TCS Daily

Elevating Elephants

By James D. Miller - March 14, 2006 12:00 AM

For the 2006 midterm elections, Republicans should propose an idea so big that it stretches to the stars. Republicans should commit the government to building a space elevator by 2020.

A space elevator would essentially be a 62,000-mile cable stretching from the earth's surface out into space. Because one end of the cable would be in high orbit, gravity would prevent it from falling back to earth. Once the cable was in place, space travelers would board an elevator-like device and ride up the cable.

The 62,000-mile cable would endure tremendous stress from supporting its own mass, so the primary challenge in building a space elevator lies in constructing the cable out of material strong enough not to break. Fortunately, scientists have determined that carbon nanotubes, which are over one hundred times stronger than steel, could be used for the cable. Unfortunately, no one yet knows how to fashion mile-long strands of carbon nanotubes — but we are close.

The benefits of space elevators

Space elevators could make going into orbit as cheap as flying across the Pacific. They could make space vacations financially feasible for many Americans.

Space elevators would also give the U.S. the high-ground in any future military conflict. With the elevators we could easily launch or destroy spy satellites. They would also help the U.S. set up a "Star Wars" missile defense system. Finally, space elevators would allow the military to deploy inexpensive non-explosive kinetic weapons that could be dropped from orbit on our enemies.

Space elevators would do far more good for the environment than fulfilling the Kyoto Treaty on global warming ever could. The elevators would make it possible for the U.S. to put cheap solar power collectors in space. Space elevators would also permit us to mine helium-3 from the moon. Helium-3 could make an ideal fuel for fusion power.

Most importantly, however, space elevators could save us from going the way of the dinosaurs. Sixty-five million years ago an asteroid probably crashed into the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. Space elevators would greatly facilitate the detection and deflection of earth-bound asteroids. Space elevators would also make it far easier for humans to colonize space and thus survive any world-destroying disaster. As Robert Heinlein said "The earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in."

Why should the government build it?

Usually, the marketplace is far superior at developing technologies than the government. But even free market supporters should favor the U.S. government building space elevators.

As Glenn Reynolds has written, President Bush has called for America to return to the moon by 2020, and it would be much cheaper to do this with space elevators than conventional rockets. So, given that the U.S. government is going to spend tens of billions of dollars on space exploration anyway, we should all support the government in spending this money in the most beneficial manner.

Furthermore, a private corporation that built space elevators would not be rewarded by the market for reducing the risk of human extinction. Markets, therefore, provide suboptimal incentives to build space elevators, so the government has a legitimate role in helping to finance them.

Why should Republicans propose building space elevators?

I admit it: part of the reason I want Republicans to make space elevators part of their 2006 campaign is that I am a Republican and fear that otherwise we will lose considerable power in the midterm elections. A space elevator proposal would be visionary, pro-defense, pro-environment and easy to understand, so it could attract significant support for Republicans.

It would be difficult for Democrats to enthusiastically support a space elevator proposal. The left-wing environmentalists view the threat of global warming primarily as a means of combating capitalism, and they would be horrified by any proposal that could reduce the harm of global warming without curbing commerce.

The Democrats would be uncomfortable with the militarization of space that U.S.-owned space elevators would allow. They would undoubtedly prefer that space elevators be built not by the U.S. but by some international coalition. Such Democratic opposition to a U.S. space elevator would allow Republicans to portray Democrats as being not only weak on defense but also hypocritical on the environment.

James D. Miller writes "The Game Theorist" column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.



Need a reason
Kennedy's mission to the moon was driven by competition with the USSR. LIFE magazine was granted exclusive access to the astronauts, who were treated like movie stars. VP and then President Johnson actively participated and promoted the project.
What happened to Apollo 18, 19, and ....?
I certainly agree that an elevator to orbit is a great idea. However, I don't believe any political party can generate the enthusiam and marketing needed to promote the project for the years required.
If governement funding is necessary, more practical reasons will be needed. Funding should be directed towards applied research such as how to make the cable. As the X project demonstrated, private funding can make things happen faster than government.
Also, the cable will be competing with all of the private launch ventures, inhibiting support from that sector.
Until we have a national crisis that demands quick, cheap access to space, the space elevator will need to proceed at its slow pace.

Rather than find a dandy new way to spend a fraction of a trillion dollars, I'd like to see the folks in Washington find a way to pay for all the stuff they've already bought.

I'm all for it
In fact, the more the merrier. We could use multiple beanstalks connected by a ring structure at the geosynch altitude. There's money to be made in orbital debris cleanup, a necessity if there's to be a permanent orbital presence. I'd like to see Lagrange point habitats and asteroid belt colonies. This basket is too fragile over the long term.

Not a great idea
The space elevator sounds like a fine idea, but it poses problems impossible to solve at this time. The materials problems for the cable do not have a solution at this time, given the stresses it must withstand, nor are there any solutions for the oscillation problem, to name just two. Moreover, where would the terminus be put? Military and commercial interests will have greatly different ideas about how high the orbit should be, as we saw with the space shuttle.

Finally, this is no energy saving device. The energy to move a pound up the space elevator will exceed that using boosters. All the cable lets you do is separate the delivery vehicle from its fuel supply.

There is a need now for cheap access to space for manufacturing processes that require zero-gee, but the space elevator isn't it.

Kill hurricanes
If we're looking for rationalizations to justify building a space elevator, the one I came up with is to use a space elevator to help kill hurricanes (see

No Jack Kennedy
Before Kennedy announced the moon program he checked with his science advisor, Jerome Wiesner, future president of MIT, that it was possible. Wiesner also didn't know so he asked the real experts, rocket scientists. The rest is history.

Fast forward to Nixon and his "war on cancer". The experts knew that cancer was complex and poorly understood so that lots of research on a variety of fronts could help. Nixon proposed increases in the NIH (National Institutes of Health, funding agency for biology research) that have lead to today's biotech revolution and progress in fighting cancer.

Fast forward to Reagan and Star Wars missile defence. In this case, the rocket scientists said it was not possible, but Reagan already had given up relying on experts so they went ahead, wasting huge amounts of money and accomplishing nothing. Today and SDI still is a sinkhole of colorfully painted but non-functional systems.

The space elevator is a great idea that depends largely on finding strong enough materials. Carbon nanotubes are strong enough, but they are called nano for a reason. When materials scientists figure out how to weave nanotubes (or some other nano structures) into massive cables, then we can think about building the elevator (as well as really light kick *ss road bikes).
Do start building before then would just fill junkyards with more Republican trash.

It didn't matter whether our rocket scientists thought that SDI would work. The government of the USSR did think it would work and they realized that their economy could not generate the cash flow to keep up. Whether you want to admit it or not, this was a significant factor in the final collapse of the Soviet Union. So don't give me that c*** about SDI accomplishing nothing.

There are two energies needed to get into space. The first is the energy needed to get to altitude.
The second is the energy needed to get to orbital speed.

An electric motor gripping a cable is more efficient at getting a weight into space than is a reaction motor.

The energy needed to get up to speed is free. It's taken from the earth's rotational energy. The downside to this is that after a few million years of using these things, the earth's rotation might slow noticably.

more liberal fantasies
Some rocket scientists said that SDI was impossible. The vast majority said it was. Of course to a leftist, the only people who qualify as experts are those that agree with the leftist position du jure, so of course those that agreed with Reagan don't count.

Funny thing. SDI does work. So the scientists who agreed with Reagan were right, even though the left tells us they never existed.

the power of myth
If the left couldn't believe in their myths, then they would have nothing left to live for.

it works!
The current SDI shoots incoming missiles the way Cheeney shoots birds. First put them in a cage, then cut off their wings, then tell your hunting partners to .. duck!

Is the difference all that large?
I agree with you on the efficiency of the electric motor, but a booster is mass ejection. So, make the assumption that the basic efficiency difference is not significant. Then the question becomes, how long does the elevator have to operate to pay back the energy cost of creating it compared to the energy cost of the booster plus its energy manufacturing cost. Also have to factor in relative accident rates.

I assume you agree with my comments regarding materials problems as they stand at this time.

Excuse me for being vague, but I don't have any texts at hand.

A rocket engine, at the point of the exhaust, is very efficient. The problem is that in addition to lifting the payload, you also have to lift the tank and a lot of very heavy fuel.

Something like a fuel cell powering an electric motor would require much less energy to lift the same sized payload into orbit. A few hundred gallons would probably be sufficient to lift an object as heavy as the average car into orbit. You could also rig it to use outside oxygen while you were low enough in the atmosphere, and bottled O2 after that. Ditto for the passengers.
A nuclear battery might also work, depending on how small one could be made.

As for accidents, I would think an elevator would be safer.
You aren't trying to control a huge explosion on your tail end. And if something goes wrong, you could probably detach from the cable and parachute back to earth. (after re-entry if you are that high) Parachutes are tough on launch vehicles, both because they weigh a lot, and because of the speed those things travel through the atmosphere.

you haven't been paying attention
But then, what's new.
SDI has been shooting down missiles in tests for years.

No problem with vague
we're just batting ideas around here. Certainly the energy expended to lift the fuel is enormous. Apollo was what, about 90 per cent fuel by mass in the total Saturn package? Also no question that BDRs (big dumb rockets) are nothing more than somewhat controlled explosions and hence inherently dangerous, at least as far as the technology has got thus far, which is not really that significantly advanced upon Werner Von Braun.

Given the energy cost to erect the elevator though, it still makes an interesting energy efficiency comparison, but only if you have an elevator concept that includes solutions or ideas about solutions on the materials problems.

One of the safety problems with the elevator is oscillation. However, this too may have a solution. I suppose what I'm really saying in all this is that it would be foolish to abandon existing orbit methods entirely in the interest of a concept which does not yet exist.

The kicker about orbital solar power
How do you get the energy to the earth?

A cable the length of the space elevator is obviously out.

Beaming the power down as microwave has 2 bad consequences.

1/ I've been out of the field of high-powered microwave for about 9 years, but I haven't heard of any glaring breakthroughs that could reduce the pound/watt and $/watt cost of high-powered microwave tubes. Even with the space elevator, the transportation costs to lift the electronics would be orders of magnitude greater than the solar cells themselves.

2/ Microwave is notoriously inefficient. 25% or less is delivered as em, the rest comes out as heat. For every gigawatt of generated power, you've got 2-3 gigawatts of heat you have to radiate some way.

Not only that
But, a vacuum is a lousy place to dissipate large amounts of heat.

Second, with that kind of power output, the thing's a weapon. Can't make any alignment mistakes or someplace like Kansas City might get cooked off in a heartbeat.

Is it April Fool's already?
Frankly, I doubt 2020 is a realistic timetable for the manufacture of the cable alone. Yet even if we were so fortunate, there is no feasible method to haul such a massive line in the foreseeable future.

But why be realistic when it's never been President Bush's strong suit? Why not make a BIG, BOLD, STATEMENT and commit the nation to build a Warp Drive engine or a Teleporter by 2020?

Beam me up, Scotty.

boost phase
1. I would not believe a pentagon news release that had not been critiqued by outside (liberal, America hating) experts.

2. This is boost phase, which the experts I trust have long said could work. In fact, those experts have long wondered in print why Bush insists on building the late phase interceptors that can be foiled by decoys so easily.

Given that we have no idea how the material for a space elevator is to be made, any energy budget analysis would be little more than hand waving guesses at this stage.

I haven't seen anyone propose that we completely abandon current methods. What I've seen proposed is that some of the money currently going to current methods be shifted over to researching something new.

ah yes
The old pentagon always lies defense.

They've had success post boost as well.
Including picking out the real warhead amongst several decoys.

The Higher Wisdom
It will grieve liberals to learn that the alleged science defficieny syndrome that got Larry Summers in trouble is apparently contageous and endemic in the Economics department at Smith College- at least we don't have to bother with materials science since according to Professor Miller " Because one end of the cable would be in high orbit, gravity would prevent it from falling back to earth."

lack of trust
I would totally vote for any canditate that would pledge a total devotion of resources toward building a space elevator. My only problem would be I don't trust most republicans to do what they say and I can't stand most republican positions, so I would be afraid that they would lie to me to get my vote and then stab me and the rest of america in the back.

efficiency cont.
A space elevator would be much more efficient than chemical rockets because some of the energy spent sending it up can be reclaimed when the shuttle car returns to the earth. The major source of energy loss would depend on how efficient the initial power source is in transmitting energy to the car and how well the car can turn the transmitted energy into kinetic energy.

limited success
The successes of intercepting icbm's in the orbital stage has been extremely limited. Further SDI was largely based on satelite lasers blasting icbm's out of the sky a technology that still has significant (possibly insurmontable) hurdles to overcome some twenty odd years after it was initially proposed.

No sense discussing thousand mile long nanotube cables until. . .
It makes no sense to discuss thousand mile long nanotube cables until the lengths and manufactuing efficiencies necessary for other critical products are reached.

For instance, there are as yet no nanotube strung tennis raquets and no ultralight nanotube rope for use in the rigging of Americas Cub racers.

The use of nanotubes in such products will signal that the technology is worth considering for something really challenging like a space elevator.

Limited success compared to what
SDI is best seen as a relatively modest investment in the possibility of thwarting a limited attack or threat of attack by the likes of North Korea. It has probably achieved that objective already, at least insofar as it makes it credible to imply a defense should it come down to negotiating ultimate hard cases with the North Koreans. The alternative in such a case would be thorough rubble bouncing preemptive nuclear strikes across all possible NK launch sites followed by pin-down nuclear blasts every so often to ensure against survival of a deep bunker or silo.

As far as limited success goes, SDI has probably achieved more success in 20 years than fusion research, and it has certainly achieved more measurable success in 20 years than the Great Society programs have achieved in 40 years.

not always, ...
The Pentagon does not always lie, some of what they say is true. Some years age Iraq launched Scud missiles against Israel and Patriot missiles were used as defence. The Pentagon said the Patriots worked great but later analysis by independent experts showed that the Patriots had failed in every case.

(Great Mark's counter: Iraq is bad, the Pentagon was right, we've come a long way since the Patriot, ...)

"...they would lie to me to get my vote and then stab me and the rest of america in the back."

Sounds like a typical politician, of any party.

Lately ex-presidents Carter and Clinton are doing a great job at it (stabbing America in the back).

SDI and northernguy
Re: SDI and decoys.

People on this thread seem to misunderstand how offensive missile systems work.

Building a crude nuclear warhead is neither expensive nor difficult. In fact for a even a failed state govt. it is a trivial matter. It's the delivery system that is very, very, difficult and incredibly expensive.

Why in the world would anyone go to the trouble of launching a massive missile strike against the U.S. and then not take the comparatively easy step of attaching a nuclear device of some type to most if not all the missiles.

Granted the nuclear devices employed by the U.S. and Russia with a power range of a hundred megatons or whatever are umimaginably complex and expensive. But even simple dirty bomb warheads loaded with nothing more than explosive devices surrounded by radioactive material could make a city like New York immediately come to be seen as uninhabitable.

Separating the decoys from the real threat is not an issue. There will be no decoys.

space elevator and power northernguy
There has been some discussion of the problem of finding a power supply to operate the various aspects of the space elevator.

From my limited reading on space elevators the problem of power is what to do with it not where to get it. It seems likely to me that if you take one end of a ribbon and run it straight up for a thousand miles or so while attaching the other end to the earth while the entire length moves through different electrical fields with some parts going thousands of miles per hour you are going end up with one heck of a lot of power that will have to be dissipated somehow. One obvious way will be to power cable cars moving up and down its length.

In fact power buildup strikes me as one of the potentially insoluble problems that will render space elevators impractical.

nice try LG
Patriot was in beta test at the time of the Gulf War.
It was a system that was originally designed to shoot down aircraft, but was hurredly upgraded to handle short range missiles.
Saddam's Scuds were harder than average to hit because of the changes his engineers made to extend their range. These changes caused the Scuds to tumble while in flight.
This tumbling also caused the modified scuds to be hideously innacurate.

That said, do you deny that we have made tremendous progress in the years since the Gulf war.

That said, do you deny that the rest of SDI, which was designed from the ground up to be a strategic missile defense is better than an add-on to a system designed to be something else?

Do you deny that your so called "independant" expert was in fact a group that had a long history of being hysterically opposed to missile defense, and who had even less credibility on the issue than you do?

Do you deny that you don't know what you are talking about?

limited success????
The vast majority of the tests have been successes.
The few that failed, most were the results of catestrophic failures, such as the launch vehicle failing.

I don't know where you get your info, but SDI is based on kinetic kill, not laser technology.
Satellite lasers have been proposed, but nobody has pushed the issue, larger due to militarization of space issues.
Most of the current laser technology is based on airplane based lasers.

Very usefull against an EMP attack
A nuke hidden inside a cargo ship could destroy a city, and kill 10's of thousands. The type of attach that should be keeping defense analysts awake at night is an EMP attack.

A nuke launched to a height of several hundred miles, and exploded over the center of the country, has the potential of destroying every piece of electronics in the country. Everything from your laptop, to the computer that runs your car. It could potentially even destroy most of the country's power grid.

However, such a launch would be right up SDI's designed ally.

scaling up
I suspect that once we know how to make nano-tubes that are twenty feet long, scalling up to miles will be trivial.

crude nukes
Building a crude nuke is easy. Getting your hands on enriched uranium or plutonium is very, very, difficult.

space power
I seem to recall an experiment run from the space shuttle, where they rolled out a miles long length of wire to test this very concept.

I don't remember the results of that experiment.

how do you feel about private enterprise?
"I would totally vote for any canditate that would pledge a total devotion of resources toward building a space elevator. "

Sure. How do you feel about a private company that is totally devoting resources to the same end?

Very Short Indeed
I should feel disposed to call by broker and short its shares and the SEC to impeachits officers for their derelction.

Good way to spend government money
I think getting it up by 2020 is optimistic & would like to see some costings.

However it would certainly be cheaper than Iraq , possibly an order of magnitude cheaper.

Heinlein said "once you are in Earth orbit you are half way to anywhere" (in terms of orbital energy) so this would provide half of everywhere for free which seems a better deal than all of Iraq.

TCS Daily Archives