Monthly Archives: June 2009

Space Elevator Games have been rescheduled

Over at the official site of the Space Elevator Games, Ben Shelef, CEO of the Spaceward Foundation (host of the Games, along with NASA), gives us the new dates for the second round of testing and the games:

Jul 16-23 – Testing, Round 2

Aug 3-7 – The Games

Check out Ben’s post for the logic behind all of this.

Testing Results

Over at the official website of the Space Elevator Games, blogger (and head of the Spaceward Foundation, host of the Games, and author of The Space Elevator Feasibility Condition) Ben Shelef has been detailing the testing results from last week.

He has the results of the LaserMotive tests here and the results of the Kansas City Space Pirates tests here and here.

If you haven’t been following Ben’s website, you really should be.  It is THE definitive source for information about the Space Elevator Games.  Put it into your RSS reader – you won’t regret it…

KC Space Pirates to appear on the Science Channel

I received this email from Brian Turner, captain of the Kansas City Space Pirates:

Tomorrow night we are supposed the be on the Science Channel. Exodus Earth series Exoplanet episode. According to the guide on my TV it airs at 4 pm CST. They seem to be rerunning the episodes many times, so it is confusing if you are watching the first run or a previous episode.

I have not seen this so I have no idea what to expect.

Brian Turner

The blurb for the show reads as follows:

In his hardest mission, Basil Singer plans a journey to Gliese 581c – a planet round a distant sun. To power him there within a human lifetime, he investigates space sails and nuclear bombs. He finds that the ‘second earth’ might have purple trees.

No mention of a Space Elevator, but as they’re talking about alternatives to rockets, it is plausible that at least a mention of a Space Elevator will be made – hopefully more.

The ‘Tomorrow night” Brian is speaking of is tonight, Friday, June 26th.  According to the listings, however, this show is appearing a few times on the Science Channel, so you should have a chance to watch or TIVO it.  As they say, check your local listings…

Ben Shelef appears on The Space Show

On June 8th, Ben Shelef, CEO of the Spaceward Foundation, appeared on Dr. David Livingston’s The Space Show to discuss the upcoming Space Elevator Games, Power Beaming, Strong Tethers and Space Elevators in general.

Ben’s Spaceward Foundation is the host of the Space Elevator Games, so he is THE MAN to discuss the topic of the Games.  As well, with his recent publications (you can find them all here), most importantly, The Space Elevator Feasability Condition, I think it is safe to say that Ben is now pushing the research forward about the Space Elevator more than anyone else.

Check out the show here – it’s very interesting…

And be sure and check out the official site of the Space Elevator Games here

Testing results summary from the KC Space Pirates

I received this long and detailed email from Brian Turner, captain of the Kansas City Space Pirates.  It does a better job than I could have of summarizing the testing results from last week.  Both of the pictures in this post were also provided by Brian.

The last week of testing was quite the ride. We are currently the only team to pass all of the pre-competition qualifying tests. We passed both safety and performance tests. It is eerily similar to the last competition where we were the clear leaders early and fell short at the last minute. We must be extra careful not to lose our focus.

We were the only team to show up on Monday. Most of the rest of the teams trickled in over the next few days. There was no required arrival time because the first day was just for planning and unpack.  Tuesday was for helicopter testing. But due to a rain scare, that was pushed back to Wed. Apparently rain on a dry lake bed is a bad thing and can trap vehicles in mud that takes days to dry.

We spent a lot of time waiting. Because Edwards is an airforce base and Nasa Dryden Flight research center works on top secret stuff we had to have an escort everywhere we went once we entered the flight- line complex. This included if we wanted to get something to eat at the employee food court just a few blocks from the hanger that was Spaceward’s base of operations. Because everyone was heading in a hundred directions there was a shortage of escorts. We also had to get badges and passes, and watch safety videos. We did get to meet some really nice people as they were escorting us. Freddy and Elizabeth were great fun and very helpful. I can’t remember the other escort’s names as we were pretty busy when they were on escort duty out on the lakebed. The escorts all have regular duties. For example Elizabeth is a lawyer in the tech. transfer office.

We also learned about FOD (foreign object debris) This is basically rocks in the tire treads or kicked up into the gaps on the vehicles while they are out driving on the lakebed. This FOD can damage jet engines and create flying object safety hazards if allowed to track up onto the concrete flight-line area. Edwards is home to aircraft costing in the billions with a B. So they treat the flight-line as something like the houses where you take of your shoes off before walking on the carpet. So we have to get out and pick all of the rocks out out of the tires whenever we come in off of the lake bed.

All of this overhead took about a day of the total time we were out there. While I was waiting around I was analyzing (That’s what I do with every spare moment of my life.) all of this overhead and decided that none of it was unreasonable. If Spaceward had chosen a different place we could have avoided most but not all of this kind of overhead.  However the safety requirements for an 8 Kilowatt laser turned loose are difficult to satisfy at any venue. And the added requirements for a helicopter with a 1.3 km long cable hanging from it are also a pretty tall bar.

Safety procedures and meetings took most of another day worth of time.  I was expecting this overhead so was not that bothered by it. And perhaps a day or so waiting on Spaceward and the other teams. That left us with about 2 days that we spent working on our stuff. And that was time well spent, making up for all of the time spent waiting for everything else and the 4.5 days of total driving from Kansas City to Dryden and back.

We rented an RV in Vegas that was immensely helpful on the lakebed, in the campground and finally as the kitchen.

The Muroc dry lake bed is a thing to behold. Miles of flat dried mud with no people and almost no animals. It is the kind of place where you go to test dangerous stuff. It is also so stereotypically desert that many films and TV shows are done here. I believe that the Mythbusters episode where they were shooting bullets straight up is an example. I should also mention that it is dusty, windy and hot. There is clearly more dust than sand and it gets everywhere. Challenging all of our dust control measures and coating all of our optics with a fine layer that has to be cleaned every time before we fire the laser through our system.

The heat is not bad in the morning or on cloudy days. But Thurs. and Fri. were brutal past midday. You almost lost a hand to having to hold a water bottle all the time.

As you may have heard by now, on Wednesday the cable broke while the helicopter was lifting it up into position. This was caused by the pulley on the bottom failing from the combination of high speed and high load. Either one of which would probably have been fine by itself. After the cable broke there was some confusion as to what the procedures were. That shut down operations for the day. We went to a debrief meeting that I had low expectations of. Quite the opposite happened. All of the background players were there and the Spaceward operation was reviewed for both procedural and systemic issues. A plan for making the plan was forewarded and all the concerned parties explained their point of view in a professional manner. I learned about issues that I did not know about and all of the concerns that I thought were being ignored were clearly spoken. It was something of a how-to lesson for me on complex operations.

During the time before the cable broke we actually learned a fair amount. The cable was well behaved. A dramatic change from the past 2 competitions where the flat ribbon we were climbing became an ill- behaved and fierce enemy to success. The winds were in my estimation higher than in the previous competitions. This also means that we may have overbuilt portions of our optics system. Better overbuilt than underbuilt.

We did not get to run our climber on the cable. That was to be the next step. So we will have to move forward without the benefit of the data that would have been gathered had we gotten to do this test.

Now on to the laser testing.

The surprise that we had planned for the testing was the RC truck. We have our climber solar panel mounted on it and it powers the thing. We had what is probably the world’s first laser powered truck. It worked well until we lost the telemetry signal and had to move on so that we could get in our stress test before the next team needed to take a turn with the laser.I am told that the video from this was awesome and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I hope to have a version edited and posted to youtube for you guys to see soon.

Many of the laser tests were just confirming that we did what the rule book said. All of the back and forth about this stuff over the last 2 or so years came down to a procedure that was as workable as I could ask for. The most feared test for me was the climber and optics stress test. We had to exceed the duration and power level that we wanted to use in the competition to make sure that we did not have any failures that could pose a safety problem. Of course our system was designed to be cutting edge and I can’t say that I have a good feel for where that edge falls off at. If we were going to fail a test this would be the one. The test went so well that I stopped it at the maximum desirable time as opposed to the point where the temps were hitting the safety limits. The big trouble that we had last time we were in front of the laser also seemed to be cured by the custom lens from our newest sponsor Asphericon.

As for our competitors:

Lasermotive is looking excellent. They are clearly operating even better than at the last competition and have reaffirmed their position in my estimate as being one of the top three. USST got delayed at customs and was only able to get 2 hours on the laser the last day of testing. From what I saw they are operating at a level consistent with previous years but I did not really see enough to be swayed one way or the other in thinking that they round out the top three with Lasermotive and us.

I did not see or hear anything from McGill or Alberta. It seems unlikely that they have full systems hiding somewhere so I have to be pessimistic that they will arrive in competitive form in 3 weeks.

NSS and M-climber came to laser testing with systems that failed to pass the required tests. There was however limited time for them to do so. I still think that they have more than 3 weeks work to do in the next three weeks.

Our testing this week grew a long list of items that need attention, so we will be very busy putting the finishing touches on our system over the next three weeks.

This is the longest newsletter I have ever written. But then this was clearly one of the most exciting weeks in KC Space Pirates history.

Brian Turner
KC Space Pirates

Thanks Brian.  We have many more pictures and videos from the Testing that we will be posting here or at the official site of the 2009 Space Elevator Games.  Stay tuned!

Testing and more testing…

First a quick status update.  Wednesday’s problem with the steel cable snapping was caused by a pulley failure.  Once this pulley failed, it sheared the cable.  This failure halted operations for the day so that all the relevant parties could get together and decide what happened and how to fix it.  The pulley was rated for the load, but evidentally the very high spin rate of the pulley, with the load it was carrying, caused it to fail.  A much more beefed up pulley should take care of this issue.  Other than that, Wednesday’s testing of the raceway setup went very well.  Over at, the official site of the Games, there are more details about this.

Today, Thursday, we began laser testing with the laser provided by TRUMPF.  This also went very well.  The Kansas City Space Pirates team were the guinea pigs in this testing.  It took time to work out exactly what should be tested, how it should be tested, what the procedures should be for ‘laser protocol’, etc.  The end result was that the laser system performed flawlessly and the Space Pirates system performed at a very high level too.   The Space Pirates passed all of their tests save one, a stress test which will have their system handle the full-power (8 KW) laser feed from TRUMPF and do so for a length of time simulating how long they would need it to send their climber up the kilometer long cable.  This will be done first-thing tomorrow morning.  Once that is completed, the other teams here, ready to go, will also do their laser testing.  Team LaserMotive also underwent laser testing and passed a less-stringent test (they did not have their full-power laser system onsite), so it was a good day all around…

The first picture (above) is of an all-hands meeting held before testing began on Wednesday.  Everyone who was involved in any way was required to attend this meeting.  As you can see, it is quite a crowd.

The second picture (above) is of the helicopter we used.  It is an S-58 and is supplied by Aris Helicopters. 

The third picture (also above) is of the winch which holds the steel cable that the Climbers will be ascending/descending.  This cable will be anchored on one end (the ground end) by the winch and on the other end (the up-in-the-air end) by the helicopter.  The winch is the more active partner of the two; paying out and reeling in the cable as necessary.

And, the last two pictures are of the local area.  The first is of a Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia).  These trees grow in the desert here and are starkly beautiful.  They can be seen all along the highway here in the Mojave desert.

And finally, this last picture is a small portion of the enormous number of windmills in this area (the Tehachapi area).  I am told that here in Tehachapi is where wind farms were started in the US.  They’re amazing to see, both in their size and the sheer numbers of them around – there have to be several hundreds of them.

As always, click on any of the picture thumbnails for a larger version of the picture.

More tomorrow…


If you’ve been following our Tweets ( you’ll know that we had a problem today with the pulley and the cable.  I was not at the lake-bed operations today (I was watching it on ustream along with many others) and I am not party to the after-mission meeting where this is all being discussed.  So, take what I’m writing here with a grain of salt.  I’ll try and differentiate between what I know and what I think I know.

I know that the cable broke.  Everyone has confirmed this – I have seen pictures of it (and am waiting to get them from Danny Leafblad of the KCSpace Pirates so I can put them on this blog).  I also know that the pulley that the cable was threaded through (the steel cable goes from the winch through the pulley and to the helicopter) broke.  I have seen pictures of this, too.

What appears to have happened (and remember, this is subject to update based on the after-mission analysis going on now) is that the pulley broke first.  It cause the cable to bend or catch on something.  This weakened the cable so that it broke.  No other links in the tether chain broke, and some were designed to break at forces well below the level necessary to break a ‘healthy’ cable.  Because these links did not break, I’m forced to conclude that when the pulley broke, it caused the cable to break.

Now, why did the pulley break?  Perhaps they know by now (and I certainly will update you when I do).  It’s inconceivable to me that both Ben Shelef (the organizer of these Games and the engineer who designed this system) and the NASA review team would have overlooked the issue of the pulley rating.  I’m guessing that somehow the cable was able to jump off of the pulley wheel and somehow lodge itself between the pulley wheel and its mounting bracket.  Either that or the pulley itself was defective.  Let me emphasize that this last paragraph is speculation on my part and when I know the answer, I’ll let you know.

I’ve also heard (second-hand) that there is no chance of the helicopter flying tomorrow because of some scheduling conflict, so further testing of this sort may need to be put off until just before the Games.  Again, I’m not sure, but will let you know.

On the bright side, overall the system seemed to perform very well; the helicopter and winch we’re able to work together to reel-out and reel-in the cable satisfactorily.  The winch operator, tether handler and helicopter personnel all were able to practice working together under real (not simulated) conditions.  The NASA TV team was able to get some practice in filming helicopter and winch activities and, if you tuned into their Ustream live broadcast, you were able to see it.  The target at the top of the tether functioned properly.  I am unaware at this time of any other significant problems that happened during the operation.

Also on the bright side, the TRUMPF people say that there laser is all set up and operating at full-capacity with no issues.  This means that both the Kansas City Space Pirates and LaserMotive should be able to laser-qualify their climbers (checking for reflections, etc.) tomorrow.

So, that’s the status.  I’ll update you as soon as I have more/better information.

The helicopter is HERE…

The helicopter arrived this morning, on time (early, even).  It is an S-58 and will be exactly the same type which is used at the Games.  I got this picture of it while it was landing, just before it was obscured by the dust it was kicking up…

The helicopter test today is HUGE – we really need this to work right.  Having said that, it looks like all the ducks are in a row.  The winch testing from yesterday went well, the hardware is in place, teams are here, TRUMPF is here with its laser and NASA is doing a great job of coordinating everything.

As always, click on the thumbnail for a larger version of the picture.

I’d like to be blogging more, but the data connection here is not very good – I can do Tweets (follow us at SEGames), but blogging requires more bandwidth – tough for us outsiders to get here.  But we’re working on improving that too – after all, this is ‘test week’…

As always, click on the picture thumbnail for a larger version…

Updates from the LaserMotive team

On the LaserMotive Blog, a couple of new entries have been posted.

The first one has to do with cooking hot dogs.  Now, you might reasonably ask what this would have to do with a Space Elevator or the Space Elevator Games.  Well, if you read the post, you’ll find that high-powered lasers can do other things besides powering Climbers…

The second post has to do with stress testing, both planned and unplanned.  It is an axiom of good system’s engineering that you can never do enough testing.  As a veteran of many years with software systems, I can attest to the truth of this.  But sometimes a planned test can turn into an unplanned test.  Check out this LaserMotive post (complete with video) showing how they have been stress-testing their climber.

Finally, as noted via Twitter (follow us at SEGames for the latest updates as they happen), the LaserMotive team has arrived here at the NASA Dryden facility (where the Games will be held this year) for onsite testing.

This first photo is of the climber that they’ll be using for the tests.  I’m told that this is “Rev 1” of the climber which will be used.  It’s much lighter and stronger than the one they used the last time around.  I and everyone else here will be very interested to see how it performs.  LaserMotive is now a ‘blooded’ team and I’m sure there are many, many ‘lessons learned’ from the previous competition built into this climber.

The second photo is a close-up of the wheels which actually grip the cable.  These wheels come from an inline skate, ground down to the proper diameter.  It’s tough to go to a company catalog (even from someone like McMasters) and look for “Space Elevator Climber drive wheels” – so LaserMotive (and all the other teams, of course) have to adapt parts from other devices or custom-make them.

It’s part of the Challenge 🙂

(Click on either of the picture thumbnails for a larger version)

What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture indeed…

This picture was taken early this afternoon, looking out the hanger/warehouse/workshop where we’ve headquartered and are putting together all our stuff.  Outside this building is the Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert.  This is June.  It is supposed to be bright and sunny.  Instead it’s overcast and there is a forecast of rain.

Unfortunately, it has cancelled any chance we had of doing a test flight tomorrow.  This means that this testflight will happen, at the earliest, on Wednesday.  This also means that an already tight schedule has gotten even tighter.

I’m VERY GLAD that the NASA people here are truly a ‘can do’ crowd.  They want to make this happen and are pulling out all the stops to do so.  So, being late will be a problem, not a potential disaster.

Rain in the Mojave in June?

(click on the picture thumbnail for a larger version)

More Monday Nuts & Bolts…

Here are some more pictures from today’s work…

This first picture is of a reusable breakaway link, a safety device attaching the kilometer-long steel cable that the climbers will be ascending/descending to the helicopter.  It has a rated release point of 3,500 pounds.  This means that in the unlikely event where the helicopter is pulling on the cable with that much force (or more), then the link will separate and the helicopter will be free of the tether.

Of course, if that happens, the cable and anything that might be on it (like a Climber) is going to fall.  All of the teams and the NASA and Spaceward personnel will be inside trailers, protected from falling debris.  However, the person operating the winch (which pays out and retracts the steel cable) is out in the open.  And that’s the subject of this next picture.  An overhead shelter is being built for the winch operator.  This picture is of the ceiling for that shelter.  The combination of chain-link fence, 2×4′ and plywood should keep the operator safe.

And this last picture is of the KC Space Pirates crew, enjoying a bit of lunch.  They’re hard workers – I guess they’ve earned it 🙂

Tomorrow or Wednesday should see the arrival of at least 2 more of the teams.  Also, the filming crew from the Chicago video production company Bitter Jester Creative, Inc. will be arriving tonight.  This group has been filming the competition and the participants and the organizers for the past few years.  While certainly interested in he technical coolness of these games, they are focusing on the human element.  I think their final product is going to be fascinating…

(Click on any of the picture thumbnails for a larger version)

Monday first tasks…

We’re now here at Dryden, on the base, in the workshop, beginning to put the physical structures in place for this year’s Space Elevator Games (the planning structures were started long ago).  Today is a day for building stuff (‘swinging a hammer’) and, if all goes according to plan, we hope to do our first actual flight test at noon tomorrow.  That’s extraordinarily ambitious, but we’re going to give it a go as they say.

Here are a couple of early pictures from today.  The first shows the KC Space Pirates trailer (the Space Pirates are currently the only team on site – though others are supposed to show up this week too) while the second shows some Spaceward Volunteers and NASA shop personnel getting their hands dirty.

More here later and also on the official website of the Games,

If you want to follow things minute-by-minute, I’m also using Twitter – follow me as “SEGames”…

(Click on the picture thumbnails for a larger version)

Things get testy on the Space Elevator…

Our intrepid explorers are getting bored and a mean streak is beginning to surface.  It all ends with the dreaded Romulan Throat Thrust.  Oh the humanity…


Watch all of the adventures of heroes here.

And, there is now a rumor that they may be planning something for the Space Elevator Games – stay tuned!

And so it begins…

My other project is finished and I’m now transitioning to “Space Elevator Week”.  I’ll get a few hours of sleep tonight before I’m off to LAX tomorrow.  Then I’ll pick up a car and head on out to Mojave to meet up with Ben Shelef, CEO of the Spaceward Foundation (hosts of the Space Elevator Games) and various Climber / Power-Beaming team members.

This coming week is critical and unprecedented; because of the sophistication of the Games this year, Ben has been able to set up a ‘test week’ to iron out the inevitable kinks; both in the Games themselves and in the reporting/publicizing of them.

We’ll have a helicopter, we’ll have a winch, we’ll have a steel cable, we’ll have climbers, we’ll have lasers and we’ll have bodies – This coming week is intended to put it all together so that when the actual Games happen (the week of July 13th), all of the teams will have the maximum opportunity to put together a winning climb.

This is the year to make it happen.  We’ve been so close before, now it’s time to get it done…

I’ll be blogging a lot during the coming week, but I hope to be Twittering even more.  They have excellent Verizon coverage at the base and, as I’m a Verizon user, I should be able to Twitter away on my Palm Treo.  So, if you want to stay up to date with all of the events as they happen, follow me on Twitter (see my Twitter updates on the sidebar of this blog – follow me as “SEGames”, not as ‘tedsemon’).

And while there will be updates here, too, on my blog, the official site of the Games is

This should be exciting!

On hiatus…

No, nothing is wrong, I’m taking a short break from blogging.  I’m spending this week traveling through central and southern Illinois surveying climate stations.  This is part of a nation-wide project to see how reliable this network really is.  If you want to learn more about it and what I’m doing with it, visit

It’s been much fun and very refreshing.  Just me, the open road, Google Earth and Verizon wireless – what more does one need?  And truly, being able to get away from everything else for a week and visiting people in small towns is good for the soul.  I may make this a yearly pilgrimmage.

A small aside about Verizon data service; it’s freaking awesome.  I have been to the smallest of the small towns (Boody, Assumption, Oconee, Nokomis, etc.) in our state and the data service seems to work everywhere.  It is beyond cool to use Google Earth, live, on my laptop, while I’m traveling…

Anyway, check out what Ben has been blogging at the Official WebSite of the Space Elevator Games;  You can stay up to date with the preparation for the Games there.

Testing for the Space Elevator Games begins next week.  I fly out to LAX on Sunday and will spend the entire week at Dryden.  I’ll have lots to post then…

A message from USST

On the USST website, a “Message from the President” was recently posted.  An excerpt:

“We have the basics of the logistics figured out but once we get a final date and a bit more information we can finalize the plans. It will be nice for the team to work towards a date instead of just working all the time without a real end in sight.”

As the date of the competition IS now established, I’m sure the USST team is now very busy ‘finalizing their plans’.  This team has to be considered as one of the favorites, considering their ‘best-in-show’ performances in all of the previous Climber / Power-Beaming competitions.  The video below is their best performance from the 2007 Games held near Salt Lake City in Utah.  They needed to be to the top in< 50 seconds but arrived in ~54 seconds – very close indeed.


As we’ll be almost certainly running the competition during the day, we won’t have any of these cool night shots this time around…