A space elevator is one of the more fanciful seeming ideas from sci-fi: who in their right mind really thinks that a giant flexible cable could, or even should, be stretched from the Earth into space, allowing people to literally ride a capsule into orbit? Thanks to a successful Kickstarter fundraising effort two years ago, one motley crew of engineers and scientists called LiftPort has been working on turning that idea into reality, and now they're getting their own documentary: Shoot the Moon is a film-in-progress that plans to record LiftPort's upcoming attempt to send an unmanned robot on a 30,000-foot high climb along a tether attached to a high-altitude balloon. The creators of the documentary have taken inspiration from their subjects and are today launching their own Kickstarter project seeking $37,000 to finish their film documenting LiftPort's audacious attempt.
"There's kind of a science fiction appeal to this and the film is going to have that for sure," says Benjamin Ahr Harrison, the first-time feature film director behind the documentary. Indeed, if Shoot the Moon can reach its relatively modest Kickstarter fundraising goals, they want to build and film miniature models of a completed, futuristic space elevator, giving their film the kind of otherworldly practical effects seen in the original Star Wars trilogy and 2001: A Space Odyssey. If LiftPort's robot launch goes off as planned in the coming months, the film should be finished and ready to screen by the fall of 2015.
Already, Ahr says he and his colleagues have filmed 60-75 percent of the interviews needed for the film, many with LiftPort's founder Michael Laine, a smooth-talking ex-NASA contractor. Laine says after initially balking at the idea of a documentary, he agreed to give Harrison full and independent access to his work. "Public awareness is as important as the actual engineering," Laine says. "We could have all the parts for a space elevator sitting in a warehouse, ready to go, but we can't build it without public support."
"we can't build it without public support."
To his point, LiftPort plans to approach its ultimate goal of an earth-to-space elevator in three main stages: first building a prototype climbing robot here on earth — named "Neil," after Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, naturally — which Shoot the Moon will film. Then, LiftPort wants to build a full working space elevator on the moon, a lunar elevator, where the lower gravity and absence of atmosphere would theoretically allow for the use of existing materials. Finally, once that works, they want to try and build a full Earth elevator, which would require a whole new class of materials for the cable. There is no firm timeline for these latter projects, but it's safe to say they are decades out at best.
It's worth pointing out this isn't Laine's first attempt: LiftPort tried and failed to build a full space elevator over a decade ago, eventually going out of business in 2007. Laine has given several reasons for his initial failure, including the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and the fact that he wasn't able to research any materials capable of building a tether strong and flexible enough for Earth's atmosphere. "Once I had gotten my brain wrapped around [the space elevator], I spent the next eight years beating my head against a brick wall," Laine says. Undaunted, he returned in 2012 with a space elevator proposal that raised $110,000 on Kickstarter, allowing him to relaunch LiftPort. And for all of the self-described "bumps" in Laine's quest, he does have some success to lean on: the last time LiftPort tried something like this, in 2006, the company succeeded in sending a robot climbing up a tether a mile high. Whether this time works out quite as well, Harrison will be there recording it all for posterity.