WHEEL DEAL: Vincent Lopresti did not come up with the space elevator concept, but he hopes to make it a reality. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Next Stop, Outer Orbit

The space elevator is a sci-fi concept with real-world applications, like ferrying satellites cheaply and safely. Inventors like Bedford’s Vincent Lopresti believe it can ahppen in this lifetime.

In 2004, Vincent Lopresti’s friend Casimir Saczynski passed away. Old injuries from Vietnam and too much drinking finally caught up with “Caz,” and it was left to Lopresti to go through his buddy’s effects. Caz was a space buff, conversant in theories on black holes and quasars and the like, and the papers and e-mails he left behind covered a wide range of all matters celestial. Poring over them, Lopresti uncovered something intriguing about himself: his own fascination with the final frontier, dormant since childhood, wasn’t dead. It just needed a project.

These days, Lopresti maneuvers about his cramped Bedford apartment in a wheelchair, eager for the day he can drift in the heavens. A high school gymnastics accident broke his neck and left him wheelchair-bound 24 years ago. But the lanky computer-geek-turned-star-chaser has an easy yet powerful presence, with a perpetual wry smile and dry sense of humor. If you’re looking for a guy to pity, keep looking.

“I’ve got a goal, and my goal is to actually do something that everybody’s dreamed of doing,” he says. “Just about everyone’s swam in the ocean and walked the Earth, but very few have floated in space. So it stays a dream. But if you get enough of us humans together, we can make dreams come true.”

The dream is nothing short of defying gravity with the ease of pushing a button. Inside this apartment strewn with computers, wires, and quirky devices that necessitate explanation, Lopresti and a small, eccentric team of volunteer space fans are busy honing their version of a space elevator. “I feel that we have something that could possibly take a human up into space,” Lopresti says. He’s not alone.

More than 20 teams from around the world are set to converge in Mountain View, Calif., for the second annual Space Elevator Games in October, organized by the nonprofit Spaceward Foundation and backed by NASA. The five-year competition aims to spur private enterprise in the creation of an elevator prototype. (As of press time, organizers were trying to link the elevator games with the X Prize competition.)

The inaugural games last October were an inauspicious start. None of the seven groups, including Lopresti’s SpaceMiners, were able to reach higher than around 40 feet. (The goal was 164 feet.) Lopresti’s entry—built from wheelchair parts—drew the most eyeballs, but the he knows the race isn’t a fashion show. “We’ve got some definite competition,” says Lopresti of this year’s field that includes teams from Virginia Tech and MIT. “But I’m optimistic.”

A decades-old idea, the space elevator concept has advanced quantum leaps in recent years with the advent of new technology making it more feasible. Here’s how it works: A 62,000-mile-long space-age tether—enough to wrap around Earth nearly three times—is launched into orbit in stages aboard a space shuttle and lowered back to the planet’s surface from a satellite. With the satellite acting as a counterweight, Earth’s constant motion keeps the cable taut through centrifugal force, enabling a tether-climbing machine to ferry humans and cargo up and down. (FYI: A one-way trip would take seven days, so pack a lunch.)

Though it may sound like the far-fetched stuff of a sci-fi novel, scientists think the concept is solid, at least solid enough for NASA to fork over money through its Centennial Challenges program to the team with the fastest cable-climber. At stake this year is $200,000 in prize money that goes to the team whose machine travels up a 200-foot cable powered by solar, microwave, or laser energy. The winner is decided by the amount of cargo weight an entrant can haul, the speed at which it can travel (it must be at least one meter per second), and how lightweight the machine itself is. At the end of the five-year contest, NASA will have the option to license the best technology from each team to build the real deal at a projected cost of $10 billion.

The space elevator could mean as much to an economist as it does an astrophysicist. Currently it costs roughly $20,000 a pound to send something up aboard a space shuttle. Without the expense of fuel, manpower, and other factors that go into every shuttle launch, the space elevator would reduce that cost to about $100 a pound. With launch prices cut by 99 percent, the satellite industry would be revolutionized overnight. Since moving large amounts of construction materials would be quicker and cheaper, the race to colonize space would be on.

Marc Schwager of the Mountain View-based Spaceward Foundation says the elevator could be the biggest space project in decades. “We’re talking about a huge initiative, the equivalent of the space shuttle program,” says Schwager, the games’ team liaison. “If there is enough of an incentive, people are going to throw money at it, and the incentive is there. This is so economically compelling that it’s going to happen.”

While the space elevator is currently a long-term project on a feasibility timetable of around 2020, Schwager says certain factors could speed it up—like, for instance, if the Chinese start trying to build one. “You can imagine there aren’t a lot of people around who know much about the space elevator, and everyone who does in that relatively small community is going to be called to arms to get as much expertise on the project as possible,” he says.

All this has Lopresti pumped. It was Carl Sagan that turned him on to space as a kid, long before he got hooked on computers and launched a career building and fixing them. Before he’d ever heard about the concept of a space elevator, he had a dream one night that there was a ladder outside his bedroom window leading to the moon. When he tried to climb it, he fell off. The stratosphere seems a lot more attainable today than it did back then. After Caz’s death, Lopresti read up on the various contests underway to develop new space technology. The space elevator concept was one that wouldn’t leave him alone. “I had all of these flashes in my head of all the old wheelchair frames and other junk in my house,” he says. “It dawned on me, I have a space elevator right here—well, at least a prototype. I decided to go for it.” A few friends were interested enough to help out. Others learned about the project through word of mouth and came to lend their expertise. “There’s always a new face around here now,” he says.

Lopresti realizes with such significant competition, the SpaceMiners’ vehicle may not win. But beyond that, he hopes his work will generate enough buzz to bring together the right mix of innovators and business people that could make DFW a real player in the future of the space industry. He’s already licensed the name Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex Spaceport, with the vision of one day seeing a space-travel terminal at DFW International Airport. “I at least wanted to get the ball rolling,” he says. “There’s a lot of potential there for Dallas.”

The region could win in other ways as well, Schwager says. “The elevator project would tap the best and the brightest, pulling lasers from one place, materials research from somewhere else, and so on,” Schwager says. “We may wind up with centers of research in the academic or business community.” Indeed, the strength of carbon nanotubes make a space elevator seem much more realistic. [See p. 39.]

Meanwhile, Schwager says look for more NASA-sponsored competitions to drive space innovation—once the sole domain of the government—in the private sector. The reason? With new mandates from the Bush administration like future manned trips to Mars, NASA’s research and development funding is stretched thin, and the Centennial Challenges are a relatively cheap way to contract research. “They are setting the bar high enough so that anyone who wins the prize money has given them their money’s worth in research.”

Back in Bedford, Lopresti wheels around showing how he transformed that old wheelchair frame into the future of space travel. His guest wonders aloud if Lopresti’s inability to use his legs hinders his work. “That’s really what the work is about,” he says with a grin. Because who needs to walk when you can climb?

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