Even as far as founders of space elevator companies go, Michael Laine has taken an unusual path. Within a decade and a half, he went from the Marine Corps to managing millions of dollars at a financial firm, to a NASA special project team.
When discussing his career, the LiftPort Group co-founder's voice betrays a lingering sense of shock at how it all played out. "It's amazing to me the kind of career I've had," Laine tells Tech Times. "It's not a world I ever could have planned."
Well over a decade of Laine's life has been dominated by attempts to create a space elevator, first tethered to the Earth and now planned for the moon. He and his team spend countless hours in a Bremerton, Wash., workshop testing cables, building robots, and developing other aspects of the lunar transport system.
But when asked about what excites him about LiftPort, Laine explains that it's not the creation of the elevator itself – it's the spinoff technologies, the unpredictable by-products of the project.
The hope is that one day, we will be able to thank LiftPort for technologies that are useful – and profitable – here on Earth, in much the same way that NASA has helped create technology that enabled the development of everything from pacemakers to the protective equipment that keeps our firefighters safe.
It's fitting that LiftPort's mission is to open up unforeseeable opportunities, given the improbable path that led to its creation.
This space elevator project started out in 2001 with a research team at the NASA Institutes for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which some call the "Hail Mary version of NASA," according to Laine, because they take on "the stuff that's so unlikely, but worth exploring." Laine was the second person on the team.
There are two varieties of space elevator: one that extends from the Earth to a space station and one from a space station to the Moon. When it became clear that, for various reasons, an Earth elevator wasn't working out, Laine and LiftPort switched tacks to a lunar version.
The new plans entailed drilling an anchor into the moon to which a space station would be attached by a string. That space station would lie at a special spot between the Earth and moon, where the gravitational pulls of these two bodies effectively cancel one another out.
These spots, which also exist elsewhere in the universe, are known as Lagrange Points, but Laine considers this one in particular to be, "the most valuable real estate in the entire solar system." That's because it's much easier to launch a rocket to this Lagrange Point and dock at a space station than it is to reach the moon.
Already, 14 nations around the world have rockets in their current inventory that are capable of reaching the Lagrange Point, according to Laine. Robots could climb to the space station from the moon's surface, where they have harvested resources such as minerals and valuable ice that could be converted into rocket fuel. And just like that, the Earth would be connected with an enormous supply of resources.
This sort of thing fascinated Laine as a kid, when he used to skip class in high school to watch space shuttles launch and land. He wasn't the type of nerd who sat in the front row, but the type that would go to chess club even if he skipped many of his classes that day.
He remembers being banished to the back of the classroom in fifth grade, "as far away from the rest of the class as possible," and not minding. As long as he was quiet, he was allowed to read his books and occupy himself how he pleased.
Laine was constantly seeking out his own ways to stimulate his mind while growing up, but his eagerness to forge his own path didn't extend into his career at first. Coming from a military family, the Marine Corps was a "natural trajectory." He enlisted after graduating high school with numerous absences and less-than-stellar grades.
Laine recalls one day, stationed in Korea and filthy from head-to-toe after crawling through the mud, when his captain started going off about a stock market plunge. Curious by nature, he wound up spending hours learning about the economics from him. With this new interest, everything changed.
He traded the mud-covered uniform for a suit and tie back in the States. Laine managed – without a college degree – to land a job at an investment management firm focused on high net worth individuals. By the age of 24, he was managing about $4 million of people's money, with an influence on about another $40 million – a job for which, he admits, "at the time, [he] was wholly unqualified."
"I loved that work," he says. "I found that I kind of had a knack for it "
At 28, Laine bought a six-story, 40,000-square-foot office building. Prior to that purchase, he gave college a shot, ran out of money, and eventually abandoned his educational pursuits in favor of a burgeoning career. As self-deprecating as Laine can be at times, he still sounds impressed with himself, explaining, "by my definition, I was effectively retired by my early 30s."
Up to this point, space was just one of many of Laine's fascinations. That all changed when he met an ambitious physicist named Bradley Edwards, although not immediately. When Edwards first pitched him his idea for a space elevator, Laine was not nearly interested enough risk a life of essentially guaranteed income. But Edwards was persistent, convincing Laine to meet with him again for lunch one day in the fall of 2001.
"We stayed through lunch, stayed through dinner, and then they started closing up around us. We were probably there for eight hours, maybe nine. Same booth, the whole time. Lunch and dinner. Drinks in the middle. And, you know, it's not hyperbole to say that lunch changed my life," Laine explains. "For good and for bad."
Edwards needed Laine's business skills. And, for his part, Laine saw the space elevator as a lucrative business opportunity.
"I'm kind of embarrassed to say that it started out as greed for me," he admits. "I thought the space elevator itself was a really great idea, but that all of the spinoff technologies would make me mind-bogglingly wealthy. I know that's not a great reason, but that is the reason."
To this day, Laine has no formal training in engineering or physics. But Edwards was motivated and skilled enough to handle that side of the project without Laine's help.
Edwards presented at a conference later on that year, and Laine joined him, still on the fence about whether he wanted to get involved with the space elevator. Laine wasn't the only one who doubted the project's feasibility – many of the several dozen Ph.D.s at the conference weren't convinced either, and made skeptical comments even before Edwards' presentation began.
Two speakers gave up their spots so that Edwards could keep talking. After he finally finished, a couple of guys that Laine had heard heckling him earlier came up and asked if they were hiring.
That won Laine over. He joined the NIAC space elevator project team and poured his attention into this project for a year and a half. The deeper he got in, the more he began to see beyond the dollar signs to the global implications of a space elevator.
"I started understanding how important space is as part of a global infrastructure – I mean, this phone call that we're on wouldn't work, your ATM card doesn't work, GPS doesn't work without space access," he explains.
So when the NIAC effort imploded after a sudden loss of funding and a nasty argument between Edwards and him in 2003, Laine wasn't ready to give up on the project.
The Columbia space shuttle crash that destroyed the space elevator's chances at funding happened Feb. 1, 2003. The following April Fools' Day, he launched LiftPort – without Edwards.
Practically, Laine and Edwards complemented each other quite nicely. But in terms of personality, they were always "kind of an oil and water mix," according to Laine.
Filmmaker Benjamin Ahr Harrison has been following Laine and the rest of his team at LiftPort for the past year for the upcoming documentary he's directing, called Shoot The Moon. He emphasizes how Laine's strong personality has both helped and hurt his efforts.
"Michael has an amazing talent for getting people involved in the space elevator project," Harrison told Tech Times. "He's so passionate about it, and that passion is infective, but it can be polarizing as well. His community is very committed to the project, but there are people that feel like Michael has burned them."
Of course, Laine wouldn't be the first successful innovator whose passion and personality were at times counterproductive. Steve Jobs springs to mind. As the Apple founder put it, it's "the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers" who often end up changing the world.
That's Laine's approach in a nutshell. He "mortgaged the hell" out of his building to fund LiftPort's research team, bet the building on the project and lost his building and LiftPort in the financial crisis in 2007.
Laine got LiftPort back in 2011, but not the building that would have nearly guaranteed lifetime income. "I would have never made that decision if I was focused only on greed," he said.
When Laine thinks about what the world has to gain from a lunar elevator, a few things spring to mind. The first includes the space station itself, the valuable resources we would be able to access, and everything we could be using all of those things for right now.
"That could change humanity and that's just the stuff we know," he contends. "Then there's the stuff we don't know."
That's the category that most excites Laine. To make the system work, LiftPort will have to excel at materials sciences, batteries, communication systems, robotics, biosciences – and it must be innovative. He points to all of the people who are alive today because of pacemakers, a technology built on NASA research.
"So what kind of world are we going to have if we take that next big leap?" Laine asks, rhetorically. "All of the spinoff technologies that we craft in the process of building the elevator become assets that we use down here on Earth, and it raises the global standard of living."
Laine wonders what will happen if suddenly 14 nations around the world have access to the moon thanks to a lunar elevator. He sees this as an opportunity to unite nations around efforts to make use of this powerful new tool. He can't help himself from pointing out that two of those 14 nations are Israel and Iran. What if they, too, could work together on this effort?
"I understand that's farfetched," he acknowledges. "But I am trying to build an elevator on the moon here."