ISEC Space Interview with Vern Hall, Interviewer was Mark Dodrill, during the 2014 ISEC Space Elevator conference in Seattle.
(Q) Can you please describe how you first heard about the space elevator?
(A) I heard of the concept in popular publications like National Geographic, in an article several years ago, and it is a very interesting concept. But it is only in the last 2 months where I have become more involved. Actually, I was approached by a old friend of mine, Michael Fitzgerald who is part of the ISEC (International Space Elevator Consortium) group, who wanted to talk to me about the Earth side of the Space Elevator, commonly called the Marine Node. That’s where my experience is in, building ocean structures. It was Michael and Peter Swan (President of ISEC) who got me excited about the concept.
(Q) The aspect that’s most interesting to you is the design and construction of the marine node?
(A) Correct. I am also interested in peripherally in some of the legal, policy, structural, and organizational aspects of the project. I have a lot of experience in putting together organizations that can pursue mega projects, which I will discuss later.
(Q) Given your mega project experience, what would you do to build the Space Elevator?
(A) Due to the wide range of issues that are present, I would first go out and hire 10 young lawyers, with international law experience, in the context of understanding laws of the sea. In my view, the Space Elevator project is going to require a marine base with an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), somewhere out on the ocean at the equator, where international laws of the sea would apply.
(Q) How can your background help with the Space Elevator project?
(A) One of the mega projects I worked on was with the Port of Los Angeles where I helped to create something called the Alameda Corridor. Los Angeles has a reputation as a big megapolis, where everyone goes everywhere in their cars. Back in 1980, we were developing the 2020 Plan, imaging what the Port of Los Angeles and the adjacent Port of Long Beach would look like in the year 2020, and what would need to be done to prepare to meet those future needs. We determined that the functions of the port would require a lot of trains, coming to and from the ports. And if you were to superimpose the amount of cargo and the number of trains we were predicting, on the grid pattern of streets, highways, and rail lines of Los Angeles, the results would be absolute and total gridlock. The trains are called unit trains and they are a mile long and take about 8 minutes to clear a single intersection. So if you have 250-300 intersections, and the trains have the right of way (which they do) you get total disaster. So, we came up with a plan to mitigate those potential impacts, deciding that the only way to do that was to create a consolidated corridor and force all port rail traffic on to that corridor. And we planned to grade separate it from all the major crossings, to limit the number of intersections that would be completely blocked when a train went past. Because we chose an existing rail line parallel to a street called Alameda Street, the project came to be called the Alameda Corridor. This corridor connected both Los Angeles and Long Beach to the intercontinental rail lines that already exist and serve the rest of the country. The project was, from concept to construction, over 10 years in the making. And, back to my point, about 5 of those 10 years were the politics, legal, structures, wrangling with multiple agencies, getting legislation passed to allow the two ports to fund the project, getting the cooperation of the lawyers and the management of the railroads, and not the technical and engineering details to get the project done. So, my advice for the all the people interested in building the Space Elevator is that while you are resolving all your technical problems, you ought to be handling all these other issues as well, from day 1. Because otherwise you can have all of the greatest science in the world, but if you can’t build it somewhere, it’s not going to do much good. So, I’m interested in what the marine node will look like, but I’m also advising that you better start doing your politicking, as soon and as often as possible!
(Q) Do you think the political/legal issues are going to be more significant than the technical issues? Or about the same?
(A) They just have to be tackled, you have to approach it as an engineering challenge, but you have to use different people to solve them. Instead of hiring scientists, you are hiring diplomats and lawyers and money people. You must approach it as another piece of the puzzle and don’t just assume that it will just happen. It must be tracked in concert with and interfacing with the rest of the overall plan. Obviously, it all comes together when you really start construction at the site, wherever that site might be. You have time, my message is don’t ignore it, since it takes so much time: get going on it right away.
(Q) On a different note, do you have a sense of who you think is going to be the entity that will actually build the Space Elevator? Do you think it will be private or the government?
(A) I hope it will be private. But I think it will have to be private or a quasi-private or consortium of sorts. I would guess that a piece of the US government will be involved, and maybe other governments too, possibly China, Japan, and/or Europe. But if it is going to be successful, it has to be something separate from the bureaucracy of any one government. It can’t come under Department of Defense (USA) or the Department of Homeland Security (USA). I don’t have all the details, but certainly there are many agencies have been created quasi-public or private/public partnerships that have been very effective.
(Q) Have you had the opportunity to try to explain the Space Elevator concept to other people? What is the analogy or the way you communicate the idea to the general public?
(A) Yes, I have spoken to a number of people about it and most everyone loves it! I usually make a drawing of Earth on a piece of paper, with a line going away from the Earth. I show the marine node down at sea level at the equator. I show the International Space Station, which is about 260 miles in orbit on the line away from the Earth. I show the Hubble space telescope, which is at 347 miles, and then we’ve got the apex anchor much farther down the line and then there’s the moon and Mars somewhere. But, it’s easy to explain, and I’ve got a lot of people excited about it.
(Q) What’s the reaction you generally get from people?
(A) Oh, they understand it, they grasp the concept of going into space slowly on the cable, instead of on a rocket. And in the case of my oldest granddaughter I showed this, she said “when can I sign up for the first ride?” And the concept of moving paying customers into space for a 2 week round trip luxury cruise basically in space is really sellable, I think. Of course, that is going to come after you do the commercial and industrial stuff. And maybe 30-40 years from now. And the science of it is something I’ve got my grandson interested in, who is currently a sophomore in Engineering at Long Beach State, studying Mechanical Engineering with a Math minor says “Hey this stuff is really right up your alley.” It’s the real world stuff that he should get interested in. It’s a neat thing.
(Q) What excites you about the Space Elevator?
(A) The thing that really excites me is what happens above the geosynchronous orbit node, and the ability to assemble things in space, probably by robots, and then shove them out the door and let them land on Mars. I don’t understand orbital mechanics but the concept is amazing. Just by pushing it out the door at the right time at the right velocity and acceleration, boom! That’s the real future of space. You get a free ride because all the energy has been paid to get out of Earth’s gravity. Awesome! People don’t laugh when I tell them about this. It’s quite exciting.
(Q) What would the 3 biggest impacts on mankind be, if the Space Elevator was built tomorrow and we started using it? How do you think that would change our world?
(A) I think the obvious one is the exploration of the other planets and the capturing and bringing back resources (space mining). To me that’s the biggest thing. Another thing is sending people up to see the Earth from space – space tourism. In one sense, it’s trivial, but it’s a good profit center — a cruise ship in space. A good family cruise today to the Caribbean is going to cost you 20 thousand USD, if you include your kids and grandkids. For the price of a one week cruise to the Caribbean, you could go into space for 2 weeks. It’s a no brainer. But, then I also think so much can be done with weightlessness as part of improving manufacturing — the practical things you can do in space, without fighting gravity are amazing.
(A) I think several people have said it. Once the space elevator system is in place, it opens the door for bright young people to come up with new applications of that system. In my lifetime there are many examples of that, most obviously in the computer realm. How many apps do you have on your phone today? That’s the beauty of having the Space Elevator as a private for profit enterprise, the market forces will allow people with new ideas will come in and do a simple business deal. No governments or studies or delays. And since it’s a business deal, it can be done. Just the opening of the door to entrepreneurs and to applied scientists and inventors, creates a whole new future that’s not currently available. For several million dollars you can book a 10 min flight on Richard Branson’s ship. In order to get the price down, it’s always been economies of scale. The power you have in your cell phone which you pay $200 for. If you had to buy that power 10 years or 20 years ago, you would be spending much, much more.
(Q) Do you have anything else you would like to share on this topic?
(A) I think it’s time to start refining the concepts for the marine nodes (plural), because I think there will be more than one. It’s not going to look like an oil drilling ship – it will be custom designed for the functions that yet to be determined. The good news is there are people out there who know how to do that.
(Q) It sounds like you volunteering for that, right?
(A) Well, I can’t do it myself, but I can organize. But I know people who put together things like that. The obvious example is an offshore semi-submersible, self-powered oil platform. A better model might be a ship that launches from equator, rockets into space, called Sea Launch. Sea Launch was produced by the joint efforts of private companies and governments. To me, this is a better model than an oil drilling rig. And going back to what a port does: a port is an interface to receive and distribute cargo. And so you custom design it for the type of cargo you are dealing with, and in the case of the marine node, the first ones can be extremely industrial, no hotels on it or hoteling required for the crew. And platforms have crew facilities some of which are very lovely, but we will probably need a full blown weather station and tremendous communication equipment linked with satellites. On the marine side, you are going to need to receive shipments of several types, not just the ocean-going tug, but ships that are going to be long range, high speed cargo ships that may be custom designed. Probably catamarans, or tri-hulls, that will be coming out of maybe Hawaii, or San Diego, or Ecuador, or some land side distribution point. If it’s truly a two-way elevator, each marine node would probably be two platforms, servicing going up and then coming down. So you may have little work boats: you will require intense security, you will need helicopter platforms, you will have small boats running around the perimeter, keeping everybody away, fighting off the pirates. I mean these are mundane things, but all of the systems are known and have to be applied properly. I think everything is on the right track here. It’s good that you have experienced engineers and scientists pushing this thing forward because some day a politician may come and say “I want a space elevator, and I want it tomorrow.” The Space Elevator community needs to be ready if this were to happen.
(Q) We really appreciate your help on the project and everything as a whole because the expertise you have in transportation systems.
(A) Many other people here understand that physics of space and orbital mechanics so I ignore those aspects. But then, the marine node and the communications center, the transportation elements is basically, it is a transportation project. And you have to move stuff, you are adding a new dimension. I used to preach this about the port industry, as I said earlier, the port is an interface that has to be efficient, and that’s the key word: move cargo, large volumes of cargo. In the case of ships, they continue to be the most efficient way of moving a lot of stuff over a long distance. For example, if you have a case of new Rolex watches you want to get to somebody, you put them on an airplane. But if you have a container full of Rolex watches, you going put it on a ship. And, by the way, there are containers that come into ports that are full of Rolex watches! So, you can have very high value cargo in a container, and you can have waste, recycled paper, shredded recycled paper in an container, you don’t know until you open when is in there. You can’t tell the difference, but the point is it doesn’t matter: the port interface it becomes a transition from the marine node, which is the marine mode of transportation, to a landside mode. Currently, there are 3 landside modes of transportation: train, truck, and pipeline. Now we have a fourth mode, extending into space: sending and receiving from space. It just adds another dimension. So, the Space Elevator is a transportation project. And if I can help in that area, focusing and bringing together the right players to pursue it as a transportation project on the Earth and in the water, maybe I can help with it.