A Higher Purpose: The Space Elevator
By Glen Hiemstra, 2004
June 21, 2004 saw the first successful private launch of a space ship to the edge of space. SpaceShipOne, the brainchild of Burt Rutan and leading contender for the XPrize successfully carried pilot Mike Melvill to an altitude of just over 62 miles. The flight has been appropriately hailed as a milestone. Just as the flights of the Wright brothers led to a blossoming of private commercial aviation, there are hopes that SpaceShipOne will be the first step toward a blossoming of private access to space.
“But could there be a more promising long-term strategy for developing space access? The answer is yes, the space elevator.”
It may be. But could there be a more promising long-term strategy for developing space access? The answer is yes, the space elevator.
A great deal of progress has been made with this space elevator concept since we first wrote about it in 2000. A national conference scheduled for June 28-30, 2004 in Washington DC will bring international attention to the idea that as soon as fifteen to twenty years from now, some country or company is going to build the first space elevator. And who ever does will in many ways own cheap and easy access to earth orbit and to missions beyond earth.
A $500,000 study done over the past two years on behalf of NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts and now housed at the Institute of Scientific Research, has demonstrated that the technology needed for a space elevator is moving along quickly. The concept is deceptively simple. First, place a re-modeled ocean-going oil platform off the coast of Ecuador, where weather is mild and storms are very rare. Launch a rocket into earth orbit and from there extend a length of ribbon eight inches wide and about as thick as paper from earth into deep space. Once the initial ribbon is in place, begin to send unmanned climber vehicles up the ribbon, where they will enlarge it by zipping additional pieces together. The climbers are powered by electricity, which comes from a laser at the base station aimed at solar cells on the climbers. Eventually, when the ribbon is widened to about three feet, and extends far beyond geosynchronous orbit, out to 62,000 miles to be exact, the elevator is ready for full operation. The projected cost is $6 billion, less than the cost of the “Big Dig” highway project in Boston.
When the elevator is complete, climber vehicles can carry payloads of up to 13 tons at a speed of 125 miles an hour, at a cost of $100 a pound, or less, compared to $10,000 a pound when launching material into space via the shuttle. A trip to geosynchronous orbit at 22,000 miles, would take seven days. Along the elevator route, way stations drop payloads into low earth orbit, or higher orbits. And, using the centrifugal force which exists at the end of the tether, payloads can be launched to the planets and beyond relatively inexpensively.
What is more, once the first elevator is in place, it becomes vastly cheaper and easier to build the second, the third, and so on, until access to space becomes nearly routine, with costs as little as $10 a pound. Space hotels, commercial ventures, and the like spring up, and we become a space faring people.
How much closer are we to this reality than a year or two ago? Much closer. All of the needed technology is available without further breakthroughs, save one, the most important one of course. That is the material for constructing the elevator ribbon itself. But progress is evident here as well. It has been assumed for some time that the ribbon would be made primarily of carbon nanotubes, one of the results of the burgeoning field of nanotechnology. The strongest material ever discovered, carbon nanotubes embedded in polymer will carry the load. There is no longer any doubt, after several years of working with nanotubes, that they would be strong enough. What is not yet clear is whether they can be manufactured and imbedded into a polymer base at a required concentration of 50%. Current ribbon prototypes achieve a nanotube concentration of just 1%, and would be not nearly strong enough.
If this technical hurdle can be overcome, an elevator becomes feasible. In fact, an elevator becomes inevitable. Futurist.com friend and writer David Brin was recently quoted as saying that our grandchildren will certainly ride elevators to space, but that a fifteen to twenty year horizon for such a development is too optimistic. We’ll check back every now and then, to see how soon we might be “going up.”
Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video host and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.