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Interview with Dr. Bradley Edwards

Seattle, A Hotbed For Space Elevator Development?

KC: My jaw dropped when I went to my nearest Starbucks, saw your artwork on the wall, and realized that you lived in Seattle. How long have you been here? It doesn’t exactly seem to be a hotbed for space elevator work…

BE: I did my work for NIAC (NASA Institute For Advanced Concepts) here in 2000, and then moved back in June. I was working with people everywhere; most of the collaboration was virtual, and many folks I didn’t meet until the end. I don’t think I met Eric Westling until after we published our book (The Space Elevator: A Revolutionary Earth-to-Space Transportation System). A few people I’m currently working with I still haven’t met. I don’t work with people just because they’re local, I have to find people I think are the best. It depends on what I’m working on. It’s an effort that can be largely broken up into sections. “Here is the anchor station, go do it.”? Actually, it’s great that I don’t have to have everyone in the same room because it’s just not possible.

I tried to look up your biography on the Internet, and couldn’t track down some of the organizations you’ve worked in. Some of them are probably from the early Internet days…

We’ve been trying to get various projects started. A few were a few false starts, or in some cases just testing the waters. HighLift Systems was a Seattle-based company, and was one of those false starts. I closed it down. I’m not affiliated with LiftPort. I have worked with LiftPort’s founder Michael Laine a bit at HighLift in Seattle before we parted ways. [Not on the best of terms; juicy but unsubstantiated gossip about LiftPort removed, Meow!! –ed]

NASA Versus Private Industry

Did you see Michael Griffin’s interview in USA Today last week?

No, but I know the general gist. It’s not a surprise. In my mind the Space Shuttle and Space Station are not valuable efforts. It’s not what NASA should be doing. NASA is using technology from commercial enterprises, or very old technology from the 70’s to try and do space exploration. If they are going to be a real premier space agency, they need to be pushing it.

They should be doing stuff which looks to us like science fiction…

It shouldn’t be science fiction, but they should be pushing the boundaries and doing work that inspires. That’s what Apollo was. The technology for Apollo existed before the program started; they took that knowledge and pushed it to its limits, and it literally inspired the world.

I wasn’t around then, but it seems like peoplecared what NASA did back then. NASA has their Moon and Mars pictures up on their website, but I don’t know if anyone cares. If you squint as you look, you’d think it was 1970.

It is history; it’s old news. And since then, they’ve done very little.

It seems like there was a long-standing debate between rockets and the Space Shuttle. From where you sit, that’s like choosing between Nicki and Paris Hilton.

Even high up in NASA management, they won’t officially say it – but they have said it directly to me – that nothing substantial in space can be done with rockets. A federal program with lots of money can take some people up there, but it won’t be able to commercialize space. We’ve been going at it for thirty-five years now, and we’ve put up telecommunications systems and GPS. If there’s a buck to be made and a product to be built, it’ll get done. With current technology, I think we’ve developed space commercially as far as we can. We need something dramatically different—a brand new market, a brand new technology.

Economists should get that. How did trains and highways change America?

Private enterprise is starting to get it. NASA hasn’t shown much interest on the space elevator, but there are a number of private entities that have.

But we just laughed at a bunch of them: HighLift, LiftPort. Do any of them have billions of dollars?

There are real people with money and the know-how. To get it going you don’t need ten billion dollars. You’ll need a couple of billion up front, and a lot can be financed. For example, instead of money changing hands, you could approach Hyundai and, ignoring the issues of dealing with a foreign company, offer them 10% of the company. They could then supply the anchor station and the climbers or whatever. Either they as a company would invest, or maybe the government of South Korea would invest. But dealing with South Korea would bring up all kinds of technology transfer export issues which may make it unfeasible – perhaps a company like Exxon might be approachable. Private individuals, financial groups – there are a lot of people who could step up.

In principle, we shouldn’t be waiting for our government to throw big money at it.

No, no. We are getting a few million to develop the last needed parts of the technology, developing the high-strength materials needed, creating a Research and Development center, performing other engineering work, cleaning up some of the loose ends, and doing some promotional work to let people know the concept exists and where we are at with it. Money could be leveraged to get more development done until the risks are reduced; then we can approach the real people with money.

A space elevator seems like a task of the same complexity as the Apollo mission was, and maybe private enterprise could have tackled even that project. Perhaps the 21st century is different, but it seems like a task as big as that would require government’s involvement.

It is similar in size to that, but it’s also similar in size to the Boston Big Dig. It’s small compared to, say, rebuilding New Orleans in money or effort. There’s different technology and risks than the Apollo mission presented, but the full effort and capabilities aren’t that different.

The Apollo program didn’t have a commerical endpoint. It set a goal of putting a man on the moon, which it was an enormous engineering effort. But the space elevator is a commercial effort. The Apollo, the Shuttle, the Space Station were never that.

They certainly sold us on that vision…

They sold us on that vision, but it was never that way, which is unfortunate.

You present a vision in which we don’t need NASA. Perhaps that’s true, but if what NASA‘s doing isn’t useful to us, can they be refocused to help us? Is that a goal for you? Is it possible?

I’m not working toward that. I worked at Los Alamos and I’ve seen how NASA operates. Their primary goal is not the development of space. They are a space agency, but they are very political. It’s a political organization; it’s a federal agency. Even if one of the NASA centers became completely useless, it wouldn’t get closed down because there are thousands of jobs there.

They’re a huge organization and they’re doing lots of things.

Yes, and that means they can’t be focused. They can’t trim off something to go do something else. Their hands are very well tied because of the requirements of the real world and society’s constraints of what they can and cannot do.

I look at NASA as a company doing lots of interesting things. I can’t say whether ramjets and so forth is interesting, but it is research, and it’s their mission. So what part would you cut?

That’s exactly it – what part would be cut. For NASA to go off and do something new and different, they’d have to take people or build a virtual organization from all the different centers and work together, which is very difficult. So they’d have to start a new center because it’s difficult to reorganize or refocus the old stuff. It’s the same with the national labs.

So are you resigned to the fact that Michael Griffin’s successor is going to do another mea-culpa in 20 years? The space elevator will be flying on by, and NASA will be stuck with their tiny little rockets and lunar landers.

Well, NASA will continue to do what they’ve always done, which is to provide employment.

Employment?

That’s their primary goal. They can do research, and the space elevator would open up new areas for them to do cutting-edge research. In some cases they really are; in other cases, they are sort of floundering about trying be something that they aren’t. With a space elevator, NASA could build probes that they weren’t able to do before; they could do new research on different applications of the space elevator and new applications of space, but unfortunately NASA has trouble just doing the main infrastructure and large program pieces.

But they did build the Apollo, and the Space Shuttle is a tremendous achievement.

It is, but NASA is a different organization today. The Shuttle was designed in the 1970s, right after Apollo. Today, you have a very different organization with different capabilities.

But I don’t know if they’ve completely lost ‘the right stuff.’ They can maintain it, and they do understand it. Hasn’t that knowledge and experience been transferred from engineer to engineer? In the software world, there’s code rot because everyone who has worked on the code has since gone elsewhere.

They can maintain it because it’s all built up. They started the Shuttle in the 1970’s when NASA was still new and flexible enough to move into new areas and design a new program such as the Shuttle. Also it wasn’t far enough from Apollo that they could take people from there and go do it. Now, however, the idea of taking a fair chunk of people with very different expertise and focusing them on one mission is very difficult.

Apollo was fantastic. The Shuttle is an amazing machine. I look at the space elevator and think of it as doable, but by the same token I look at the Shuttle and ask myself how it could possibly be built. There are 3 million parts, it’s exremely complex, and it does work.

Do you think they have the technical skills anymore?

They have so many people with so many different skills – if you tried to put them all on the space elevator project, there would be a fair fraction of people that wouldn’t find a role.

NASA could just create new teams and move appropriate people over. I jumped from group to group in a software company, each time learning a new skillset…

Yes, but if you had a group of, say, geologists, would you put them on carbon nanotubes??

Okay, then, the space elevator doesn’t have work for them. You would let them continue their research.

But there are geologists and plasma physicists and people who design gamma ray detectors – all of these people have niches, some of which would be helpful, but a lot are simply overkill for what we need. They are studying planets and the moon and Mars and asteroids and such, but the organization is just hard to fit into a whole new entity. It would be like asking NASA to go and build ocean-going ships. You just can’t refocus an entire organization such as NASA.

Going back to rockets is a still big step for NASA. Perhaps you could say that forty years on and all they’re doing is updating the software, but even that is a large engineering effort.

There are real problems with that. If they were to start a new program to build a new launch vehicle (which is what they should be doing), grabbing an F-1 rocket for the new venture is reverting back to 1950’s technology. They are still going to have to redesign it, because that ‘50’s technology is no longer valid today. Why not start from scratch and do the best you can? In the end, NASA is still living with rockets, and it won’t turn into a self-sustaining endeavor. It will end as soon as the government funding is shut off, which it will be eventually. Administrations change and the world changes – eventually something else will happen that preoccupies the Administration, and they’ll say “We are done with this.”?

I think Bush thinks big enough to spend the political capital and billions of dollars, but you never know with future Presidents.

Yes, you’ll never know about the next one, or the next one after that.

I thought I remembered hearing about Mars and the date 2040, but I looked around and couldn’t find anything.

There isn’t a defined timetable beyond 2020, and that’s already four Administrations away.

We’ll still have John Roberts… One thing I’ve thought about is how rockets have made people lose faith in the mission. People look at the moon and say “F*ck it, why should we bother, we just got out of a gravity well.”? Our current technology limits our thinking about what’s possible and reasonable.

The moon is an ambition, but not a valuable end unto itself. If you’re going to go to the moon you need a goal, like setting up a base, or mining the moon, or installing solar power arrays or something.

I think Bush believes that it’s a 384,000 km warmup lap for everything else, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that.

Well, then the question is, “Why are you going to Mars?”?

We’ve always known that going to Mars is a good thing! We are just now coming to realize that going to the moon isn’t. We used to think the moon was a good thing.

Going to the Mars is a very complex endeavor, so you need to have a reason.

We’re convincing ourselves that going to the Moon isn’t a good thing, so convincing ourselves not to go to Mars seems to be next. At that point, no one will dream anymore.

If we are going to Mars just because it’s there, that’s not self-sustaining. It’s very likely that it will get killed once we’ve done it; then it will shut back down (just like Apollo) because it’s not self-sustaining. Then you go through the whole cycle again in another thirty years.

Someone from Slashdot made the comment that we’ll do this mission, pop open a brewski, and proclaim, “Yep, still got it.”?

Which brings up the problem that if China, South Korea or Europe plans out how to do it commercially, and for example gets infrastructures set up, then they’ll have a commercially self-sustaining enterprise which will spread out on its own, to the moon or Mars. That’s a real program, not pork.

It’s why countries came to North America. They didn’t come because the land existed, they came because of gold, furs, tobacco, lumber. If they had found barren rock, they would have just returned.

America as “the land of opportunity”? used to mean animals and trees…

And gold. Greed drives things. If we found something of value in space, and if someone thought they could make trillions of dollars from it, they would spend billions to go get it.

Alternative Energy Sources

You talk in your book about heavy Helium being a resource.

That section was primarily written by Eric Westling. It’s another resource in space that would require fusion technology to be developed further. If this technology became available, then we would need Helium-3.

Is this another example where our country is so politically backward with regards to nuclear technology that we just can’t take advantage of this resource yet?

Actually, I’m not sure if there’s been enough money in the right places to develop the technology. There are some efforts, but they may not be focused in the right directions. We should be working on this, because we are going to need it.

I read reports of more oil being discovered all the time, yet everyone believes we are going to run out, and so it’s very expensive.

There have been various studies done; the ones I believe say that in ten to fifteen years we are going to have real issues.

Saudi Arabia just recently doubled the amount of oil they thought they had in their reserves!

They’ve been doing that for years, upping their estimates on what they think they have, but they aren’t finding new oil.

You don’t think the environmental lobby has shut down research and exploitation of oil? It seems we aren’t allowed to drill anywhere or build new refineries, and now we wonder why it’s so expensive.

Most of the planet has been surveyed, and if there’s oil to be found, someone’s found it.

We’ve recently discovered these shale deposits…

Yes, but even beyond the cost of oil, there’s the cost of extraction, and if you have to dig up half of Canada to get to it, you’ll get to the point where it will take more energy to retrieve it than what you’ll get back from it. A colleague of mine spoke with Exxon, and some of their technical people said we have fifteen years.

There are pessimists everywhere. I know a bunch.

But Exxon is an oil company and they should be the optimists. The point in all of this is that we don’t know. It could be ten years, it could be fifty. We don’t have the information that’s needed, and someone needs to be pushing for it.

We will always have doubts until we go into space and realize the resources out there are infinite. There’s tons of solar energy and nuclear energy. Your book talks a lot about energy.

With the space elevator, we can create a huge solar array. We’ll tap into this energy, and it won’t run out. We won’t have to deal with oil glitches and stock market glitches and potential environmental glitches.

I’ve thought about solar arrays, and I’ve wondered whether E=mc2 proves we should be utilizing nuclear power because it’s easier to transport mass than energy.

That’s great, too. We can do nuclear power – if you have the fuel and make it safe so it doesn’t glitch – then you’ll have the energy.

Space And The Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism

It’s a post-9/11 world, and everyone now realizes the threat of terrorism. If our government said that we should build it on land to protect it, is that possible? If we build more than one, why worry so much about where the first one is?

The reason we picked that position, straight down from California, is because there are no hurricanes, no lightning, no winds, and it’s out of the way. Someone flying an airplane will be spotted 400 miles away.

That would require a huge amount of infrastructure. Protecting something in Nevada, we’re set up to do.

You still have people driving the roads through there, hanging around outside Area 51, and so there would be the potential for terrorists to strike with shoulder-fired missiles. The U.S. pretty much controls the oceans – we have a heck of a Navy. Any incoming airplane could be easily shot down way before it became a threat. The middle of the ocean is very secure. With land, you have to secure the roads, clear out the access.

It is inaccessible, therefore making it more expensive to get people there.

Initially it would be cargo that’s needed, and the cheapest way to move something is on a ship – one ship out of Seattle could contain enough climbers to keep the space elevator going for a year.

It would depend on the infrastructure and how many experts and support staff you have on site to keep it running. What if you needed a million square feet?

We aren’t talking about thousands of people. Sea Launch has tens of people.

Tens? What if we needed a thousand people?

If you need a thousand people, then you would need a cruise ship, or more floating platforms, supply ships, etc.

If we are going to build more than one, are they all going to be located in the same place? Asia will get one eventually, if they don’t get one first.

You could put a number of them in the same place, but once we start building and understanding them better, we can put them on land as well as in other locations. You could put one in parts of Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia. After we build the first one and have a better understanding of what’s going on, we’ll have a lot more options with subsequent ones.

Elevator Thrust

MPDs seem like a good idea to power the climbers because they are seventeen times more efficient than chemical rockets.

It’s electric propulsion. They’ve been developed and tested in various labs including at Princeton and some labs in Moscow. They have been developed at pretty much the size we would need, and they can be run for five hundred hours without degradation. The space elevator doesn’t require MPDs; chemical rockets could be used but they’re less efficient. On the other hand, it takes much longer to get from low earth orbit to high earth orbit with MPDs; – rockets are much faster, you just flip the switch and they head on their way. So there are some tradeoffs with each.

Both need fuel.

With MPDs, we talk about beaming them up.

Err, you would need something which shoots out the back, even if it doesn’t combust.

Yes, propellant. They accelerate faster than what you get out of chemical rockets, which is why it’s more efficient.

We’ll Need to Get India Working On a New Kama Sutra

Your book talks about a hotel in 0.1 g space…

Probably the first efforts in tourism will be a climber with glass windows. You could put forty people on and charge them $20,000 – $30,000. They’ll go up a couple of hundred miles, have dinner, spend eight hours, and then come back down. That could be a very good market for the elevator.

Next, you could expand upon the living quarters up in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). The solar power arrays and satellites will be up there, so the infrastructure and crews will be needed to maintain them, and so forth. One of the problems will be the radiation belt between here and there, so the transportation would need to be sped up, or the radiation shields improved. If you are sending up tourists they’ll want to be comfortable, so you either need more shielding or it has to be faster.

Space tourism will be limited by the long trip to GEO.

The space elevator has been planned around current technology in which speed is mostly a function of power. Once the elevator is built, people will be working on improving its speed, and will improve other areas and shrink the transport time from eight days to one; thus radiation becomes less of an issue. You will have to design the climbing system and the treads such that they won’t be damaged at higher speeds. Tourism is viable in the long-term, but these issues have to be dealt with first. It’s not the first market, but it will happen.

Two hundred miles up (about where the Space Station orbits) is a lot closer than 14,000 km up, where your book talks about at which, with the speed of your climbers, is seventy hours of travel.

14,000 km up is right in the middle of the radiation belt, so you don’t want to go there. You could build a hotel hanging on the ribbon. Alternatively, you could just have a car which is self-contained. Forty people, three trips per day, and $20,000 per person would make it viable. A second elevator would cost one-third as much as the first, so it becomes doable.

You wouldn’t build it like the ISS (International Space Station) where people get out and meet up with the hotel?

To do that, you’d need a rocket to catch up, and then use it for coming back down. Then, you’d just have a re-entry probe.

Why not just do the reverse?

A re-entry problem would be easier. There are lots of different options. You wouldn’t need to get out of the elevator though. It would take a few hours to get up there, and it would be enjoyable from the moment you left till you got back. The whole time spent is enjoyable without getting off the elevator.

Lunar Elevator?

Okay, so we have the space elevator. To get to the Moon, we’d build a lunar elevator?

Jerome Pearson has been talking about that idea. I’m not a big fan of the lunar elevator because there are a lot of complications and fewer economic reasons. Asteroids are a lot easier to put elevators on. We can do that with current materials if we have an economic reason to do it. The moon is a little more difficult because of its slow rotation. Asteroids and Mars are easier, but what will drive the project is the economic return. It also depends on what the goal is. If all of our activities are on the moon, then that’s where we go. If we are going to Mars, then we go there next. If we are mining asteroids, then we will be sending elevators to all the asteroids we can get to.

I’m not sure if we need to be mining asteroids yet…

I don’t think it’s a near-term opportunity. I think it’s something which will happen eventually, when we have a lot of other projects going on in space. The first projects will be solar-powered satellites and telecommunications.

Nanotechnology

Everyone focuses on nanotechnology as being the only challenge, but really its only the first. President Bush has increased spending by 83% for it since 2001. It seems like we must be on the cusp of something.

There’s what’s called the National Nanotechnology Initiative. When I was looking into it, the budget was a billion dollars. But when you look closer at it, it is split up between a dozen agencies, and within each agency it’s split again into a dozen different areas – much of it ends up as SBIRs and STTRs and turned into $100,000 grants. We looked into it with regards to carbon nanotube composites, and it appeared that about thirty million dollars was going into high-strength materials – and a lot of that was being spent internally in a lot of the agencies, in the end there’s only a couple of million dollars out of the billion dollar budget going into something that would be useful to us.

It’s pork. It doesn’t have focus.

It doesn’t have focus, and it’s spread out to include everything. You get a little bit of effort in a thousand different places.

You wonder whether the efforts are duplicative…

A lot of the budget is spent on one entity trying to play catch-up with whoever is leading. Instead of funding the leader, they’re funding someone else internally to catch up.

Payload Physics

Talk a bit about bootstrapping payloads to a twenty-ton elevator, and what would be next after that. I worry that starting with twenty tons would be a bottleneck, even though it’s two orders of magnitude greater than what NASA can do today, given the time it would take to build an elevator.

A two hundred ton elevator will become reasonable and commercially viable once we get the costs to where we believe they are going to be. We chose twenty tons, as this is what we know will be the first viable step. Thirteen tons is a good payload on a 20-ton climber, and will prove to be very valuable. What happens after that – well, we can plan all we want. When the first one starts operating, then there’ll be somebody saying, “ two hundred tons is great, but we need three hundred tons, and it has to do this, and this, and this…”?

But each order of magnitude is a milestone in itself, and so we need to start at the right place.

Yes, but the basic physics don’t change, and the operations don’t change. To give some perspective, two hundred tons is like the size of a large commercial aircraft. We can build a climber that size, and a ribbon that will hold it. It’s all things that can be done. Ramping up to that size is a matter of will; there aren’t any physical constraints.

Waiting For Our Overlords To Wake Up

This interview is depressing. We haven’t broken ground and it isn’t clear if NASA could be helpful.

From the inside, we’ve got a lot of things going on, even though we haven’t started construction. That book of mine came out a couple of years ago; before that, space elevators were the stuff of science fiction. We’ve gone from science fiction to this idea showing up in a lot of places – various magazines and in real serious discussions in mainstream forums. It’s showing up in high-level discussions at NASA and European Space Agencies and other places like that. We also have a lot of efforts which aren’t solidified yet, but if if any one of of them comes through, we’ll be on a real good track to make this idea happen.

Living in the 21st century, fifteen years just seems too long. It’s like saying that it’s going to take fifteen years to rebuild the Gulf coast after Katrina.

There are limits on how fast you can do things. But if we got more money, it can go faster. I’m a scientist so it’s my nature to be realistic. The project has a couple of years of development and the assumed hurdles with regulatory committees, as well as going out for bids on contracts.

None of that’s engineering though. If you killed all the lawyers and bureaucrats, how long would it really take?

When we’re finished with the development, we would still have some work on the materials yet to complete. If we really pushed everything, we could get it up and running in five or six years. That’s pretty tight. Our estimates are seven or eight years, but if we really pushed it it could happen sooner. It would take a couple of years to build things, and then a couple more to increase the strength of the elevator. But one could use more launches or bigger launches to get a bigger first ribbon to cut back on things a bit. There are things you can do to tighten up the schedule, but I’m trying to be a realist. If you promise something in five years, then five years later you’d better have something. Large infrastructure and power plants take time to get built.

The money will eventually come. With a space elevator, the day you build it and the first elevator you send up, the value of the company will easily become ten times what was put into it, with just the market that’s available; and that’s assuming you don’t do anything intelligent like build the next one at a much lower cost, or develop new commercial applications, etc.

You’re basically saying that if we could launch ten times more stuff into space than we do today, we would still max out that capacity…

Once you’ve got the elevator, you’re able to transport lots of stuff up there. The company that operates the space elevator could then put up the telecommunications satellite, and become the telecommunications owner for the whole planet. Then they could put up solar-powered satellites and own the power producing capability for the planet. That’s a ridiculous amount of money and power involved. And if they really wanted to go hog-wild they could say “You know what? We are just going to take Mars! We are the only ones who can get there.”? At some point the implications get crazy. So yes, there will be a pretty big return on it once it gets built.

Software Versus Hard Ware

A lot of space elevator supporters are software geeks. Any thoughts for them?

There are a lot of software challenges involved. The system isn’t a whole lot different, but there are new uses being created for robotics and autonomous operations. I think a lot of that is currently being developed for factories. There’s more need for robotics, but I think the software requirements will keep up.

You should be worried about it! The Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers nearly died because of software bugs, and the Denver Airport’s luggage system failed because of software. I suppose God has provided harder physics problems than software problems in the short-term.

We’re always going to have software glitches, therefore we have to plan for them. But the elevator will allow us to send up whatever computers we want. It doesn’t have to be a specific little piece of software for a specific piece of hardware, like what was designed for the Mars mission. A space elevator can use software that has been tested by a million people.

The Trillion Dollar Question

I think you should have your Natan Sharansky moment with President Bush…

There’s been discussions, and hopefully the twenty books you’ve sent him will spur them into giving me a call. A lot of this is just getting into the front door. I’ve briefed all levels of NASA except for the administrator in the past, but I haven’t really tried to recently because we’ve got a lot of activities going on and I don’t know where NASA would play a role.

One challenge we face is that if NASA gets involved, it can tie up the technology development. If government funds it, then government owns it – you may lose control of the technology which could be valuable to private enterprises. We have to be careful how we set everything up to avoid burning bridges.

What I think is going to happen is that someone will develop the first elevator. After that, there’ll be a rush to build five more. You can run off a list of who will be building it: DoD (Department Of Defense) will want one, a couple of private entities will want one, the Europeans will want one. Those five will be built independently of who builds the first one, whether it’s the US, China, private enterprise… Regardless, the next five will be built. After that we lose complete control; they get bigger, they get more of them. We’re only worried about building the first one.

This is an enormous industry which needs to develop. I come from the IT industry, and I think of this as something on that order of magnitude.

It is literally a multi-trillion dollar per year industry. There are real markets that you can run the numbers for, and it’s well over a trillion – that’s just launch revenues. Add on top of that the value of the products that will be launched.

I think this picture summarizes why we shouldn’t follow NASA’s vision. There are a couple of guys, a cute little space ship, and an American flag…

Or, we can have a city up there. I sent a proposal to NASA which cut the cost of the moon-Mars initiative in half, and what it ended up being was a settlement of 100 people on the moon and Mars with all kinds of infrastructure and supply depots and everything else – the money wasn’t being spent on the launches.

It would be great if we could get NASA involved but I don’t know where they would fit, and I don’t feel obligated to get them to fit. If private enterprise comes up and says here’s the money, lets go do it, then we should do it. There’s a whole lot more money in the private side of our economy than the public side. So if a project comes up which has a good business case, then private enterprise will get right on it. In terms of resources that NASA could reallocate, it’s pretty limited. A lot of their resources are tied up, unless they were to shut down one of their centers. The billion dollars a year they’re spending on is all they could scrape together without firing people.

I talked with Michael Griffin many years ago and he’s a very interesting individual. I may go talk to him at some point again, and see where things might fit, but currently I’ve got my hands full with other avenues that look promising. I’ve been briefing NASA on a regular basis for a couple of years, and not much has come out of it. I’ve started talking to private industry and things happen a lot more quickly, so naturally I’ve gone down that route. With NASA, you can fight just to get a $100,000 grant.

Spoken with Arthur C. Clarke lately?

I’ve sent a few e-mails to him and he’s written me a couple of notes. He’s very supportive of our ideas. He just wrote a letter to the London Times regarding NASA and space elevators. That’s where he mentions that his fifty-year target has dropped to twenty-five years. He spoke at one of our conferences as well, in which he said it would be ten years, so he’s changed it a few times. He’s been a good supporter. In fact, we have a lot of people who are good supporters. It’s amazing how far things have come in the last five years or so…

I created a poll. Pretty please vote! Update: <5% of readers are voting! I will install spyware on your computer which drinks all your vodka and cuts the whiskers off your cat unless you vote! 🙂 Thank you.

85 comments to Interview with Dr. Bradley Edwards

  • Andrew Taylor

    Very informative. Thanks for posting it.

  • Nice article. It is always nice to think about what could be and what should be. I need to get out and do something.

  • Something no one ever mentions: how is the multi-ton lifter supposed to grip the ribbon all the way up? The ribbon starts out narrow and thin (30x1mm?), at the ground, just big enough to support a lifter, which has (many!) pairs of drive wheels gripping it. It has to get wider and, maybe, thicker, higher up, to hold up both the cars and the part of the ribbon hanging below. At the top it’s got to be big enough to hold up 36M meters of ribbon, and all the cars you have running. The ribbon can only get so thick and have the car still be able to grip it. Does it just get wider, with the part further from the edge rolled up? Or will it look like a regular cable, higher up, with a ribbon attached along one edge?

    Presumably there have to be more than one ribbon — at least one for traffic up, and one down.

  • Drew Bomhof

    The energy component was very interesting. This idea is exciting! I’d love to see it come to fruition. Excellent write up!.

  • Gary Goldberg

    Thank you for writing up the interesting conversation. I think the best part is Dr. Edwards’ confidence seems so high despite the bureaucratic and funding problems — after having been through all that and he still thinks we should see this developing within a decade — it makes me very excited for the possibilities.

  • Jimmy

    Great article. Gives perspective on many of the hot topics of today.

  • Tal Rotbart

    Excellent interview, very illuminating and interesting. Especially interested as it gave a true taste for the feasilibity and status of the space-elevator effort.

    One small issue, regarding the section in the interview discussing energy and oil.

    The problem with oil, is much more acute than previously thought. And it is not due to level of oil left to be extracted, at least not in the short term.
    The problem that is becoming apparent is that the current ability to extract oil has reached its upper limit.

    Oil prices are rising because while the demand for oil still grows, the supply levels stay the same.

    And they have stayed the same for the last couple of years. Demand is growing, especially from China and India…

    Expect oil prices to rise even more than they have. We need alternative energy sources and distribution channels, and quickly.

  • R. Dale Thomas

    A most excellent read. I enjoyed it and many of its links. Thank you for the opportunity to read this interview. I hope that I am still around when the project succeeds.

    rdt.

  • Patrick Davis

    As someone who is just getting into computer science and robotics, this just thrills me to hear. I would love to be involved in a project like this one day.

  • It’s also my impression of NASA as being a likely slowing influence rather than an positive influence. Public money does have quite a nice effect in the way of prizes. I could imagine a 100 Million prize would spur commercial development pretty successfully, without involving the government research red tape.

  • This guy has a seriously depressing commercial attitude. His focus is clearly the bottom line, and not what may be in the best public interest.

    Sounds like he’s focused more on the financial side of things, not only the cost but also the potential profit.

    Just what this planet needs is monopolistic control of research & commerce in space. Or did I misunderstand him?

  • I agree with Dr Edwards that this is a project of potentially strategic implications, both of an economic and a geopolitical nature. I am worried though that he is too dismissive of the importance of NASA in exploiting this opportunity. It may be true that it has become too bureaucratic and unwieldy to take on a leading role in space exploration, I am not in a position to tell, being on the wrong side of the ‘pond’ (in the UK). However this ignores its crucial role in providing critical political support for any potential space project. The prospect of a private business establishing an overwhelming lead in space exploitation just will not be ignored by the powers-that-be in Washington, and it seems likely that the US Government will become intimately involved, even if only the Navy providing defense capabilities for the ground-station.

    Dr Bradley is not as much of a realist as he claims I am afraid, and judging on this interview only I would say that this is likely the last we will be hearing from him. Perhaps ‘crank’ is too harsh a word, but he just does not seem to be serious.

  • Mark Rein-Hagen

    Hope lives everlasting, and somehow I believe again. This miserable lump of mud upon which we are lay is ever more crowded, corrupted and infested with the ilk of adam; its about time we found a way to return ‘the garden’ to a garden. The end goal for the human race must be that we get-off-earth. Sounds like, at long last, we finally have a plan. Kudos.

  • prefetch

    so, why not approach richard branson (virgin), or paul allen or bill gates. they have many billions of dollars, and are certainly interested in commercial endeavors. they could certainly make this happen if they wanted to.

    so i think one of these must be true:

    1 – edwards et al are too clueless to ask these guys.
    2 – upon careful scrutiny, they’ve decided it’s all bunk.
    3 – they’ve decided edwards et al aren’t the right people for the job

    good interview, edwards seems like a thoughtful guy, and i think his realistic view of the commercial connection required to make it happen is spot on.

    my $.02

  • […] Keith Curtis took advantage of being in the same coffee shop and got an extensive interview with Dr. Bradley Edwards of the SpaceWard Foundation. Edwards is a leading researcher in the effort to develop a space elevator and after working on the concept and then the actual effort for years he can handle what might seem like tough questions easily. […]

  • ahh

    I don’t think the space elevator is a short term possibility. Here are my thoughts. First, the elevator will have to be located on the equator, no getting around this. Second, it will have to be very tall. It has to go beyond geosynchronous orbit. This is 22,240 miles above mean sea level. There has to be enough mass beyond the altitude of geosynchronous orbit to balance the weight of the part of the tower below the altitude of geosynchronous orbit. The part beyond this altitude exerts an outward force due to centrifugal force which has to balance the weight or downward force of the lower part. Of course, the higher one goes on the elevator, the less the wieght since centrifugal force increases with height, so that it equals and counterbalances the force of gravity at 22,240 miles up. Another obsticle is that there is no material stronge enough that can be produced today to build this elevator. Lastly, no one is talking about orbiting space junk. This junk orbits in multiple directions and the risk of impact is great and potentially catastropic. The only reason that there has not been a space flight lost to a space junk colision is that the space missions are carefully planned to avoid known space junk. This elevator will also be a target for terrorism. Can one imagine what would happen if the elevator were to fail? If it were to be transected, part would fall down and part would fly outward into space, beyond geosynchronous orbit. The part that would fall down would fall along the equator for miles, not straight down. The actual descent would be a combination of falling down and toppling over.

  • ahh

    Here is a good web site:

    http://liftoff.msfc.nasa.gov/academy/TETHER/spacetowers.html

    Another point – As the elevatory car and payload ascend on the elevator, there would be a sideways force on the elevator structure. The car and payload have to acquire a lateral speed, in the direction of the earth’s rotation, which increases with altitude. This lateral speed relative to the earth’s surface would be zero at ground level and would increase to thousands of miles per hour at geosynchronous orbit. I forget how fast it needs to be, but I am pretty sure it would be over 20,000 miles per hour. Now this sideways force could be balanced by have an equal mass descending while a car is ascending. But, these forces would not be acting at the same level, except when the cars pass each other. I still think the topic of space junk is the most serious obsticle, once the structural materal and maufacturing process are invented.

  • […] An interview with Dr. Bradley Edwards, a big proponent and really smart guy on space elevators. I really hope that I see the development of these in my lifetime, and the jump in technology and innovation that’ll come with them to benefit society. The world will be an amazing place when you can spend a couple of days in transit and end up in space! […]

  • Nathan Myers Something no one ever mentions: how is the multi-ton lifter supposed to grip the ribbon all the way up?

    IIRC There has been at least one paper presented on this topic at one of the three Space Elevator conferences. Short answer – rollers clamped to the ribbon.

    BM5k This guy has a seriously depressing commercial attitude. His focus is clearly the bottom line, and not what may be in the best public interest.

    If you think Edwards if focused on the bottom line, you should see those guys at Liftport. High school kids for admin staff (they’re cheap), interns doing actual work and not make work. Hiring kids right out of grad school. The horror.

    It is possible for what private interests and the public interest to coincide. I certainly think so at any road.

    Just what this planet needs is monopolistic control of research & commerce in space.

    I think the ‘first company to build the SE controls space’ meme is overblown. No doubt there will be a great advantage to that outfit of course. But we’ll be better served with a diverse space launch infrastructure.

    Ahh don’t think the space elevator is a short term possibility. Here are my thoughts.

    A number of your objections are answered in published papers and ongoing research.

  • Raymond N. Cox

    I was disappointed that there were few technical details such as what would be tested soon.
    I suggest a few kilometers of rotating tether, mostly kevar with a few threads of CNT = carbon nano tubes) in LEO = low Earth orbit with a climber laying a thead while powered from Earth’s surface by a laser. After the tread is laid, the climber should be used to generate a variety of trancients in the ribbon, then be used to surpress these trancients. If these basics can’t be done, the elevator will have little utility even if it can be built. Neil

  • Upward Mobility

    (Via The Speculist) A long interview with Dr. Bradley Edwards, the man who is perhaps most responsible for the recent interest in space elevators. Many thanks to Keith Curtis for going out and getting the story. This interview is depressing….

  • ally kendall

    I’d like to know what the supposed regulatory hurdles are to building something in international waters.

  • More chatter about that space ladder

    Plenty of discussion ensued here a month or so ago when I broached the subject of space elevators. So I thought I would share this recent interview with Bradley Edwards, a space elevator proponent and founder of Carbon Designs, one…

  • […] Via Instapundit: An interview with Dr. Bradley Edwards. Space elevators are the ultimate in space exploration, much like fusion energy is the ultimate in power generation. I once wrote a short story that did not get published that was a takeoff on space elevators, so I have had an interest in the technology for over 20 years. […]

  • I’d like to know what the supposed regulatory hurdles are to building something in international waters.

    I am not a subject matter expert but any launch system is governed by various treaties and protocols.

    Glenn Reynolds (I think) touched on this lightly in TCS. Among other interesting ideas if the SE is legally a tall building .. is it a space launch system or a bulding you shove things off of that happen to end up in orbit? Or a boat with a very tall mast.

    I can see a required, but useless beacon light on the top to warn off traffic. Useless but required if the structure is legally a building …

  • Nathan Myers

    The bit of ribbon gripped by the cars’ pinch wheels amounts to a road. Roads wear out. I wonder how you attach a new 36K km “road surface”, and how often you have to do it. That was why I thought of the ribbon just getting wider, instead of thicker.

    Maybe each car going up lays down another micron-thick layer behind it, extending 30um beyond the edge of the (1mm thick) surfaces it grips. If the cable is flat, it can grip both edges (with the extra between bowing out as it the car ascends), and add to one edge while it trims the other. Laying 30mm x 1um, the car would have to lay about 1 cubic meter of ribbon (or 2.5 tons), and shave or burn 1mm x 30um from the other edge.

  • […] An interview with a seattle space elevator guru, via instapundit: How did trains and highways change America? […]

  • James Martin

    “The world will be an amazing place when you can spend a couple of days in transit and end up in space! ”

    The world is an amazing place now, both in positive and a negative ways. We’ve already seen science-fiction inter our homes in dozens of products, not the least of which are PCs. Nothing surprises me anymore.

    My one curious question is: which goes up first, the space station at the end of the ribbon or the ribbon and how do they get them up?

  • Reid

    Has anyone out there read about how they expect to provide torsional stiffness to this space elevator to keep it from twisting around like a rope? How about stability? This thing would have a huge number of significant modes excited by all the atmospheric disturances from zero to 100 miles above the Earth, all the diurnal forcings, tides, thermal gradients… Where is it going to dissipate all that input energy to keep from breaking up like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge?

    In my view, this concept is highly implausible.

  • Pika Chu

    IIRC, some speculative science looked into using EM energy induced into the strand to power lifters. Problem was, so much energy is induced into the strand you have a huge power management issue. Not just static electricity and lightning strikes, but huge currents from swinging a strand through magnetic and solar radiation fields. The article suggested the strand anchors would host power stations.

    But it’s better than chemically punching huge holes in our fragile ozone layer every time a shuttle goes up.

  • mikem

    Thanks to Dr. Edwards for sharing his knowledge and opinions.
    I am excited by the concept and pleased that there are people talking up the idea. Other than a possible railgun system, it is the only way we will ever live and explore off planet as people rather than as agents of governments . But I think there are many who are downplaying the costs, the required technological breakthroughs and the chances of success in the near future (say, a hundred years). I think the poll, citing a billion dollars as the required investment, to be depressingly naive if it is meant to be taken seriously.

  • KeithCu

    The only breakthrough is in materials science, and it is nothing more than aligning carbon molecules into very simple patterns to generate very strong bonds. If you think it will take 100 years or more to master that simple assignment, you don’t understand what mankind has achieved in the last 100 years.

    I didn’t mean that a billion was the required investment, but that it that would be a reasonable way to declare mankind as having officially embarked. The current investments are only in the hundreds of thousands or millions…

  • mikem

    Thanks for replying. The billion as in commitment money? I bet we have done that just in nanotechnology investments. But I understand what you mean. You want to see a billion with ‘space elevator’ attached to it. I’m for that.
    The reason I think that a space elevator is so far off is not because of material development per se, which you rightly point out could happen quickly. It is because of the all or nothing aspect of a geosynchronous (a given requirement?) space elevator. As in all 30,000 plus kilometers of it the very first time. Whether government or private development, that is a tremendously risky and expensive commitment based on what will have to be newly developed esoteric materials, and 30K plus of it to boot. There can be no beta versions with geosynchronous. It will take more than material development to gain that type of confidence in the concept. We will have to have decades of experience with the material to be safe along with the need to allow market forces to lessen the cost per pound.
    I think railguns are our best chance for ‘cheap’ material (not human, G forces) transport to orbit in my or my children’s lifetime. (I’m 51) My reasonable fantasy is to see humans on Mars, permanently. (Might as well be a permanent base, given the 2-3 year turnaround time.)
    Thanks for your effort in maintaining your blog. I enjoy reading about others making my fantasies a reality. To be able to comment also is just icing on the cake.

  • KeithCu

    I’m not sure if we’ve spent a billion on high strength materials and yes I meant a billion attached to a space elevator.

    You could think of maintenance of the ‘ribbon’ as an ongoing learning process, like the learning process to maintain highways. How well did people understand how to maintain highways in 1930? What was their understanding of the science of the materials? In the 21st century, I believe we have the understanding and do not need decades of research to get there.

    I do agree this is an important thing to focus on. The key is to build something maintainable, easy to make better over times. However, maybe the first one has only a 10 or 20 year lifespan because it doesn’t nail that. That’s okay, its enough to get us going to build future elevators.

    The problem with railguns is the Gs. It has to be very high Gs which destroy everything (certainly humans but also anything else you’d want to put up, like a satellite) or very huge at which point it is a space elevator. If you build something that has 3G acceleration, it has to pretty much be the length of the space elevator.

    At 3Gs, it will take a couple of thousand seconds to get to escape velocity, but the length of the railgun required is:

    D = 1/2 at*t

    Railguns only make sense as a weapon given the t*t, I think.

    Readings the comments (both here and elsewhere) is one of the best parts of having a blog!

  • Space Elevator News

    Well, not so much news, but an interview with Dr. Bradley Edwards.

  • John Blake

    Easily fifteen years ago, literature on “sky hook” feasibility emphasized that it was not a “space program” as such, but a standard engineering project awaiting materials-development of “fictionite”– high-tensile strands with about 100 times existing strengths. Given fictionite, the mechanics of sky-hooks become no more esoteric than designing extremely long-span, verticle suspension bridges.

    The gee-whiz component of anything to do with “space” has long since ceased to be amusing. It is a romanticization of a solid work-a-day reality, whose potential is indeed fascinating, but no more so than any other technological innovation.

    Soon enough, technology will seed Mars, perhaps even Venus, with self-reproducing “robots” sufficient to terraform those planets. Then we design cybernetic organisms, based on human capabilitiies but different, to inhabit them, without waiting for evolution to fit templates. All very wonderful, but from a perspective of 2505 quite unremarkable– even primitive.

    In 2113, Earth will move again through an annular ring of dust in the inner solar system. As happens every 800 years, there will be a decade or so zero growing seasons followed by a Little Ice Age, which in this case may tip us into a real one– 120,000 years of building ice sheets, miles deep glaciation to latitudes below that of Manhattan Island.

    Wouldn’t be a bad time to lift off, and stay off, Planet Earth. But romanticizing fictionite will only retard the process.

  • DensityDuck

    Hey, you know what would be even better than a space elevator? Anti-Gravity!

    Why are we wasting all this money on space-elevator research? With just a few easily-forseen technological breakthroughs, we could have anti-gravity!

  • mikem

    Amazing. Even science blogs have trolls. Talk about a geek’s geek.

  • This stuff is way past my knowledge to give constructive criticism. But the naysayers? Che! Space Junk? Space Junk? Merry Maids will be sweeping up in a matter of months and selling the stuff on E-Bay.

    Anyway, I just voted for “within three years” so where do I send my 1,000 bucks to get that $1B started. I want to see it before I kick the bucket and I’d be happy to pay $10,000 to be buried on Mars even if I wasn’t among the first 100 but they would have to include putting plastic poppies around my tombstone. Just get it done before the Interplanetary EPA comes up with an application form. (Or, heck, I’m not fussy, just get my body up there and give me a push for a slow ride to the sun.)

    Hmmm, how about starting a space corporation — 10M shares at $1,000 a share for $10B. I might even buy 4 or 5 of them.

  • If you’ll google around Dusty you’ll see there are a few places to plunk your money. Virgin is a publicly traded company, SpaceDev is a low performing stock that I like for their potential and so on. There is one other, based in Seattle, whose name escapes. Not the Jeff Bezos outfit another one. Lift-something.

    Seriously investing in a company in this arena is not for the faint of heart, or the place to seed your retirment funds. If anyone claims that you will see a payback (as opposed to ‘you might see a payback’) they’re scaming you. Or they don’t know what they are talking about wrt business.

  • Reid

    “The only breakthrough is in materials science…

    Once again proving the aphorism that “anything I don’t understand is easy.” See my previous post. No torsional stiffness, no energy dissipation, no deep thought into the monumental complexity of this beast. The above poster is right. Anti-gravity would be easier.

    The tallest skyscrapers in the world are about a mile high and, these are feats of incredible engineering complexity. Now people are passing off 22,000 mile ones as being “no problem.” Ain’t gonna’ work, folks. Not in your lifetime, not in your children’s children’s.

    Hey, would a space elevator spiral down to the ground clockwise in the Northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern?. Just asking because, appropriately, a toilet bowl is where these wild-eyed plans of a space elevator belong.

  • I’m not an expert in this area for sure.

    However, I can judge approximate complexities of things in areas like skyscrapers, nanotech, operating systems, DNA, algorithm analysis, particle physics, string theory, AI, speech recognition, etc.

    I believe that humanity still has a few years of work ahead of it figuring this stuff out., but that building long strings of carbon structures is not going to hold us up for long at all.

    No one in 1970 could predict where we’d be in 2000. And the same goes for the next 30 years. Except that in addition progress is getting faster. Progress between 1970 – 2000 was much greater than 1940 – 1970. The computer I type this on has more power than what the world had in 1960. So you ought to be very careful with your pessimistic predictions especially given the post-industrial age we live. Also, imagine computers for $100 and then think of a world with 6 billion literate people, with just 10% engineers.

    Life is about to get really interesting. I wouldn’t bet against widespread space tourism in 2050. I wouldn’t bet against in 2025.

  • I don’t know enough of the real physics behind a space elevator, but don’t you need a fairly large counterweight in that geo-synchronous orbit? This would bother me a lot… except that doesn’t Earth have a space rock (2004 MN4) scheduled to come within 70,000 miles of Earth in about 23 years?
    I personally don’t think that Earth should let that space rock escape Earth’s orbit. Whether 2004 MN4 can be successfully adapted to use as the space elevator’s counterweight or merely studied/mined I wouldn’t say, but if I had to spend money on a space project, grabbing that rock and putting it into an elliptical orbit for future use by humans would be job #1.

  • Reid

    Keith – are you responding to my comment? Because, it looks as if you didn’t read it.

    Materials strength is just about the least of the technological breakthroughs needed to make a space elevator a reality. Do you know anything about vibrations and resonance? Flexible body dynamics? Modal decomposition? Stability theory? Coriolis forces? Wind drag? Gravity gradients? Momentum conservation and energy dissipation? Random process excitations and power spectral decomposition?

    It can’t be built. If it could be built, it would crash to the ground like the proverbial Tower of Babel, wreaking unbelivevable havoc on the ground. Those super-strong nano-cables would be like a scythe slashing across the face of the Earth whereever they landed. This is nuts.

  • KeithCu

    Nope, never heard of wind drag or conservation of momentum or any of your other silver bullets.

    You can continue to say its impossible till mankind starts work, or till its finished or even after–many believe we didn’t go to the moon because they were sure it was impossible. You’ll be that type for our generation!

    Walt, you do need a big counterweight. The climbers used to strengthen the elevator will be turned into counterweights when they are at the top.

  • mikem

    Mile high skyscrapers? Try 1670 feet, about 3/10ths of a mile.
    Anyway, a space elevator ‘hangs’ from a point in space. A skyscraper is a very bad analogy for something that has zero force on the ground beneath it. The ground point would only be a location for tethering and transfer. In fact, it would probably not touch the ground at all since a little ‘play’ would be needed.
    I’m pessimistic about the timetable, but it is doable. In fact, it’s too obviously useful to not be done eventually.

  • mikem

    Reid:
    I don’t want to pile on here, but it takes a tremendous amount of courage to look back at the changes in the last hundred years, and then say that something like this is impossible in the future.
    Keith says near future. Others, myself included, say much later. There is no doubt. It will happen.

  • I don’t know enough of the real physics behind a space elevator, but don’t you need a fairly large counterweight in that geo-synchronous orbit?

    You need a mass above GEO equivlent to the mass below. Capturing a smallish asteroid was one way to get the job done, when people were imagining a huge mega space elevator ala KSR’s Red Mars or even Sir Arthur’s ‘Fountains of Paradise’.

    However, mounting an expedition to get an asteroid isn’t like driving to Costco for a pallet of Cheese Doodles. If you can afford such an expedition odds are you already _have_ a way to get ‘stuff’ into orbit for a reasonable price … and so why build a space elevator?

    The genius behind Edwards’ NIAC paper was to reimagine the SE concept but using available technology to build it. So we get a ribbon not a tower, 20 ton GVW lifters not 100 ton trains.

    To get back to the point – the counterweight is going to be the ribbon itself, plus the mass of the lifters used to add on to the seed ribbon.

    Bonus – with the added length of the ribbon you get a flinger for interplanetary cargo.

  • It can’t be built.

    Other people disagree. I’m not saying your objections don’t have merit – clearly they do. However Edwards has staked his career on at least being right on the details (i.e. that it can’t be built) others have mortgaged their future and invested a ton of their own money to fund startups to investigate the idea.

    You’re saying their either deluded or snake oil salesmen. Neither of which (I think) applies to Laine or Edwards.

    But please – don’t take my word for it. Weigh the evidence and decide for yourself.

  • Roy

    “a scythe slashing across the face of the Earth whereever they landed.”

    It’s paper thin. It would either burn up in the atmosphere is if falls very fast, or float down like a giant cassette ribbon.

  • GregS

    mikem, the cable needs to be attached to the Earth, and in a certain amount of tension, to be useful. Otherwise every time a climber went up it would change the elevator’s orbit.

  • Reid

    Other people disagree…

    “Other people” do not have my experience and expertise with the relevant technology. The technical challenges I have mentioned have gone unanswered, because what we have here is a discussion amoung dilettante dreamers. And, I have barely scratched the surface of the technological challenges to this thing.

    If people want to be serious about getting people into space, they need to focus on proven technology – not pie-in-the-sky Popular Science type wishful thinking. Life is not a video game, guys. Get real.

  • “Other people? do not have my experience and expertise with the relevant technology.

    You’ve offered no credentials here, so it would be difficult to judge this. Taken at face value then .. okay. You’re a smart guy, agreed.

    The technical challenges I have mentioned have gone unanswered, because what we have here is a discussion amoung dilettante dreamers.

    You really can’t say that everyone here is a dilettante but how nice you can stereotype. I would submit they’ve would be answered if you were to take your challenges to a technical Forum – the Yahoo space elevator Forum has a number of smart guys, a similar crowd hangs out at the Liftport Forum.

    And, I have barely scratched the surface of the technological challenges to this thing.

    If you’re looking for a challenge feel free to contact Liftport. We’re looking for skeptics – we like to be challenged.

  • KeithCu

    Reid doesn’t present much to debate other than buzzwords. You can assert that wind drag will make it impossible to build, but I think it is just a challenge.

    Secondly, you ignore my point that certain problems are more or less challenging than others. I submit that understanding DNA is much harder and will occupy us for longer. This problem doesn’t seem that hard for mankind in 2005.

  • Bill

    mikem: “The ground point would only be a location for tethering and transfer. In fact, it would probably not touch the ground at all since a little ‘play’ would be needed.”

    It has to touch the ground, or it would drift away from its desired location. To maintain tension on the cable, the ground station has to pull down with greater force than the maximum total force of loads moving up and down the cable. A mid-ocean station also needs anchors to the seabed, to keep loads from pulling the whole cable west or east as they go up or down.

  • Reid

    Brian – thanks for the links to those forums. I will check them out.

    But, look fella’s, we’ve already been down the path of eschewing tried and true technology in favor of whiz-bang risky technology that everyone was sure would mature and get easier along the way. More than 30 years later, the Space Shuttle has been a major disappointment, to say the least, with the fleet spending most of its time on the ground waiting for approval to service an almost useless International Space Station that hangs like a Sword of Damocles over our heads, threatening to reenter with potentially catastrophic consequences if it isn’t continually reboosted to its pathetically inadequate orbit.

    We do not have the time, nor the luxury of a no longer indulgent pool of taxpayers footing the bill, to fool around with speculative technologies. The ones that originally got us to the moon can do so again, guaranteed, no risk of failure, only better than before because of the improvements in the constituent component technologies since. We establish a base on the moon, and we have a space based analogy to the unsinkable aircraft carriers of the War in the Pacific, from which to branch out into the solar system and beyond.

  • KeithCu

    If a space elevator creates trillions of dollars of new wealth and new gadgets and technologies from billions of dollars of investment, we can convince the taxpayers to invest that money, I am sure.

    And the bet is really what should we do for the next 10 or 15 years. You need to be really sure this will fail over that timeframe before you decide to go back to 1930s technology.

    And if you believe we should establish a base on the moon, you need to ask yourself what is the best way to get there? I believe rockets are bad– (and NASA does as well as was mentioned in the interview) and that this is much better, if not the best for our world today.

    Furthermore, you argue that because the Space Shuttle was wizbangy and was bad we should eschew trying new technologies. That is the wrong lesson. If at first you don’t succeed try again–but something different!

  • mikem

    From mikem: That is why I use the term tethering. It will not be connected to or rest on the ground, but would be tethered to its location: So it would not drift, so it could be approached and loaded and off loaded. And so on. It certainly would not be hard point attached to the earth, as a building is, right?
    Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  • But, look fella’s, we’ve already been down the path of eschewing tried and true technology in favor of whiz-bang risky technology that everyone was sure would mature and get easier along the way. We do not have the time, nor the luxury of a no longer indulgent pool of taxpayers footing the bill, to fool around with speculative technologies.

    I am not seriously arguing – nor is anyone on our team – for the government to invest billions of dollars and start construction. What we’re up to is to poke around the idea and investigate it’s practicality.

    Which might or might not get us into an interesting side discussion – what is the role for the State wrt R+D and how much should private parties be supported in that endeavor.

    It’s my opinion – and I’m biased but I held this opinion long before my association with Liftport – that the state has a legitimate role in spending funds on research and development. Some of this will be spent on wildly implausible schemes; it might be money down the rathole but you’ll have learned something and the potential payoff is out of proportion to the funds spent.

    We’ll spend some money. We’ll learn things. We may be able to apply this to a working launch system – if so this is a good thing. If not – then we’ll know and will have at least added that much to the sum of human knowledge.

    If a space elevator creates trillions of dollars of new wealth and new gadgets and technologies from billions of dollars of investment, we can convince the taxpayers to invest that money, I am sure.

    I’d be careful about promising returns on speculative technology. For all the promise there are pitfalls that could derail the entire project.

  • Reid

    For all the promise there are pitfalls …

    My boy, there are entire canyons, some of which I have alluded to above, which would assuredly bring it crashing down in ruin.

    Some of the comments here have been so far out, I haven’t even bothered to respond. Tethered space elevator? Let’s just repeal the laws of orbital mechanics and ignore wind and sun and rain. Paper thin? Not hardly. And, if it were, it’d slice through everything in its path like a guitar string through a block of cheese. Think a super strong cable of carbon nanofibers would burn up in the atmosphere? Starting at what altitude? Et cetera, and so on.

    You need to be really sure this will fail over that timeframe before you decide to go back to 1930s technology

    Oh, that silly worthless 1930’s technology like atom bombs and jet engines. Yawn, that is sooo passe, gramps. Things that have worked in the past still work, junior. Enhanced by new proven technologies and computer systems, they’re a sure fire winner. Your comment is exactly backwards. Before you decide to abandon tried and true technology, you better be really sure you have an alternative that will work.

    We’ll spend some money. We’ll learn things. We may be able to apply this to a working launch system – if so this is a good thing. If not – then we’ll know and will have at least added that much to the sum of human knowledge.

    And, be none the worse for wear? Ha! The public is already disgusted and alienated by the massive amounts wasted on the Shuttle experiment. You would kill all the enthusiasm for exploration entirely. You need to be sure your reach doesn’t exceed your grasp.

  • KeithCu

    I still believe your canyons might only be potholes.

    How about a compromise. How about we ask NASA to write a paper on why they shouldn’t build a space elevator? Isn’t it possible given the bureaucracy of NASA that they didn’t consider all options before moving forward?

    I also think you underestimate the excitement of the American public to spend money on space.

  • Tethered space elevator? Let’s just repeal the laws of orbital mechanics and ignore wind and sun and rain. Paper thin? Not hardly. And, if it were, it’d slice through everything in its path like a guitar string through a block of cheese. Think a super strong cable of carbon nanofibers would burn up in the atmosphere? Starting at what altitude? Et cetera, and so on.

    I mean no disrespect – you’re obviously a smart guy – but nearly everything you wrote here is incorrect in the details. No one is requiring you to spend a few minutes and catch up. You’ll be better served if you do, however.

    And, be none the worse for wear? Ha! The public is already disgusted and alienated by the massive amounts wasted on the Shuttle experiment. You would kill all the enthusiasm for exploration entirely. You need to be sure your reach doesn’t exceed your grasp.

    By myself? If I had that kind of power I wouldn’t be here – I’d be hiding on my island, counting my treasure.

    Lets be clear – in this context I don’t care a fig for exploration. I want to help build a cheaper alternative to reach orbit than what we currently have. This is a simple business operation, not exploration. I give the public enough credit to understand the diff between ‘exploration’ and ‘commerce’.

  • Tiburon

    I am nowhere near as knowledgable about the physics involved as one should be to offer a thumbs up or down. That said I do question the realizability of this project. For years it was stated that the major problem was finding something light enough and strong enough to create the ‘ribbon’, for years this fictional material was called unobtainium, ficionite, or some other creative name. It appears that now they are stating that nano-carbon tubes is this fictional material. Based on what I know, I am not sure it meets the requirements, sure it is strong but I don’t think it is strong enough/light enough and no one has succeed in creating decent sized strands of it let alone long ribbons of it yet.

    How do they get the first ‘seed ribbon up’?

    I don’t think that ‘tethered’ means hanging and not attached to the earth. It has to be attached and the counter-balance has to be pulling very hard in order to keep the ribbon up. It has to be pulling hard enough that when the climbers haul up their cargo that it doesn’t pull the counter-balance down and change its orbit.

    The question I have is this. Won’t this continual pulling on the earth and climbers taking cargo up to space gradually effect the rotation of the earth over time? Like when a skater in a spin puts out their arms they slow down? I know it would be very minimal for each load but over long enough time frame would it happen? Theoritically the earth would speed up when the lifter is coming down but it would be slightly less because it left cargo up in space (less mass).

    I think the main reason that NASA hasn’t looked at this in other than an advanced concept is that the technology required to build this thing is very far into the future. I hope I am wrong because I want to ride it. I would start saving for my ride now and would pay the estimated cost to do so, but I am not planning on opening up a savings account during my lifetime.

  • The real reason NASA exists?

    Two days ago I linked to an interview with Bradley Edwards, a space elevator proponent, who took some shots at NASA. Among them? This gem about the true role of the space agency: Q. So are you resigned to the…

  • Reid

    Brian – I mean no disrespect, but I think maybe you have misunderstood what I wrote or, maybe you have read superficial information somewhere that skated over the difficulties of some of these concepts.

    A space elevator cannot “float” above a spot on the Earth unless the CG of the entire structure is at GEO. Then, the orbit would be constantly changing due to wind drag, solar pressure and the geopotential of the Earth. How are you going to do constant stationkeeping on such a structure? A RCS every few meters with colocated sensors? Where will the fuel be stored? How would you get such a structure man-rated?

    You think a superstrong filament whipping around at ground level at thousands of miles an hour with significant mass or at least significant weight attached couldn’t cause major damage? How do you figure?

    I do not know how heat resistant carbon nanofiber would be but, not all debris from space burns up in the atmosphere. Furthermore, even supposing some portion of it did in the event of a catastrophic instability, there are miles and miles that would be far enough down that it would not.

    Now, I’ve been specific. What are your objections?

  • Brik

    He’s a little behind the times as far as known world oil reserves and oil shale recovery techniques go. I hope his analysis of space transport technology is not as coarse and behind the times.

    A trillion barrels of oil?

    You bet.

  • Reid, you seem to be under the impression that the Earth’s atmosphere extends much higher than it does. If the ribbon broke within the atmosphere, that’s

  • mikem

    Reid: No offense here, either, but I wonder how you advanced from making bizarre engineering pronouncements, (as in your reference to the mile high skyscrapers now in use and your description of a space elevator as a 22,000 mile tall skyscraper) to judging the engineering knowledge of others.

    “The tallest skyscrapers in the world are about a mile high and, these are feats of incredible engineering complexity. Now people are passing off 22,000 mile ones as being “no problem.”

    You’ve made several references to others not understanding basic and more complex engineering principles. With this coming from someone who made statements that lacked even a high school student’s general knowledge of “the tallest building in the world” or just what “space elevator” refers to (certainly not “skyscraper”), I wonder what training you’ve had.

    Your comments, as I cited them, are not the comments of someone with engineering experience, let alone someone who should be questioning others ability to discuss the subject.

    Despite your display of engineering knowledge, as I cited, you have been treated rather politely by others. Please return the favor. You present a very vulnerable target for sneering remarks.

  • Tiburon

    Reading these posts has been educational for me. I see that this project is much like politics. The proponents strenuously argue that it can be done and dismiss the technical challenges and s those who dare to mention the challenges are attacked because they are not “yes” men. Instead of answering the questions it turns into a battle of who is smarter – who knows the height of a skyscraper, who understands wind gradients, etc. etc.

    Those in favor, including Dr. Edwards have so much invested in this idea that it may be difficult to truly “see” the magnitude of the technical challenges. It is not a correct assumption to think that since he is very smart and is staking his career on this that it can be done. Sometimes these types are so emotionally, professionally invested that they are in a constant state of denial and refuse to “see” reality.

    These people on the cutting edge always underestmate the technical challenge and always underestimate the cost. History proves this out time and time again (Cold Fusion, Apollo, War, etc.).

    On the fip side, the nay sayers also fail to realize that by pushing the boundaries (even ones that never are reached) is part of being human. If we did not dream we would still be living in caves. At times the opponents also become vested in their thought process and also refuse or cannot “see” the possibility because they are mired down in a vast array of technical challenges. Scientists are notorious for this aspect too, by example look at the first scientist (I forget her name) to argue that the sun was mostly Hydrogen and Helium instead of iron, Einstein’s ideas were initially assaulted by the main stream, not to mention Galileo, the Australian doctor who said that ulcers were caused by bacteria and not stress (he just won the nobel prize by the way), etc.

    The battle rages on and will ultimately be won or lost at some point in the future when the elevator either is or isn’t built. Only that will settle this matter.

    Now back to my first question I posted – What is the current thinking on the method for getting the first “seed ribbon” in place?

  • Reid

    mikem, I threw out a number without consideration as to the height of the tallest skyscrapers and, you did me one better and established that they are even less tall than I said, making my argument even stronger, then you use that one little factoid to try to question MY engineering creds? That’s a mighty weak horse to pull your wagon. The analogy of the space elevator to the greatest skyscraper ever constructed is an obvious one. I have no idea why you are questioning this unless you are seeking solace in denial.

    Nathan, are you suggesting that the surviving components from a catastrophic failure of this elevator would be, what, just a few feet? Do you have a problem with my description of “miles and miles” that would survive to come scything down to the Earth? Explain.

  • Reid

    Tiburon – some good commentary. But, I want to reiterate my position. We have the technology in hand, right now, to go to the moon and establish a colony. We do not need to sit around dreaming of better ways and imagining that all the technical challenges are minor. We do not have the luxury anymore of embarking on speculative projects that would delay our ascent right now. Research and further exploration of ideas is fine and good, but the priority now is to use what we have and just f-ing do it.

  • Reid

    And, incidentally to the question of burn-up. Objects coming in from space burn up because they are moving at 17,000+ mph when they hit the atmosphere. The whole idea behind this elevator concept is that the structure would be stationary with respect to the Earth. You have to be very high up indeed on this beast before a reentering section would attain the velocity of a typical chunk of space debris.

  • Tiburon

    Reid – I agree with you. I am very happy with the choices Michael Griffin has made. Use existing technology and just do it! When I listened to his addresses on the topic. I too think “it’s about darn time!” I agree with the assessment that the space shuttle program set us way back in our exploration fronteer. I think Griffin said it was just barely possible when they did it and now it has spent more time parked in the VAB soaking up budget then actually working and nowhere near meets the targeted cost saving goals that were promised at its beginning. And the big hold up now is falling foam – FOAM! – Oh or Pete’s sake – just strap an old Apollo command module on the top and send it somewhere inspiring. I think we should learn our lesson from that and not dump money into a HOPE it works scheme but put it into what does work, actually doing it inspires.

    Here are some stats I am concerned about. In 2001 the US gratuated 70,000 engineers, while China and India graduated 600,000 and 350,000 respectively. The US spent more on Liability Lawsuits than on R&D. What a shame. If we don’t do something to inspire our youth into the sciences SOON we will be left back. I think moon, mars, etc. can do that better than going around and around and around and around in LEO. Hubble has been the best benefit, in my mind, of the whole post Apollo program.

    Skylab was a joke and only inhabited for less than a year – what a waste. The Russion – US docking mission was just politics (but at least Deke Slayton finally got his turn in space) – no technical merit at all. The ISS does provide some benefit but does not excite the future generation very much. Low Earth Orbit does not inspire like Apollo.

    So here is my compromise – work in labs on your carbon nanotubes until you can build expansion bridges out of it or something else. Surely it must have more commercial uses than just the space elevator. Once that becomes a “proven” technology then move on to a space elevator then but spend the majority of the current tax dollars on currently proven technologies or technologies that have most of the hurdles behind them and only a few hurdles in front to overcome.

  • mikem

    Reid: I simply point out that you obviously do not have even an amateur understanding of what has been achieved in structural engineering and that therefore you should refrain from judging others’ appreciation of the engineering challenges involved.
    A mile high building is the ‘holy grail’ of structural engineering and your casual reference to it as having been achieved, even duplicated, says tons about how seriously your derisive remarks should be taken.
    Imagine, in a discussion of the challenges of manned space exploration, having a derisive opponent “throw out” the latest ‘manned landings on Mars’ as an example of how little we have achieved so far. How seriously would you then take his criticism of your ability to discuss the challenges involved in traveling to the nearest star? How much training and experience would you assume he had? How long could you listen to him go on about others’ lack of training without laughing?

  • Frank

    Reid: There may well be very long sections of the ribbon intact and reaching the ground/water. They will not be falling fast since they are made of a wide thin ribbon. More like floating than falling. If there is a concern it would be that a strong ribbon, several hundred of feet long (or more) will wrap things like planes, birds, trees, trains, ships, etc. The length will depend on how high the break occurs. Perhaps the anchor/platform should have some way to spool the ribbon in case of a break.

  • John P

    When this is ready, can we book certain politicians on it for a one-way trip?

  • Reid

    mikem – that is about the stupidest argument I have ever heard. I don’t build buildings. I build space structures and, I know a helluva lot more about that than you possibly could. My designs are flying over your head even as you read this(as are my arguments, apparently). If you have substantive counterarguments to the ones I have made, make them. Otherwise, take your little gotcha’ games out to the playground where they belong.

    Tib – spot on.

  • Reid

    Frank – take a look at the illustration on top of this page. Is that a thin ribbon that will “float” to the ground?

    This isn’t going to be just a few measly ribbons extending all the way to GEO and beyond. There’s going to be mass attached.

  • KeithCu

    The seed ribbon is put up with rockets or the space shuttle.

    The problem with the idea of using existing technology and ‘just doing it’ to get going on something inspirational is that NASA’s plan isn’t inspirational.

    Tib, your analysis is inaccurate: I’m not ignoring the problems, Dr. Edward’s book addresses the big ones. If you are a skeptic as Dr. Edwards was, you should read the book. Furthermore, I see nanotech as a framework in which lots of challenges can be solved. How do we prevent atomic oxygen from destroying it? Maybe we need to coat it with something.

    You argue we should wait till nanotubes are ready, but what if they become ready in 5 years? Do we reset NASA’s 15 year plans? Furthermore, I think the space elevator is the first killer app for nanotubes. I don’t think we should necessarily wait for something to be widespread before we use it in space. That is not forward thinking.

  • Tony

    “Radio has no future.” Writing to Niagara Falls Power Company: “Trust you will avoid the gigantic mistake of alternating current.””I can state flatly that heavier than air flying machines are impossible.” “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” All these things were said by Lord Kelvin. Reid, is he, by any chance, related to you?

    I know Arthur C. Clarke, the father of the GEO sync SAT, is too wise to say anything that appears this stupid (after a century) especially about stationary space tethers.

    Let’s just say that every question brought up here has been answered before by Brad Edwards in his many publications. I wish some of you here, would read some of his work, before commenting here. I wish more, was asked and said, about the current state of the art of carbon nanotube production, and more importantly, advanced composite matrix production. And there is still work to be done in this area if the tether is too become a reality. The devil is in the details. I guess we will see how far tether technology has come this weekend in the Tether Competion in Mountain View, California.

    I know there have been advances, but everyone seems reluctant to talk about them, possibly due to their trillion dollar implications, not to mention the Mars real estate options that are up for grabs.

    “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday, is the hope of today, and the reality of tommorrow.” – Robert H. Goddard

    He invented that “old” 1930’s technology mentioned above, called liquid fueled rockets.

    I doubt he would ever bet against space tethers. His first liquid rocket paper was titled “A METHOD of reaching Extreme Altitudes” not “THE ONLY METHOD of…!”

  • Money

    There is a lot of technical rigor/skepticism in these replies. Are any of you degreed engineers?

  • Tony

    I am. And I have worked on the Bigelow Space Station and the Boeing ISS team.

  • rio

    I’d to sponsor a space elevator. Genuine and Interested builders, please contact me.

  • thermal skeptic

    I think there could be a major problem with thermal cycling of the elevator ribbon and the effects that it will have on the length due the thermal coefficient of expansion. I believe the variable nature of the thermal cycling and the time scale of the cycling will be on par with the natural frequency of the ribbon, presenting a hazard. Just thought I would add another wrench into the works.

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