The Space Elevator – So what’s in it for me?
What does a space elevator give us? In a nutshell, a Space Elevator provides us with a superior method to ship cargo (and eventually humans) into space. Right now, if you want to ship anything into space, you must use rockets. This will cost you several thousands of dollars per kilogram, the cargo will be subjected to severe ‘shake, rattle and roll’ and g-stress forces and you have to settle for a launch ‘success’ ratio in the 90-97% range (depending on which specific launch vehicle you’re talking about). Rockets also generate a tremendous amount of pollution.
This is inherent with rockets. We’ve had lots of really smart people spending lots and lots of money developing rocket technology over the past several decades and this is the best they can do, and, due to the rocket equation, probably getting close to the best they ever can do.
If you want to ship large quantities of anything into space, and you want to do so cheaply (relatively speaking to rockets) and reliably, you need to change the equation. Instead of using rockets, build a transportation infrastructure, a ‘railway line’ into space, Before the transcontinental railway was built, shipping humans and cargo between the east coast and west coast of America required a dangerous overland trip or else the use of ships to transport goods around the tip of South America. You could certainly do it, but it was expensive, often dangerous, and the amount of cargo was limited. The transcontinental railway changed all of that. Travel and Commerce between the eastern and western halves of America exploded now that there was a safe, reliable, and inexpensive way to ship large quantities of goods back and forth.
As the transcontinental railway opened up all of America to the vast majority of her citizens, a Space Elevator, a ‘carbon railway to outer space’, will open up space to a much larger part of corporate and private America than is possible today.
What kind of specific benefits could we expect to see from a functioning Space Elevator? As with the transcontinental railway, it’s impossible to foretell all of the uses of such an infrastructure, but here are some possibilities.
- Large scale manufacturing in a zero-g environment. If corporations can build manufacturing facilities in space at an affordable price, they will do so. Right now, the cost and weight penalties are too prohibitive to even consider the idea. A space elevator would change that.
- Colonization of the moon, Mars and other planets and satellites. Currently, establishing and supplying a 6 or 8 person science station on the moon (let alone Mars or anywhere else) is probably at the very limit of our capabilities. Allowing hundreds (or even thousands) of tons to be launched into space every day would allow us to colonize these other worlds. This would provide an insurance policy for humanity, an outlet for those with a pioneering spirit and, almost certainly, increased benefits here on earth as commerce between our planet and others was established.
- Space Tourism – A Space Elevator could provide a way that most of us could visit space, and even stay for a while if we wanted to.
- Clean Power – Though there are many debates about the economics of establishing solar power satellites to provide earth with clean, limitless power, there is no doubt that to do so will require the capability to launch enormous quantities of materials into space. Only a Space Elevator can give us that capability.
- More and cheaper satellites. Satellite technology has provided all of us with enormous benefits, from DirecTV to weather satellites to increased national security. Being able to lower the cost and increase the reliability of satellite launches will lead to new technologies that right now we can’t even imagine.
Scalable, inexpensive and reliable access to space will benefit all of us and a Space Elevator is the way to provide this capability.