Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Intel: The Space Elevator


The idea of an elevator to space is an intriguing one to many, as evidenced by the 3rd Annual International Conference on the subject. It is a strange topic for this blog, perhaps, but the concept stands in counterpoint to the backward-looking, feel-good, and unrealistic space program proposed by the Bush Administration, and then quickly dropped when it proved politically unpalatable.

Engineers working on the elevator program expect that with an ambitious effort, the structure could be built within the next 15 years, at a cost of less than 25 billion dollars. Undoubtedly an extraordinary effort. However, the pay-off would be enormous. The first company, consortium, or nation to build such a structure would be in a nearly unassailable competitive position. Such an elevator radically cuts the cost and time to build a second. Two such structures cut yet further the time and cost to build a third, with a continuing cascade of scaling effects. The result is that very soon your cost for putting cargo into orbit is virtually nil. The winner of this race will own space.

The ability to put a virtually unlimited amount of material into low, geostationary, and outbound orbits has several important implications. First, it provides practically complete military domination of space. Consider that Air Force doctrine (PDF) is moving ever further toward viewing space as the ultimate high-ground on which to position weapons systems on the future battlefields - despite international law, one suspects. Today, and increasingly into the future, controlling space for purposes of reconnaisance, communication, positioning, and remote sensing is a critical basis for domination of the terrestrial combat theater. For American security, and continued military dominance, America would be foolish to allow any foreign power to grab the magic rope to the heavens before we do so.

Second, the economic horizons of private space exploitation and development would disappear, replaced by nearly limitless vistas of potential. All of the schemes for expoitation of space for its unique environment, tourist allure, sensing and communications applications, and likely much more, would be able to be brought to fruition with much less risk, much less capital, and on a much greater scale than could be dreamt of today. The world economy, and the well-being of millions would be immensely improved by the new opportunities and scaling effects made available by elevators to space.

Finally, with the costs and risks of transport to space greatly reduced, thousands, and eventually millions, will venture out of our gravity well; many will not return. Colonization of the Moon, Mars, and possibly other planets and structures thoughout the solar system can begin. Our species will finally have some of its eggs out of our single basket. The movement by mankind into the rest of the solar system will be led and dominated by the owners of the elevators.

Of course, my point is that the Bush-Cheney Administration is far too short-sighted and special interest bound to pursue such a progressive vision. A Kerry-Edwards Administration may not be. Not all the possible effects outlined here are necessarily desirable, but they are topics that deserve discussion. Whether it is us, some other country, or a non-state entity that builds the first elevator, the technology is drawing ever nearer to reality. At this point, the major technological challenge is manufacture of buckytube polymers with sufficient density to have the required tensile strength. This is only a hurdle of materials technology, not one of basic science. Space elevators will be built in the next 15-20 years; will we be ready to take advantage of the opportunities they present and avoid the dangers they pose?

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