Summary of interview with David Raitt, recorded July 15, 2014 by Mark Dodrill
At the time of this interview I had been retired from the European Space Agency for heading on for 5 years and for the last 10 or 12 years, I was the Senior Technology Transfer Officer working at the main R&D establishment at ESTEC at Noordwijk in the Netherlands. The earliest recollection I have where anything was happening with a space elevator was when I went to an international workshop on futuristic space technologies in May 2002 in Trieste, Italy. There I met Bob Cassanova from NIAC who spoke about Brad Edward’s study on the space elevator. Brad was also at that conference and we had dinner a couple of times and he told me more about his ideas on the space elevator, and particularly the report for NIAC. After that we kept in touch and he subsequently invited me to the first space elevator conference, which took place in Seattle in August 2002. There I met other interested parties. I agreed to be the ESA contact and recruit and try to orchestrate European efforts to assist the program.
The things that interested me most about the concept of the space elevator were the very uniqueness and imagination of it. It appealed to me because I was always thinking outside the box and this led me to conduct a study in 2001 to look at innovative technologies from science fiction for space applications. The idea was to see whether it would it be possible to do those imaginative advanced things that they were talking about and describing in the sci-fi books and magazines of the 1940s and 1950s with today’s technologies or with technologies we knew were just around the corner. The space elevator was one of the concepts that we considered in that study, subsequently leading me to organize an essay competition, involving Brad Edwards. Prizes were offered, provided by Brad, for the best papers on the space elevator, and all the papers were published in a book that same year.
If I consider the most influential people in the concept of the space elevator, then Brad Edwards certainly has to be one right from the start. Another one has to be Michael Lane, who was very much in the early days with Brad, but then they split up with Michael setting up his own company. He has been influential in what he has done, and still is active today. Another one, of course, has to be David Smitherman who also did quite a big study of the space elevator for NASA in the early days, and that study was followed by another by Jerome Pearson on a lunar space elevator. Jerome is still very active today. Then there is Pete Swan who is one of the most influential people today – not only a prolific author in the field, but also the driving force behind trying to get the space elevator up and running in some form or another. Together we introduced the topic at the International Astronautical Conferences and there has been at least one, usually two or three, sessions devoted to the space elevator at every IAC since 2004. Two others from the more distant past who have to be the precursors of the ideas are Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Yuri Artsutanov. They wrote the original papers that led Brad Edwards, David Smitherman and Jerome Pearson to write more about the concept.
Besides the science fiction study and the competition and resulting book on the space elevator, I have also contributed several other papers, not really technical stuff, to the field. I wrote an illustrated paper on the space elevator in history, art, and literature. I did a paper on space elevator economics and applications – comparing the scale and costs of a space elevator with other mega construction projects. I was involved in another paper on the textile aspects of tethers. I was also the co-chair, along with Peter Swan, and a study conducted under the auspices of the International Academy of Astronautics on entitled Space Elevators: An Assessment of the Technological Feasibility and the Way Forward. This study culminated in a book of the same name published in 2014 and I was an editor for this publication. I have also written a couple of chapters and papers on the whole history of the space elevator and its place in conferences.
Although technology is moving forward in leaps and bounds, it will be at least 20 years or so until a space elevator is built – possibly by the private sector, or the Japanese, or even the Chinese (though we don’t know much about their plans). Besides funding, major stumbling blocks at this time are carbon nanotubes, made in proper lengths, joined together somehow, and fashioned into a giant ribbon. Also the skepticism of governments or space agencies and other priorities in conflict with space elevators need to be addressed. But there would be some major benefits of a space elevator for mankind. Getting rid of nuclear waste safely and efficiently would be one. Space based solar power would be another. Using the space elevator to haul up and store water in orbit for subsequent manned missions might be another. We have to convince the major players and possible investors on the value and benefits of the space elevator project so that they will invest and make it happen. More funds are needed for research and development and on aspects like ribbon production. But in fact a host of new industries would be created by the building of a space elevator, and others (such as the nuclear waste disposal industry or space tourism) would have a wealth of new opportunities and business.