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Space Elevator Rebuttal From LiftPort Founder 368

Posted by kdawson
from the take-a-second-look dept.
TropicalCoder is the reader who submitted the story about the possible demise of LiftPort a couple of weeks back. The resulting discussion was mostly negative about the feasibility of building a space elevator. TropicalCoder writes: "At one point during the discussion, LiftPort founder Michael J. Laine personally entered the discussion, but for the most part remained invisible since he hadn't logged in. I responded to his comment that if he would like a chance to rebut the criticisms, he should contact me and I would undertake to interview him and post the resulting story on Slashdot." Read below for the story of how Mr. Laine's detailed reply and rebuttal to that Slashdot discussion came about. TropicalCoder asks, "After reading LiftPort's rebuttal to Slashdot critics, do any of you now feel your pessimism somewhat dispelled?"

Michael Laine called me long distance via cell phone that very day from his back yard near Seattle, and spoke with me for over an hour. Michael came across as a rather sober, likable fellow, not at all like the crackpot image one would conjure up from reading many of the Slashdot comments. He was clearly wounded by the stinging criticisms in the Slashdot discussion, and I couldn't help empathizing with him. Here was man who had put his money where his mouth was, risking everything on his dream, perhaps suffering his darkest hour, and enduring ridicule on top of that.

At no point during the conversation did I get any impression of a huckster who would sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, something that I was on the lookout for. It was clear to me that he sincerely believes in what he is doing. Whether he succeeds in the end or not, I would prefer to call him a "visionary." After all, for every great visionary you can recall from history, there must have been a thousand others who tried and failed, but are no less visionary because of that. The jury is still out on LiftPort, and rumors of their death would be premature. They continue their research, and as I write are preparing for the "Tethered Towers" demo on Thursday June 28.

At the end of the conversation it was agreed that I would summarize the Slashdot discussion for him and offer him an opportunity for point-by-point rebuttal. I completed this summary (in which many Slashdot readers will recognize their own words), and sent it off to him the next day. He acknowledged receipt and promised an answer shortly. A few weeks passed, and I imagined that he must have decided in the end that the criticisms were so severe, perhaps it would be best just to try to forget it. It was a total surprise to me when a thoroughly detailed response arrived in my mailbox today, demonstrating that the people at LiftPort at least are still convinced that building a space elevator is possible.

Space elevator themes have been celebrated in science fiction and many Slashdot readers have shared the dream, only to become disillusioned with the apparent pending demise of LiftPort. After reading LiftPort's rebuttal to Slashdot critics, do any of you now feel your pessimism somewhat dispelled?"
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Space Elevator Rebuttal From LiftPort Founder

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  • Good Writeup! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by kspn78 (1116833) on Tuesday June 26, 2007 @02:12AM (#19646195)
    I really enjoyed the writeup and the interview. I thought that it covered the points in a very concise fashion while also outlining all the points that had been raised in aa very negative manner. I look forward to following this project and its future directions.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Doc Daneeka (1107345)
      He may have covered the easy topics, but he failed to even skim the surface on the structural integrity questions that will come up.

      Materials exist today that are strong enough and light enough to support the weight of the lifter and itself.

      If that is so, can the structure sustain the drag forces of the jet stream? What about the linear and volumetric expansion coefficients? Over a structure this large, are you absolutely certain the large differences in temperatures will not cause the structural integrity to degrade rapidly or pose a significant risk due to changes in enthalpy over large periods of time? Have y

  • WHy Yes (Score:2, Funny)

    by inKubus (199753)
    do any of you now feel your pessimism somewhat dispelled

    Why yes, I do believe my spirit has elevated. My feelings on the matter have definitely been lifted.
  • by QuantumG (50515) <qg@biodome.org> on Tuesday June 26, 2007 @02:15AM (#19646221) Homepage Journal
    Me: The Space Elevator is a glorious technology that may one day be built by an advanced human civilization, and when it is, it will be a modern world wonder.. but that day is not today.. it's probably not even in the next 30 years.

    LiftPort: We disagree. So far as our official road map is concerned, we are on schedule - and in fact, we are even a little ahead of schedule on some projects.


    Ok, that's great, but you're the ones making this amazing claim that you could build a space elevator today if only you had the money. Amazing claims require amazing proof. Your official road map doesn't exactly cut it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by AoT (107216)
      You missed the point. They don't need a space elevator for their business plan to succeed, just the technologies that they are/will developing. That tech moves us closer to an SE, and it is profit generating in the short term.
      • by Rogerborg (306625)

        No, genius, that's a different issue. This is what the parent is referring to:

        If it weren't for the costs, we could build one this year. Materials exist today that are strong enough and light enough to support the weight of the lifter and itself.

        Perhaps Leader Laine mis-'spoke', but that looks like a pretty crackpot claim to me. What materials, specifically what materials capable of being woven into a single 100,000km strand are available right now, today?

        Mind you, Leader Laine also makes a good fist

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Smidge204 (605297)
          He specifically mentioned Honeywell Spectra Fiber [honeywell.com] which is billed to be "pound for pound 10 times stronger that steel"

          We need to translate that statement first. They don't mention what KIND of steel. Steel can have a tensile strength of 0.3 GPa to 1.88 GPa depending on type. That gives SF2K a tensile strength between 3.0 GPa to 18.8 GPa. (Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] apparently agrees with this assessment...)

          Using Wikipedia as firther source, "A space elevator can be made relatively economically feasible if a cable with a de
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Rei (128717)
            Spectra is a mere 3.5G GPa UTS and *950* kg per cubic meter [elevator2010.org]. You converted g/cm to kg/m^3 wrong. It's not even within an order of magnitude of what is needed. Furthermore, you represented SWNTs wrong. They're SWNTs, not graphite; it's a completely different form that just happens to use the same SP2 bonding structure. Their density is about 1300 kg/m^3.

            Furthermore, while it's possible to build a space elevator with a nanotube cable that's only 65 GPa tensile, it's not realistic. It's also possible to
    • by cyclomedia (882859) on Tuesday June 26, 2007 @09:13AM (#19648469) Homepage Journal
      OK, OK, I know this IS slashdot but still, here goes my karma:

      What DID this guy DO to you and all the other moaning slashdotters? Yeah probably like me you grew up post-Apollo and parte-Shuttle and wanted to be an astronaut when you were a kid, so I guess you're a little bitter that the whole spage-age thing hasn't really happened. But hey, why is it all directed at these guys? Did they sneak into your room when you were a kid and molest you, promising that if you kept it a secret from mommy and daddy that you'd get the first ride into space on their space elevator?

      Are they making outlandish, unfounded claims with the sole intention of scraping money from willing idiots? Possibly, I don't know for sure, but I'd love to see a space elevator go up, and the technological and exploratory benefits to mankind that followed. So let's give these guys a chance, even if all they're doing is collecting ideas, theories and munging it together with some nice 3d graphics the more people take notice and take the idea seriously the better. But so what if they don't shit one out of their assholes tomorrow morning just for you personally to ride on, give it a rest.

      Critique, debate and peer review on any matter are always warranted but shooting insults and slander from the hip because, well, presumably you expected a LiftPort TM by 2005 and free trips to space or something is frankly unwarranted, childish and should be moderated into oblivion.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by elrous0 (869638) *
        This reminds me of that "Well, they're not really hurting anyone--just giving them a little false hope. What's wrong with that?" argument that "psychics" use to justify bilking old ladies out of their money by letting them talk with their dearly departed relatives.

        False hope, lies, and scientific hogwash ARE dangerous. It's the same crap that gave us Eugenics, and had the CIA wasting millions of $ on psychics, and has Bible-thumpers running around claiming that the earth is only a few thousand years old.

  • by pchan- (118053) on Tuesday June 26, 2007 @02:23AM (#19646277) Journal
    I'm working on a space escalator. Sure, it's not as fast getting up there, but you don't have to wait for the car to come back down from orbit when you press the up button. To get down quickly, there's also a space firehouse pole.

    In all seriousness, though, I wish the LiftPort guys luck. I'm not sure how feasible it is, but I'd rather have people investing in creative, sometimes radical technologies than just sitting back and saying "no, that'll never work".
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by deetsay (703600)

      I'm working on a space escalator. Sure, it's not as fast getting up there, but you don't have to wait for the car to come back down from orbit when you press the up button. To get down quickly, there's also a space firehouse pole.
      There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven.
    • That kid... (Score:3, Funny)

      by *weasel (174362)
      That kid, is back on the space escalator!
      I hope his pants get caught and a bloodbath ensues.

  • Increased Pessimism (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 26, 2007 @03:09AM (#19646505)

    TropicalCoder asks, "After reading LiftPort's rebuttal to Slashdot critics, do any of you now feel your pessimism somewhat dispelled?"

    Not at all. If anything my pessism has increased when I read the spin, handwaving, misdirection, and evasions in Mr Laine's 'rebuttal'.

    For example, this little gem:

    Q: Business model is predicated on a technology that not only does not exist but you are incapable of inventing.
    A: That's true for the president of Boeing too. There's no way he could engineer the likes of the 777 with just the top level executives. He hires the right people to design, test and build these wonders of technology. Rather than waste our investors money on hiring full time engineers that could not succeed within the timeframe allowed by the dollars available, we subcontract. Outsourcing is not a new concept, and it saves companies quite a bit of money and time.

    Notice the answer completely unrelated to the question and the 'spin'.

    Or this one:

    Q: Perhaps should have been managed by a more highly qualified individual, such as a professional engineer with advanced engineering management degrees
    Because all engineers make good business administrators? Engineers are (and this is a generalization, I admit) generally too cautious. Innovators are risk takers. Entrepeneurs are risk takers. Engineers want triple redundancy and safety factors. To run a company for 4 years off a $200,000 investment takes talent. Granted, much more was invested by Mr. Laine himself, from his personal income, to keep this business running.

    More spin - and the fantastic claim that running a business for $200k for four years implies some kind of 'talent'. Heck, I could run a business for two *centuries* with that kind of investment. (It wouldn't produce a profit - but it would be 'run' and about as effective as LiftPort.)

    Q: You'll never see a fully functional space elevator on earth. The requirements are too close to the edge of what is even theoretically possible.
    If it weren't for the costs, we could build one this year.

    To put it bluntly - this is an outright lie. Period. if it were true - why is LiftPort spending money on R&D rather than production?

    Q: Even if the materials science isn't the problem, we have never made 36,000 miles of ANYTHING before.
    Roads? Railroads? The SMW3 fiber optic cable is 39,000km long. That's over a third of the 100,000km necessary to build the Elevator to Space (not 36,000 miles).

    The SMW3 fiber optic cable isn't a unitary and (for all practical purposes) flawless carbon nanotube fiber. Roads and railroads aren't unitary either. Micheal is either very disingenuous or very clueless.

    Q: You need a material approximately 3 times the strength of a (perfect) carbon nanotube in order to be a relatively safe civil/space engineering construction.
    That goes back to my statement earlier about engineers. No. You're not going to be able to have triple redundancy, and safety factors. You will have safety margins, and one of our first cargoes would be the second space elevator. We should be able to build that with half the strength of "perfect" SWNTs. We will employ standards of safety. We're sure the international legal community would see to that. About half the team grew up near the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The failure of this bridge is a standard lesson in how NOT to engineer something for most engineering schools. We understand what is at stake.

    I too live near the Tacoma Narrows Bridge - and no, that is not how the bridge collapse is taught in engineering schools. Because in fact, the basic engineering of the bridge was quite sound - they failed however to take into account the effects of the winds. Numerous b

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Atragon (711454)

      Q: You'll never see a fully functional space elevator on earth. The requirements are too close to the edge of what is even theoretically possible.
      If it weren't for the costs, we could build one this year.

      To put it bluntly - this is an outright lie. Period. if it were true - why is LiftPort spending money on R&D rather than production?

      Probably because the costs exceed their budget by several orders of magnitude and they are doing RND to reduce these costs and/or improve the end result.

      • by Rogerborg (306625)
        You're having a laugh.

        If it weren't for the costs, we could build one this year. Materials exist today that are strong enough and light enough to support the weight of the lifter and itself.

        What materials are those then? They're available today, apparently, so no more R&D. Given an unlimited budget, but constrained by the available manufacturing capability, what do you build the beanstalk from? Fairy wings and yeti pubes?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by everphilski (877346)
      I too live near the Tacoma Narrows Bridge - and no, that is not how the bridge collapse is taught in engineering schools.

      Uh, it was a lesson taught when I went to engineering school. The Tacoma Narrows engineers f*ed up and didn't take all of the variables into account.
  • It has nothing to do with the technical hurdles with are significant to begin with it has everything to do with the owner's Michael J. Laine's personality. First off, I'm a design engineer by profession and I've led up a fair number of projects, however going 100% off of my interpersonal skills I don't think Mr Laine will succeed.

    There are several things that a good entrepreneur needs in order to be successful on a project like this. The first of is he/she needs to be charismatic in person and in presenti
    • Bingo. People on the success path don't come across as whiny and aggrieved, and are far too busy to care about a bunch of nerds bitching about them online. I doubt he's really that bothered though; he's just whoring for more investors.
  • Painful Read (Score:4, Insightful)

    by hardburn (141468) <hardburn AT wumpus-cave DOT net> on Tuesday June 26, 2007 @03:32AM (#19646615)

    Reading the Slashdotters' comments was really painful. Do people around here lack vision and research skills?

    Carbon nanotubes are a miracle material. Not just for space elevators, but also for strengthening building/vehicle frames and nanotech. Any research on mass production of high-quality carbon nanotubes will have plenty of spill-over effect.

    Unrolling the initial fabric from orbit down to the surface without snagging is a challenge, but hardly an impossible one.

    Tesla was playing with remote power transmission a century ago. There's still work to be done, but all the major breakthroughs are in place.

    Speed to orbit? Why do you need to go fast? People used to take months to cross the Atlantic, and the treasures offered by cheep space travel are massive compared to the treasures of the New World. Or just send up cargo on the elevator and send people on a rocket (expensive and dangerous in comparison, but quick).

    In short, this wasn't Slashdot's finest moment.

    • by Eivind (15695)

      You need to go fast to make the entire thing cost-efficient. The entire point is providing cheaper access to space.

      The ribbon has a fixed capacity for carrying cargo, let's say it can carry 10e3 kgs of cargo.

      Distance to geosynch is 36000km, so if you where moving at 36km/h you'd need 1000 hours, or about 41.5 days. A naive calculation would mean this allows only 10 launches/year for a total of 10e4 kgs to orbit. Which is no longer cost-effective, it's about what a single saturn-V can lift. Furthermore,

  • by Goldsmith (561202) on Tuesday June 26, 2007 @03:35AM (#19646629)
    Let me preface this by saying I work with carbon nanotubes (as an "innovator," not an engineer).

    Where these guys are right on is that building a CNT factory would generate the kind of money they need to get going, especially if they can reliably grow high quality tubes. They are absolutely right that spin off technologies could more than make up for their current investments. But, as they recently found out, nanotubes are very hard to grow in large amounts, and they grow very slowly... hence the current high cost.

    That leads to where they went wrong: They had "contractors" working on nanotube growth. It's not easy to grow CNTs, and it's not well understood. It's very difficult to reproduce published work on CNT growth unless you really, really know what you're doing. They need to form partnerships with the people working with nanotubes who are on the cutting edge of growth research. While they've tried and failed to build a factory, Iijima's group has made major breakthroughs in growing nanotubes in bulk, and he's the obvious person to start off trying to get on board with this (as a well known Nobel laureate working with nanotubes). If not his group, then any number of dedicated CNT-growth research groups in the US.

    At some point, it would not be a bad idea to let a scientist into the upper management of a space elevator company. Just as a smart inventor will let go of some control of a company to a business person, these business people would have been wise to let a scientist make some of their decisions.

    By (publicly, at least) focusing on robotics, they missed the boat on one key technology they needed which would have also provided them with the funds to keep everything else going. Hopefully whoever takes over leadership of the space elevator community has more luck.
  • Shift Key (Score:2, Insightful)

    by afaik_ianal (918433)
    In other news, the founder of LiftPort has found his shift key [slashdot.org].

    I think I lost any remaining respect I had for him when I read through his comments in the previous discussion. It might seem like a minor thing, but if the guy can't be bothered with little details like spelling, grammar, and correct capitalisation, then what were his chances of ever getting the SEC filings done correctly?

    It made him look like the kind of person who constantly churns. People like that can't focus on anything but developing th
  • Nvidia (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SharpFang (651121) on Tuesday June 26, 2007 @04:39AM (#19646947) Homepage Journal
    Microsoft, IBM, GE, Ford... All these companies base many of their product designs on future technology. If you started designing
    a computer program around the computers available at the beginning of the design process, or designed the program on your
    prediction of the computers available at the end of the development process, the latter would be the better product - suited to
    the technology available at the time the consumers were ready to use it.


    Nvidia does too. Like, the GeForce FX series of their cards. They were to be released together with DirectX 9. Except that nobody knew what DX9 would support and due to some disagreement between Nvidia and Microsoft, Microsoft wouldn't tell. So Nvidia was "predicting the features of DirectX 9". That is, guessing. And guess what? They guessed wrong. GeForce FX was packed with wonderful features which had no support whatsoever in the OS, while features required by DX9 were quickly hacked into the drivers and worked at snail speed in software emulation.

    Sure -sometimes- the predictions work. But when it doesn't, it fails hard.

  • Space Guns anyone? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ignatius (6850) on Tuesday June 26, 2007 @05:17AM (#19647131)
    I know it's slightly offtopic, but I always wonder why a highly speculative and fragile concept like the space elevator which is barely theoretically possible is getting so much press, while space guns, which are cheaper, more robust and don't require any new technology, are practically ignored.

    In case you're not familiar with the concept: It's basically about accelerating a small vessel (by a light gas gun, a RAM accelerator, electromagnetically or a combination thereof) in a relatively short (about the order of one km) barrel / tunnel to about orbital speed. The vessel itself will only require enough fuel for circularizing its orbit, so unlike conventional boosters, a much bigger part of its mass can be actual payload as the exponential regime of the rocket equation can be mostly avoided.

    While the capital costs will be high, a space gun is still dirt cheap compared to a space elevator, and isn't prone to be completely destroyed when hit by lightning, space debris or, for the matter, a shotgun.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_gun [wikipedia.org]
    http://www.fas.org/news/iraq/1998/05/980500-bull.h tm [fas.org]
    http://www.astronautix.com/lvs/julncher.htm [astronautix.com]
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Rycross (836649)
      Beyond only being useful for cargo that can withstand thousands of g's of acceleration, you also have a couple of other problems. First, you have to account for atmospheric drag with your initial velocities. That means you have to be traveling at a speed higher than orbital velocity.

      But the real problem is this. We have a term for hitting Earth's atmosphere at orbital velocities. It's called re-entry. It's problematic for normal space vehicles which will bleed off speed in the thinner upper atmosphere
  • Why is it when i read about the space elevator i think of the episode on the Simpsons where Marge says: "And that was the only folly the people of Springfield ever embarked upon. Except for the popsicle stick skyscraper... etc"

    Interesting read though...
  • 1: There is no current technology which could be used to build a space elevator. Even if there was, it would be decades before it was complete.
    2: There is no engineering knowledge on how to build such a structure.
    3: You know it's going to cost billions. Frankly, it's almost certainly going to cost trillions to build. That money isn't in place, but then a space elevator isn't going to be feasible for decades. If you think taxation should pay for it you can fuck right off, this elevator is something you want,
  • The Space Elevator Will Mean: Less Parking, Weird Ribbon Thing, Constant Loud Whirring Noise, Increased Space Elevator Truck Traffic. Developers have submitted plans to build a massive space elevator in Williamsburg! This monstrosity, completely out of context with existing development in the neighborhood, will be accessible only to the wealthy, forcing thousands of average Williamsburgers from their homes and live-work spaces! Jobs the elevator will generate (operators, repairmen, astronauts) are certain t
  • "At no point during the conversation did I get any impression of a huckster who would sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, something that I was on the lookout for."

    Well, obviously you weren't looking very hard. All of Mr. Laine's replies are classic hucksterism. In most cases he never actually adresses an issue - just throws out irrelevant nonsense.
    • by Rogerborg (306625)
      He's not a complete idiot; like most cult leaders, his answers are related enough to the questions that were actually actually asked that he'll fool the gullible and the True Believers.
  • If you started designing a computer program around the computers available at the beginning of the design process, or designed the program on your prediction of the computers available at the end of the development process, the latter would be the better product - suited to the technology available at the time the consumers were ready to use it.

    I hate to nitpick, but that's not so. Indeed, that's a large part of what killed the Ultima series of games. The final two were targeted to systems that would only

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