LiftPort rebuttal to Slashdot discussion:
"Space Elevator Company LiftPort In Trouble"
I offered Michael Laine, President of LiftPort, an opportunity to respond to all the questions and criticisms raised in the Slashdot discussion. I summarized and amalgamated all Slashdot comments into three broad categories, LiftPort’s business plan and execution, the Technology, and personal questions/attacks about the competence/integrity of Michael Laine, President of LiftPort. Many Slashdot readers will recognize their own comment reflected in this summary. Obviously, there was considerable crossover between the business plan and the technology, because the former of course is dependent on the later. However, I suggested addressing technological issues in the broadest sense when talking about the business plan, leaving the details for the technology section. In the following rebuttal each point (in bold italic) from this summary is addressed in detail…
The Business Plan
Many of the following ideas/questions imply that you all are angry that LiftPort raised millions of dollars with nothing to show for it. That's not the case. Over the last four years, LiftPort has only asked for about $200,000. That did not pay ANY executive salaries. It didn't pay for office space. It didn't pay for utilities. No yachts, cars, office furnature, computers, not even a nice Cross Pen set. Every penny went into the actual development associated with space elevators. Mr. Laine made a living off his building. Mr. Julian makes a living at his computer business. Mr. Shoemaker works for Microsoft. Mr. Nugent also has outside income. We've all put our own time and money into this project because we want to see it happen.
We want your children to have this vast frontier opened up to them. The 60's were called the "Space Age". Unfortunately, only a handfull of names have been able to participate in that age. We want a true "Space Age" for the entire planet.
The company's been around for four years and the idea for 111 years. The relatively recent discovery of carbon nanotubes made the idea appear feasable. Two research studies on feasibility were funded by NASA, and both suggested that the space elevator concept was an idea that had merit.
- a fledgling company focusing on an extremely fledging idea
- This is not an argument about whether a space elevator will ever be possible or when, but about whether it makes sense to start up a company to build one today. And the answer is no; not remotely. If/when the materials science gets anywhere close, it might make sense to start up a company because you've got some cool idea how to make wheels for the climber that will get good traction on it. Or to solve any one of the hundreds of other little problems that will need solving in such a mammoth project, and to sell your solution to the mammoth corporation that's going to build the thing.
- Investing today in a project that doesn't expect any payoff until they get a space elevator operational is not at a reasonable point to be starting such companies.
Not even close. The plan has been all along to develop technology necessary to build a space elevator. During this R&D, steer development toward other products that have current market potential.
- Plan seemed to be: collect money from investors, then hope this nonexistent technology falls out of the sky and directly into your lap
- Carbon Nanotube (CNT) production is in high demand and capable of producing huge profits. We hired contractors that had demonstrated ability in the CNT field to improve the production process of CNT furnaces. We paid them and began putting in place an infrastructure necessary to run this business. The contractor stalled and stalled and finally failed. We have a half-way working system that still needs to be finished. There are still huge potential revenues to be had from this system, but insufficient funds at this time to be able to move forward with it. It is not a question of "if" but "when" this technology transforms industrial society. And we have a resumé pool from some of the best CNT centers in the world - hoping and waiting to work for our team. So, with time, and capital, this problem will be solved. We can currently produce CNT in small quantities. What we need are large amounts. So, it is a process of scale - not "magic". A company that can make nanotubes can make money.
- Robotics are still a fledgling industry that are becoming more and more popular. R&D into robotics is potentially a valuable investment. We've had some interest by third parties into developing specific robotics products, but unfortunately the interested companies have been startups that have not been capable of acquiring sufficient funds to get started.
- The test rig we've used for our robot has shown promise as a communication and observation tower. We've had one contract to develop a tower system for a wifi company for which they defaulted. We're further promoting this product via our sister company, Tethered Towers.
Our investors were aware of our direction and the risks involved. Most, if not all, of our investors did so because they believe in the space elevator. Our efforts to build toward it, and our dedication to promoting the idea, have brought worldwide attention to the concept. Even if we fail, the space elevator will eventually succeed, and it will be partially due to our promotion of the concept. It is probably also worth noting that even if this elevator to space is ultimately "impossible"; the revenues generated from spin-off technologies should more than offset the risks it took to get started. Bluntly put, even if the SE fails, the company of LiftPort should still succeed.
- We have media products available that admittedly won't produce sufficient revenue to stay in business, but do provide for some operating costs.
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.
- Business model is predicated on a technology that not only does not exist but you are incapable of inventing.
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.
- You can't make predictions about when technological breakthroughs may occur, so therefore, you can't make a business plan.
- A successful startup cannot be based on more than two breakthroughs in the state of the art. Building a space elevator would require hundreds of breakthroughs. For each area requiring a breakthrough, an alternative technology should be available as a backup. What would their backup technology would have been if, by any chance, the carbon nanotube strategy turned out to be unfeasible.
- If you hired a bunch of smart people and put them to work for a decade or so, they might be able to tell you for sure it was impossible, or to guess how many more decades it would take.
Typically, R&D companies are allowed several investment rounds. Typically the investors want to see how their money was spent before they invest more.
- Insufficient investment for the magnitude of the project: the funds lasted 4 years, and four years isn't enough time to go from wild fantasy sci-fi idea to feasible goal.
- Investment was not on-par, resource-wise, with other parties interested in the same nanotech, be it for elevator purposes or not.
We managed to keep from going broke off $200,000 invested over 4 years, all the while working toward developing products and technology related to the space elevator. We promoted the space elevator concept in general to the benefit of the entire industry.
- Management of financial resources questioned
There wasn't all that much money...
- Questions about where all the money went
Have them. They strongly counseled Mr. Laine to stop spending his own money, and close the business - years ago. A choice to spend his personal capital on a project he believed in. The investors capital was spent a long time ago, and the project has been living off his personal checkbook for years now. It was Mr Laine's choice on how he thought it was best to spend the money. The CPA's and attorney's disagreed with him.
- Perhaps lacking good legal/financial advise - should have hired a CPA
Federal regulations specifically allowed the type of fund raising that we were engaging in. The attorney we consulted agreed that the federal regulation allowed this type of investing. The state had additional requirements that it appeared the federal regulation overrided. To have hired attorneys in every state to research state regulations that may (or may not) apply to Reg. 504d stock offerings would certainly have cost more than the fine imposed by the State of Washington, and still may not have protected the company from the states finding differently than the written law implies. It is easy to point out the flaws, and the errors, yet it might be worthwhile to flip this around a bit. Isn't it good that we have been in business for 4 years now, and the past few months have held our only significant setbacks?
- It was suggested that a botched fund raising effort (ie: Securities Division charges) calls into question getting anything else right.
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.
- Perhaps should have been managed by a more highly qualified individual, such as a professional engineer with advanced engineering management degrees
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.
We've thought the same thing, and have been working (though it's been a back burner project due to the cost) on setting up such a fund. The legal requirements make building a space elevator look easy. Last October, after the X-Cup Games, long, detailed conversations were held with a financial institution that was curious about that very concept. In the end, the idea was shelved, due to complexity, start-up costs, and other hurdles. However, it is a good idea, as a financial partner is required to build our own elevator to space. Whether we create or find that partner remains to be seen.
- A better approach might be a fund specifically for the purpose. Invest now and in 20-40 years there might be enough cash to pay for construction.
The investment laws exist to keep people from being conned into investing in non-existant companies who's sole purpose is to defraud. It is difficult to fund risky projects - and it probably should be easier - provided the risk to each individual investor could be minimal. We felt that was the reason the Federal Securities regulations had provided the 504d investment. It was our understanding that this regulation was intended to allow risk takers to invest, without providing sufficient incentive to fraudsters to try to bilk people.
- Specific question from Slashdot reader: "Does LiftPort's failure reveal systematic shortcomings in the mechanisms now available for funding and enabling innovative and risky projects? Or is the failure a one-off, caused by accidents or the inherent difficulty of the task?"
It would be nice if there was a clear securities offering process that was not only regulated, but assisted.
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. The problem is the number of rocket launches it would take to get the construction started. You could build it out of Spectra but you would need hundreds of heavy lift rockets just to get started. The cost of launch for those rockets would make the project not financially viable. In fact, you could make the elevator out of other materials that each have their own set of difficulties. So, in short, your premise is incorrect. Certainly, the design would be different, and there would be other challenges that are not managed in the current design, but lets be perfectly clear - there is a big difference between ''difficult'' and ''impossible''. An elevator to space is only difficult. Right now, we still don't know enough, which is why we have spent so much on research.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- We're even further away from this than we are from fusion power. At least with fusion power we're to the point we just need to improve sustainability (going from seconds to years).
Or it might. Most innovators and entrepreneurs are not pessimists by nature. And it is probably worth asking the question - what credentials do you have to present, that allow you to say this? We have dozens of universities, tackling specific problems. There are no specific answers, yet, but the work is progressing.
- Materials technology just isn't there yet and probably won't be for a long time.
We didn't have anything that could construct paper clips even though we had steel. I'm glad William D. Middlebrook invented them though.
- We don't have anything that could construct it even if we had the material
- Confusing what's possible and what's practical: we could possibly create a machine that creates perfect nanoribbon, atom by atom by atom, but that doesn't address the practicality.
Actually, NASA has the least motivation. NASA is a government agency. Being a government agency, they are regulated by politics. NASA contractors are huge campaign contributors. Do you think Boeing/Lockheed wants NASA to get out of the rocket business?
- If this technique was viable, why isn't NASA doing it? They are obviously the ones who would have the most motivation, the most to gain
NASA is, however, sponsoring the Centenial Challenges - competitions for strong string and remote power beaming. These are critical problems in the path toward building our Elevator to Space. And NASA did sponsor the initial, break-through investigations through its Institute for Advanced Concepts.
Not too TOO long. See our timeline. However it is true that we have been saying the same thing since our inception. A direct, often used quote from Mr. Laine is "Long before you seen a ribbon rising into the sky, you will see fundamental shifts in the way we construct things - bridges, cars, boats, planes, buildings - where-ever there is a trade-off between strength, weight and cost, you will see Carbon Nanotubes filling in the blanks."
- Long LONG before you can build a space elevator you need tether materials which are several orders of magnitude stronger than what we can build today...
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).
- Even if the materials science isn't the problem, we have never made 36,000 miles of ANYTHING before.
- You can't weave crap with 1cm. It will simply pull out. Look at thread. Long fibers, good thread; short fibers, weak thread. Same there.
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.
- 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.
Hence, our 25 year time line. Please take the time to read our road map. We have spent a lot more time thinking about these problems than, I'm sure you'd admit, you have. You are correct in that there are many.
You are also only focusing on the "technology" problems. There are many other problems, including regulations, social, political, military, religion, governmental, environmental, financing, management, accounting and many more. A common sound bite of Mr. Laine is, "Even if we had all the parts, all the widgets and gadgets, sitting somewhere in a werehouse, we STILL could not build it - the other, the "fuzzy" problems still exist."
If you're truly interested, get involved. We are developing (a brand new effort) an "open source" philosophy around our elevator to space. We are putting together a wiki (much work is needed here) that will outline, and then be used to explore the various issues.
- You also need breakthroughs in tether deployment technology, power transmission, tires, electric motors, and probably some others I'm forgetting.
But not even close to being impossible.
- Power transmission is almost as hard as the materials science. And the rest, while much easier than the materials science, are by no means trivial.
- Tether deployment: so far attempts to uncoil long cables in outer space have only been marginally successful. Just because it's easy to describe doesn't mean it's easy to do. Not saying it's impossible, but it needs significant R&D -- ie a breakthrough.
Interesting is the cargo that could suddenly be cost effective to send to space. With cheaper and more frequent access, a myriad of possibilities opens up. At our target price of $400/lb, every high school science club could do a weekend car wash and raise enough money to send up their own science package. We think that is interesting!
- You need to ascend at speeds of several hundred miles per hour in order to have the elevator be interesting. Remember, you've got over 20,000 miles to go!
As for human cargo, some people don't desire to go fast. Some like to take a luxury cruise. Our target goal of 10-20 people per week, with 50 trips per year - compared to NASA's breakneck rate of 20/year - is pretty interesting. So, we think we are a bit confused by your definition of 'interesting'. Interesting compared to what? Are you saying that people that can't go at all now, will get bored? We're sure there will be customers willing to endure the tedium.
There are three things you can ask for in most business transactions: quick, cheap, and high quality. You can only get two of the three. You can have fast and cheap, but low quality; fast and high quality, but not cheap; or, as we're working toward, cheap and high quality. The product is delivery to space. Rockets, though fast, are not cheap. The cheaper ones are lower quality - less likely to deliver your cargo to it's target in one piece. The space elevator, though slow, will deliver cargo to orbit frequently, cheaply, and with much lower g-force requirements (1.2G). It depends on what you are looking for. We are focused on high-volume, low-cost, reliable, and safe transport to GEO, the Moon, and to Mars. The "rocket equation" defeats those destinations before they really get started.
Your argument that better materials make more cost effective rockets is also flawed. The “Rocket Equation” is a very well known limitation of rockets. The crux of it is that rockets have to carry their own fuel. That drawback imposes a limit as to how cost effective rockets are capable of being.
It's not like we won't need rockets. It is just that their role will change. It is not an "Us vs Them" problem, but an "And/Together" solution. Cargo delivered to orbit will still need repositioning, and it is a safe bet that when you use the LiftPort Space Elevator to take a trip to mars, you are going to want to stop when you get there.
- That requisite speed is also why breakthroughs in power transmission and motors are required. If you can't get that speed, the economics don't work, and you lose to the (vastly improved thanks to better materials) rockets.
Our plans have called for 200km/h. That will allow about 100 tonnes / week to start the just-over 5 day journey.
- Even if you're moving bulk cargo that doesn't care about the speed, you need to get the car and the weight off the bottom of the elevator so you can start the next one up (the weight it puts on the tether goes down as it climbs). Cable cars transfer force by clamping the cable; an elevator needs some sort of wheels. Be they metal like train wheels or rubber like car wheels, managing 20,000 miles at speeds somewhere around mach 1, straight up, is not trivial.
A 100 tonne capacity CNT ribbon should be about 15 feet wide and thinner than a piece of paper. Being anchored in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, any cargo that would fall, would be ejected into the ocean and recovered. Any cargo above would actually be able to help mitigate the potential for loss.
- What would happen if the cable fell?
Any ribbon that falls would fall with less energy than a sheet of newspaper due to air resistance.
We're going to decline to comment on the personal attacks against our corporate officer, Michael Laine. His past business venture failed. Most entrepreneurs can also claim that dubious distinction on one or more occasions. It is better to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all.
Finally, we would like to ask anyone who's interested in seeing an elevator to space be built - get involved. Join our forums, participate in our wiki, learn more by reading our book, analyze our roadmap, and sign up for our newsletters. If you believe in us, or what we're doing, consider helping us pay the phone bill by picking up something from our store.
245 4th St.
Bremerton, Wa 98337
Michael J. Laine
245 4th Street
Bremerton WA, 98337
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