Project would 'sling-shot' cargo into space

A recent meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society on the UW campus featured guest speaker Michael J. Laine, founder of the LiftPort group. During the last five years Laine and his company have been developing the outline for an elevator to help transport large cargo loads into space.

The lift would be assembled out of three components: a satellite, a ship floating somewhere in the South Pacific and a 15-foot-wide tether connecting the two. Combined, these three elements would act as a sort of ball and tether, slingshotting the elevator into space.

While the idea behind such a lift has been in development for decades, the project has only recently begun to show substantial progress. The elevator, which has undergone major modifications over the years, is now proposed to transport up to 100 tons of cargo per week once completed.

Currently, supplies to fuel the several space stations orbiting the Earth are transported via space shuttle; however, these shuttles carry a 1-in-20 failure rate. With each shuttle launch costing nearly $1 billion, the LiftPort group is hoping to improve upon these statistics with its elevator.

"It's all about capitalization and commercialization," admitted Laine of his project.

While the program uncomfortably straddles the line between a far-fetched fantasy project and reality, it nevertheless has been gaining support. Besides research assistance from nearly 60 universities (including the University of Washington), the LiftPort's space elevator has been featured on the covers of both Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. Time magazine even named it the No. 4 invention to change the next century.

Lain joked that "we went from a cowboy project to a legitimate one," but acknowledges that they still have many kinks to work out. For instance, the tether connecting the satellite and earth-bound ship has not been tested against the atmospheric rigor it would incur while suspended in space.

"It's not that we're ignoring it; it's just not that big a problem compared to everything else," Laine said.

Still, he has faith in his project. Having invested nearly $1million of his own money in the program, Laine is confident of the elevator's completion by the year 2031.[[In-content Ad]]