TCS Daily


A Modern Day Erie Canal

By Jack Uldrich - November 2, 2007 12:00 AM

One hundred and eighty-two years ago this month, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton boarded the Seneca Chief and traveled 500 miles from Buffalo to New York City to mark the opening of the Erie Canal. It was the beginning of an enterprise of immense economic and political significance in that it expanded the reach of American commerce and established New York as one of the world's leading financial centers.

It is easy, in retrospect, to think the canal's success was ordained from the beginning. It wasn't. In 1810, when DeWitt Clinton, then mayor of New York City, first proposed building the 363-mile, 83 lock canal, Gouverneur Morris, responded by saying "Our minds are not yet enlarged to the size of so great an object." Another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, was more biting in his criticism, writing to Clinton, "It is a splendid project, and may be executed a century hence. It is little short of madness to think of it this day."

Jefferson's reasoning was solid. The project was budgeted to cost $6 million -- a sum then equal to three-fourths of the federal government budget. In fact, the scale of the project was so massive that it was determined it would be the biggest public works project since the Great Pyramid and would consist of digging and removing over 11 million cubic yards of earth. It is no wonder that many decried it as "Clinton's ditch."

Fortunately, Clinton persisted and while he wasn't able to persuade the federal government to support the idea he did win over the citizens of New York and in 1817 the state legislature approved the funding for the project.

Amazingly, the canal was completed on October 26, 1825 -- two years ahead of schedule. More impressive still, the state's debt off was paid-off in a decade's time.

With this little bit of history in mind, let me now introduce you to a modern-day equivalent of the Erie Canal: the space elevator.

To many, the idea of constructing an elevator into geosynchronous orbit might be, to echo the words of Jefferson, a splendid project a century hence but little short of madness today. Nevertheless the idea is beginning to elicit consideration from a growing number of serious scientists.

In its simplest form, the elevator would consist of a ribbon of super-strong carbon nanotubes be tethered to a large platform located near the equator and attached to a space structure at the other. To get from earth to space a cab would climb the ribbon. (Further details can be found at www.spaceelevator.com)

Without question a great many obstacles must be overcome in order to achieve this vision, but they are just that: obstacles. They are not barriers. Ironically, as with the Erie Canal, the greatest barrier may not be technical in nature but rather political -- namely, our leaders (and perhaps our country) have lost their ability to think big.

But like the Erie Canal, a space elevator would be more than just a testament to good old-fashion American ingenuity and know-how. It would have broad, practical economic and political ramifications. For instance, just as the Erie Canal lowered the cost of shipping a ton of flour from $120 to less than $6, a space elevator could similarly open up space by radically reducing the price of hauling the equipment and supplies into orbit. Today, it costs anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000 to launch a single pound of material into space. With a space elevator, replacing and updating the communication and satellite infrastructure upon which modern society is now so dependent would be fast, inexpensive and easy.

Beyond this, if America is serious about establishing a permanent presence on the moon -- and, ultimately, Mars -- this country will need a dramatically more efficient process for delivering cargo and personnel into a space. Our present system of using individual rockets is about as efficient as hauling flour by horseback.

It has been estimated that a space elevator can be built for $12 billion. It is a large amount of money to be sure, but so too was the Erie Canal. Thanks, however, to some farsighted and courageous leadership a profitable canal was built and, in the process, it turned the course of history. How fitting then if on October 26, 2025 -- the bicentennial of the opening of the Erie Canal -- America could send a group of people into space on an elevator. It is possible but first we must enlarge our minds to "so great an object."

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Jack Uldrich is an author and a futurist. His latest book, Jump the Curve: 50 Strategies for Helping Companies Deal with Emerging Technologies, is due out in February 2008.

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24 Comments

Space canal
A good idea and I hope a consortium of companies and individuals will get together and do it soon. If the government goes and does it though, I'm worried that they'll just give it away like they did with the GPS system. How many billions could they have earned over the years for that one? On the other hand, if private, they could charge for a ride on the space elevator.

Even if it could only lift 10kg at a time
How many kilos a day could be sent into orbit?

Government Role
I agree that Space Elevator(s) should be a private enterprises. The Government, however, should have a role in security. It is likely that such a structure, especially if outside the US, will become a prime terrorist target.

Financing...
The financing of these kind of gigs has a bad history. The first transcontinental railroad went bankrupt when their financing institution, Credit Mobilier, failed. Also, the market did not develop as fast as the backers predicted. The Chunnel is another example. The chunnel has failed to produce the revenue its backers expected. The bonds (and monopoly status) keep being pushed out further into the future.

The other problem with this being a government or quasi-government project is the cost overruns. The shuttle is a perfect example. So is Boston's "Big Dig" and just about every other large government funded project that I can think of. I think government finance of a space elevator, like the Erie Canal, is not the way to go.

It is also not clear to me that there is sufficient market for such a bean stock to pay for itself. Usually, developments and cost reduction in transportation are incremental. There are a promising array of space launch start-ups that will reduce the cost of space access incrementally over the next 20 years. As the cost comes down, markets increase.

Investing $12 billion in a space elevator is a risky venture. Assuming that you can ship stuff up it at $100/Kg, you need to send 30,000MT of payload up that bean stock in order to get pay back in an reasonable period. The only market I can see demanding this kind of delivery is solar power satellites in GEO.

How much would it cost to build a space station once the elevator was in place?
How long before people are able to enjoy their Honeymoons in space? What if there we multiple elevators, could we have space cruises? Factories in space... Seems to me that there are buckets of money to be made here and supporting the telecommunications industry is just the beginning.

Let the government absorb the initial risk, and then pass the ball to the private sector.

Government Role
The Air Force has claimed space as the "high ground"...a strategic military asset. Homeland (or maybe "Homeworld") Security will need access to space to protect space and earth bound assets.

So...it appears that some Federal funding/support could be justified on National Security grounds. The pilot "Elevator" would seem a logical choice for a public-private joint venture. A first step to the final frontier.

good comments
I agree. I would add that this is the perfect role for a government-backed venture. If this is something that can be done, it probably should be done.

ACouger?
Let the Government (Tax payers) take all the risk? Do you read anything on the website? News flash "the government" doesnt have any money only tax payers do. If I understand you correctly you want us to pay for it then maybe a company can then "take the risk". Useful idiot.

There's a Difference
The Erie Canal was incredibly expensive, but it was built with available technology. With a space elevator, there's a long list of items for which we simply don't have the technology: adequately long buckytube cables, materials reliability, orbital stability, and drive systems are at the top of the list, but there are plenty more.

I hope we do lots of research into these things, through a combination of government and private effort. But it would be horribly premature to begin investing in the actual deployment before the technology is there.

spaced out
For all you guys above that want yet another government agency to do this(or do you want a current dysfuncional agencny like NASA, or the US Post Office to do it? how would you deal with all the citizens would would not want to pay for it? Do you propose the same as they threaten to do with people who don't pay their school taxes?

Lift cost
Kurk99 writes: "Investing $12 billion in a space elevator is a risky venture. Assuming that you can ship stuff up it at $100/Kg, you need to send 30,000MT of payload up that bean stock in order to get pay back in an reasonable period. The only market I can see demanding this kind of delivery is solar power satellites in GEO."

$100 a kg is too much for power sats. Metric to remember is that lifting a 10,000 ton, 5 GW power sat takes 5 GW days. That means when the power sat comes on line, it pays back the energy needed to lift it in a day. (A GW day, 24 GW hours, lifts 2000 tons, 1.2 MWh lifts a ton, 1.2 kWh lifts a kg, at 10 cents/kWh that's about 12 cents a kg or $120 a ton.

But that also means that a ton of power sat at 10 cents a kWh is only making $440 a year if you can sell the power at 10 cents a kWh. So if you want power sats to pay off in a reasonable time, you really need to get the cost to lift one down close to the cost of energy.

Of course as you start using SPS power the cost might well go down to a cent/kWh.

A Modern Day Erie Canal
If the cost quoted of $12 billion is close, that is trivial. For comparison, I'd bet that the play houses as built for the NFL cost that and then some. The only one that I am familiar with is Reliant Stadium in Houston and it ran in excess of $700 million less than ten years ago and is now considered just okay.
orwoody

Unintended Benefits
So, you can count me among those that prefers to focus on the unintended costs of market intervention. I'm not a fan of the recent alternate-energy wave, except for the bubble that results. In my view, Bubbles=Investment, Investment=Capital Capital=Innovation.

Even when we agree that NASA is an unwieldy organization, it's hard to overlook how much unintended benefit came out of our work to reach the stars. The trouble is that as the goals are reached, they need to be replenished with newer challenges. There needs to be greater incentives. And, it's ok if this incentive is paid for by the taxpayer, so long as the return will benefit the taxpayer as well.

Nothing fosters innovation quite like the opportunity to make a lot of money. It took 30 years for the Internet to be useful when it was a government program. But once pornography was available for cheap, innovation exploded in database driven content and credit-card transactions exploded. Maybe that's stretching things a bit, but it's hard to discount the unintended benefits of government incentives.

Of course, recognizing this doesn't bring us any closer to knowing *which* programs should have taxpayer support... Space Elevator? Who knows?

Terrorism
I can't talk too much about this topic, beyond saying that we have looked into it - deeply. There are plenty of "fail safes" (take that with a grain of salt, there are simply too many unknowns this early in the game) built in.

We have consulted with the Navy, Air Force, National Defense University, National Security Administration, National Reconnaissance Office, Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency... I am also a former US Marine.

Please take my word for it, that security of this thing is 2nd only to safety of its operations. That said, we consider "terrorism" as a planned act to spread fear, to be a lessor concern than "sabotage". And yes, they are different, and yes, sabotage is much much much spookier than a terrorist attack.

I am not going to post details. However, I can tell you that even a "successful" terrorist strike will yield a very superficial result. I hope you can appreciate my situation here, I am required to be vague on this topic.

Thanks for your interest. Take care.
Michael Laine
President, LiftPort Group.

Intended Benefits and Unintended Consequenses
It will take several years before we even know if building this is "possible". The press often imply that we are "bolting this thing together already". Yet I regularly stress that "We don't even have all the questions, yet, let alone all the answers..."

That said, the Research and Development of a project of this size and scope is really worth the effort.

In terms of technology development, there are things that we can foresee:
Robotics, Lasers,Communications, Computing, Material Science/NanoTech, Weather Monitoring, Observation, Photovoltaics/CleanTech, Batteries/Capacitors

We will NEED breakthroughs in each of these areas BEFORE we even know if this is possible or not... and that is the beauty of the business model - we start to see payback before we even risk a dollar on construction...

And as for Unintended Consequences, I like to think that much of modern medicine was developed while digging a different canal, in Panama. The work of digging that "ditch" resulted in breakthroughs in a number of medicines and sanitation techniques to keep those workers healthy. So, digging in the dirt, 100 years ago, makes you healthier, today.

I think the social consequences are pretty murky, compared to the technical ones. And EACH technical breakthrough will have its own additional social impact. My "crystal ball" gets pretty fuzzy, pretty fast... Still, I think it is worth the effort.

Take Care
Michael Laine
President, LiftPort Group

You are right... Government (alone) is not the way to go.
All of these examples are accurate, and I will extend by adding the fiscal disaster of the Panama Canal, and the International Space Station. And these are the projects that were COMPLETED... What about all the other big projects that never even got off the ground, or were abandoned along the way? Every major city has a building that is just a shell, unfinished. And that is for something mundane and well understood - real estate for office space... If we cannot complete a real estate transaction, what makes us think we can predict the financial markets - for the next 20 years - well enough to build this Elevator?

Now, branch out to the "unknown, and untried"... Financing for projects like that become very very sketchy.

My effort is focused on some specific mid-term goals:
we create advanced technology (see earlier posts/threads) and irregardless of whether the Elevator to Space is built or not, we generate revenues based on these new technologies. Then, if that works, and if the R&D comes back with a positive answer that the elevator is workable, then, we find the rest of the money...

That money will come from A) selling the spin-off companies/intellectual property, B) generating revenues from these spin-off companies, C) equity raises in the public markets - for both the main project, as well as for the (many) spin-off companies, and D) debt financing (again for the parent and the children companies).

Harvard Business School has an extensive website on Large Project Finance, and the rule of thumb for any program over $500M is that it will have a ratio of 40:30:30 - Government:Equity:Debt. How this is broken down will be a much debated topic, and we don't, yet, know enough to be specific, but in general we will rely - in part - on government research dollars for things like lasers, robotics, material science, and the various technology development.

Uncle Sam "invests" $200B in federal research grants. Now, let's be clear, they DO NOT CARE about an Elevator to Space. However, they do care about weather monitoring, better cars/planes/boats and computers. So, if we advance the state of the art in a field that happens to move the Elevator forward, I consider that a "Win/Win". And the research is going to be done anyway. Might as well be "us" that does it, while maintaining/promoting a larger goal.

As for the 30% Equity, I can't answer how that will evolve, because I don't know yet.

But that last 30%, of Debt, is already starting to happen according to plan. We want the Fed to underwrite bonds - for performance. US Mail underwrote the bonds for the railroads. They agreed to a price per pound of mail shipped from NY to SF. It was high enough to support the bond payments, and they could charge for other, additional cargo. We will do something similar, charging for cargo to space, LEO/GEO/Moon/Mars.

The DoD is proposing a similar venture, right now, in the form of Space Based Solar Power (http://www.nss.org/settlement/ssp/library/final-sbsp-interim-assessment-release-01.pdf
(this is a 75page, 3.5m PDF - Bob Munck Alert)

So, I think we have a reasonable chance at funding this thing - as long as we take it slow, and do it in an incremental fashion. I can promise you, no one is going to write us a $15B check this week... So we have no choice but to build this in stages. I suspect that the social/political/economical/legal problems are even more difficult than the engineering and construction will be.

You are right to be concerned about this.

Thanks for your concern.
Take care.
Michael Laine
President

October, 2031 for "First Lift"
That is our goal, anyway.

Our official Road Map is here: http://www.liftport.com/papers/SE_Roadmap_v1beta.pdf(Bob Munck Alert - it is a 1M, 7page PDF)

As for the second Elevator - I hope that is within 5 years. The beauty of this project is the 2nd is cheaper and faster construction than the 1st, and the 3rd is cheaper and faster construction than the 2nd! So, since I am unwilling to have a "single point of failure" on any project I work on, I am insisting on the 2nd ribbon being constructed right away!

As for honeymoons, I suspect Bigelow Aerospace will get you there sooner!

We are focusing on CONSTRUCTION WORKERS! :-) CommSats, factories and Space Based Solar Power will be our primary customers. So the people we ship up, will be people going to WORK, in orbit, on the Moon, or Mars, and eventually, colonists!

I think our very first customer will be CommSats, servicing, repair, and deployment.

I don't think the government will absorb the initial risk. See my earlier post on financing.

Take care.
Michael Laine
President, LiftPort Group

DARPA
We have met with DARPA a couple times. And the Air Force Research Lab once. The answer has been consistant - "yes, we think it is interesting, no, we don't think it is far enough along to officially support and fund".

My last effort with these guys was about 20 months ago. A lot has happened, and so I am actually going to DC again, next month. Cross your fingers, maybe the answer will change this time.

Take care
Michael Laine
President, LiftPort Group

P.S., let's hope we never have to live on a planet that has a "homeworld security agency"... That is the point I would move off-planet for good. At least "big brother" SOUNDED like it was in your best interests... :-)

Premature investment in DEPLOYMENT - perfect timing for R&D investment.
Right, we are simply 'not there yet', when it comes to knowing if this is possible or not. So, it does not make sense to invest in the actual construction.

However it IS the right time to commit capital - cash, braincells, equipment and time - to investigation. It is the right time to specifically research the list you stated - and the other topics I posted on an earlier thread.

The difference is that, if you research these precursor technologies, and the Elevator proves to be impossible, you still get a Return on Investment from your research.

That is all I am advocating at this time. Learn, Discover, Search, Explore - and IF the answers come back that it is possible, THEN work on construction.

I can assure you, you will earn more of a payback (fiscally as well as socially) in the research, then you will earn in YEARS of operation of the actual Elevator to Space. There are simply more revenue streams available from the precursor technologies, than the single revenue stream created by a functioning Elevator.

But the time to commit capital is NOW.

Take care
Michael Laine
President, LiftPort Group

LiftPort's Goals
The inital estimate from NASA's Institute of Advanced Concepts was for a Lifter that could carry 5T of cargo, every day.

LiftPort has revised that, and our goal is 100T of cargo, one trip per week, with scheduled repair and maintenance. We anticipate 50 trips per year.

This will go to GEO, or give you a boost if you want to get to the Moon or Mars.

Our goal price is $400/LB established with a 2003 value for the money. (Inflation will kick in, over the years, so we want to establish a baseline, and the company started in 2003, so that is where we work our financial numbers from.)

So ya, we intend to ship a lot of cargo.

Take care.
Michael Laine
President, LiftPort Group

a modern day eire canal
Still costs less than the Big Dig and no ceiling panels to fall and kill unsuspecting customers. i understand there will be free one way rides for the political classes

Leftists would tax it regulate it and then give it away to the UN
Lets face it. Leftists (aka liberals, democrats, socialists, victocrats etc) would bemoan the unfairness of its existence and heavily tax it, because, it would not be fair that we would have it and the rest of the world would not.

Then they would try to regulate it so that it is carbon-neutral (it will be made of 'carbon' nano-tubes after all). Don't forget the endless environmental impact statements and studies. Baba Boxer would probably bemoan the loss of polar bears as it is built. Pelosi would demand it is built away from San Fran., but SF would get a cut of any revenue. Kennedy would demand the same for Massachusetts. Some type of "revenue sharing" plan.

Then the lefties will bow to the UN's demand that the 'world body' has access to it. Of course, that means all the America-hating states will be able to use it at our expense. Imagine North Korea's little gargoyle riding the thing with Harry Reid or little Chucky Schemer along for the photo op.

Of course the so-called conservatives will probably demand some type of TSA derivative, call it the SESA - space elevator security administration, which the lefties would unionize, whose responsibility is to protect the elevatoring public from boots, 80 yr old grandmothers, nursing babies, water bottles, hand lotion and all the other stuff our present leftist government has banned from air travel. Might even throw in some bill outlawing abortions on the elevator.

Yes, the lefties will definitely have a field day with the elevator.

Just one question
What is the mass of the cable?

Erie Canal not justified overall
The thing is, the Erie Canal didn't pay for itself by opening up new trade. It just diverted Great Lakes trade from Montreal and Quebec to New York. It made sense for the USA, but taught a misleading lesson: that "internal improvements" were worth it. Actually, they nearly always benefitted the people lobbying for them at someone else's expense. The Erie Canal was unusual in that the losers were outside the USA, so the wrong lesson was learned. In the same way, a space elevator makes sense for a country that isn't in the space game already, but the USA would lose a lot of what it currently has (or could get back at little cost).

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