopped laughing. “I think we've quieted the people who are outright laughing,” says Laine, a former U.S. Marine and investment adviser who continues to put personal funds into his company. “We haven't quieted the skeptics, and there should be people asking questions.”
Laine’s Liftport Group, formed in 2003 after he worked with Edwards on a NASA Innovative Advanced Studies (NIAC) grant to study the space elevator, once had 14 employees. Liftport unsuccessfully tried to produce carbon nanotubes and carried out some balloon and tether tests in an effort to sell weather data for revenue. The crash of the economy put them out of business for five years, but Laine sees the enthusiastic and unexpected response to his Kickstarter campaign—his goal was only $8,000—as a sign of optimism.