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Space Elevator: Wake up, NASA!

Glenn Reynold’s latest Tech Central Station article is interesting, but doesn’t go into much detail on the technical details and benefits to get going on it.

I personally think NASA is acting stupid in the way only a big bureaucracy can by suggesting we spend 100 billion dollars and use 40 year-old Apollo-style rockets to get us to the moon and Mars. How can their engineers be motivated to get out of bed in the morning to work on such a small-minded plan which does nothing more than get us 4 men back on the moon in 13 years?!

NASA needs to quit sniffing the glue used to affix the ceramic tiles, ignore the idea that a space elevator sounds like science fiction the way going to the moon sounded like science fiction in 1960, and just start work on it. Scientists have been speculating about how to build such things for 50 years and have understood that with long strings and counterweights it would be much cheaper to put a pound into space than attaching it to a bomb as we do today. The biggest holdup has been in the materials science, but in 1991 carbon nanotubes were invented which allow us to build a string the width of a human hair which is strong enough to lift a car.

With that alone, we have the essential technology which has been holding things up and we can build something which is 10-2000x cheaper per pound than conventional technology.

However, we can build space elevators even more cheaply by taking advantage of other new technologies which are well understood in the laboratory but which needs to be built at largescale by the engineers with the big budgets. We need to build a set of devices which will climb the first string (which will initially be installed by rockets or the space shuttle) and add another string to it, eventually building a ribon. These climbers could be powered by conventional mechanisms, but it is much smarter to leave the the power source on the ground and use laser beams (first demonstrated by Bell Labs way back in 1960) to beam the energy to the climbers. This keeps the climbers lightweight which we will need in the bootstrapping process. NASA would need to build new types of drives to convert the laser energy to work; the best appears to be magneto-plasma-dynamic (MPD) drives which shoot out ions at 40,000 m/s, another technology waiting for an application for productive use.

These are just two of the biggest breakthroughs which will come out of our space elevator research and all of it can be ours for only $6 billion. In addition, there are many more small and interesting problems that building the space elevator will force scientists to undertake. Beyond the nanotechnology, which may get widespread use because of this effort, there is much more materials science work to build ribbons, support structures, housing, etc. to withstand the elements and the oxidation and the radiation from space and other new challenges. It becomes important to build systems to track (and eventually clean up) the junk floating in space which could threaten the ribbon. We will learn very much building and maintaining this big system.

The space elevator will not only make it dramatically cheaper to put a pound into space, it has the potentially to fundamentally change many things. The idea of building big rockets may become obsolete when most of the energy getting from here to there is handled by space elevators on the Earth and Moon and Mars. (Once you build the first one, subsequent ones are much cheaper to build.) Satellites are built in a particular way because they are launched at high Gs and it takes a year and $500 million to fix them. When these dynamics change and they become more disposable, it will improve the diversity and quantity of them. Space tourism and other commercial enterprises will drive most future efforts in space, and the tourism might start with a modest hotel in .1 g 14,000 km out. 3He could be used in the future for nucular reactors and it is available in very large quantities from the moon which has been collecting it from the sun. A kilo of 3He put into a nucular reactor is worth 157,480 barrels of oil. It puts into perspective our silly worries about oil when we have so many energy sources available.

This scratches the surface of the changes to our world which will occur when space becomes affordable: could even Tim Berners-Lee predict how the Internet would change our world in 1990? A great book which discusses in more detail most of what I have written is The Space Elevator by Bradley Edwards & Eric Westling, I encourage you to read it–it is more exciting than sci-fi! I sent 20 copies of this book to the White House 2 weeks ago; hopefully they haven’t gotten lost. It is currently only #86027 on’s list, but it must be more important to humanity’s future then that!!

We should demand our government seriously consider investing $6 billion to build us a 200 ton space elevator in 5 years. If we told ourselves it would take 50 years, we would build it in 51. If we had to build it in 5, we could build it in 5. The rabbit hole is waiting.

— UPDATE: — I have written more about how Institutional Inertia rather than glue could be what has completely blinded NASA to recognizing a transformation technology in a new post above.

— UPDATE 2: — Arthur C. Clarke and I both make recent predictions about when humanity will start work on the space elevator here. Check it out and put your thoughts in!

60 comments to Space Elevator: Wake up, NASA!

  • Brandon

    Thanks for the thoughts and the link to Amazon for buying the book (and extra thanks for sending copies to the White House :). However, I wish that they had a nice hardcover version of the book available. Seems like they could do a signed collectible version – out of leather or carbon nanotubes – as a way to raise some funds. I would be willing to pay a pretty penny for a nicer copy that would also show my support for this grand venture.

  • Nathan Myers

    What’s a “nucular reactor”? (Is this article just meant for W to read?) And what kind burns H3 anyway?

    Once it’s cheap enough to get stuff into orbit, we’re better off shepherding in a little asteroid, and generate power by lowering bits of it down the elevator. Or, build orbital solar power stations out of it, and deliver power by refining the rest of it into batteries and sending those down (generating more power on the way down). H3, feh.

  • Austin Federa

    A space elivator is a great idea, but have you read Ben Bova’s Mercury or Red Mars? Imagine what hapends if it falls, if a countery attacks it, if someone blows it up, the effects coudl be catastrophic

  • Joe Holland

    Dear Sirs,
    There is one reason, quite compelling that makes a full space elevator a non-starter. The reason, all satellites first have to be removed from orbit, otherwise they will eventually run into the elevator. You might want to look at partial elevators, i.e. rotating tether in low orbit. Then you only have to clear small ranges of altitude and the smaller elevator/tether is also manuverable. Take care.

    Joe Holland, Ph.D. (N.E.)

  • KeithCu

    I suppose satellites could run into the space elevator, but we have geosynchronous satellites now and they don’t seem to be running into each other.

    Even if it is a problem, there is a solution, its just a matter of planning and organization.

    Mankind will be constrained by nothing other than the laws of physics as we understand them.

  • canadian_divx

    what about high winds on the planet? and also why use the conventional elevator idea why not an electro magnetic field like a maglev?

  • Bud

    I say we just put a giant winch on the moon, that way nothing will hit it, there is no fear of it falling, and we still can keep ships and satellites intact on their way into orbit. And I am not sure, but it would probably be cheaper than 6 bil.

  • Brian

    I’m not sure but wouldn’t carbon nanotubes be electrically conductive?

    If so you wouldn’t need lasers to power the climber. Just feed electricity into the ribbon itself. Of course you’d have to have two ribbons to make a circuit.

    A conductive ribbon may also be self powering as it interacts with the earths magnetic field and the ionosphere. It may generate it’s own electricity.

    I like Nathan’s idea of using asteriod material on the way down the ribbon to power things going up. Once we get cheap access to space it would then be possible to mine the asteroids. Imagine not only would we get metals that we didn’t have to stripmine and smelt on earth but free electricity out it as well.

  • Charles

    One of the main problems currently facing the building and financing of Nanotubes is the fact that they are immensly expensive at the moment. An efficient way of producing nanotubes at a cheap cost needs to be reached before this can occur. I believe that the current costs for any tangible amount of Nanotubing is somewhere around half a million for a foot. Anyone have the current figures??

  • Abe

    we need more than one person’s ( or 10 or 20 … how many, i don’t know, but i know we need more than one ) studies about relative costs versus apollo rockets to be able to comment objectively about which way to go, and even then, that’s only the price comparison. the isolated dialogue in this forum has already enumerated significant concerns other than the financial.

    i’m looking forward to an average of estimated costs as authored by people from various perspectives on the subject. 6B$ versus 100B$ does seem like a big savings, but i think the early estimates regarding the space program were unrealistically low. i can’t recall any over-estimates. if anyone out there recalls any, i would bet they’re far out-numbered by the UNDERestimates.

    i love science. i love progress made on its foundation, but i am so tired of having experts getting the numbers wrong. i love the idea of space exploration being made cheaper by a space elevator. i’d love to see the base of one dangling in the air over my city, or anchored to a big titanium paperweight down the road, as a monument to the ingenuity and spectacular luck that we could achieve it during our generation. i just want to know ahead of time how much it’s going to cost us so i can know what i’m going to have to do without to make it happen. regardless, i’d still vote for whatever bill or motion or referendum, etc would make it happen, i would just appreciate being given the credit of being able to understand the value of a space elevator when i’m given the REAL, EXTRAORDINARY high cost of it.

  • Joe

    If there were serious thought put into this – the type of thought that I believe NASA is capable of, they could overcome any obsticle set in front of them. Expensive to manufacture nanotubes? Satellites running into the thing? Terrorists? I believe these are hurdles that are jumpable with the technology we have today – nevermind the technology that could come out of a project like this in the future.

    Becuase, that’s what it’s all about, right? Inventing new technology to achieve fantastic goals.

  • Malcolm

    As much as I hate to rain on your rant, I have to say that the space elevator is going to be built over the next 15 years by these guys:

    I would love to work on this project, but I doubt I could persuade my girlfriend to move to USA :-/

  • We should demand our government invest $6 billion and build us a 200 ton space elevator in 5 years. If we told ourselves it would take 50 years, we would build it in 51. If we had to build it in 5, we could build it in 5. The rabbit hole is waiting.

    It is possible that NASA could do this. But not without drastic re-organization.

    It took 20,000 people to launch Apollo. Shuttle was designed to employ those 20,000, and now the follow-on looks like it will need … 20,000 people. This is simplistic, yes, but also true. If you design the space elevator to employ 20,000 people … the costs will be sky-high, certainly far north of 6 billion.

    We (Liftport) think we can do it for the reasons that NASA could not – we’re small, dedicated and focused. But note that we’re not looking for the full price tag, yet. We’re working on the R+D of the thing and making sure it CAN be made to work for the price tag of 6-10 billion. There are a number of niggly items that need to be worked out before blueprints can be drawn.

  • Malcolm

    Any jobs going for Electronics Engineers at liftport? 😛

  • n-man

    Any jobs for software engineers at liftport? 🙂

  • […] I’m fascinated by the “space elevator” idea. It still really sounds like science fiction but apparently the technology needed to complete such a project already exists. Keithcu explains some of the technology involved and argues why NASA should be focussing on this rather than putting people back on the moon. I’m curious why Bush/NASA are planning to spend $100 billion and the next 12 years to put humans back on the moon by 2018 when we already completed that milestone back in 1969 … or did we? *suspicious* Anyway i’m inclined to agree with Keith. If we have the technology and know-how then why not put efforts into such a project which should save a lot of money in the long term? From The Liftport Group: The space elevator would allow for the lifting of large fragile structures, such as solar energy satellites which would provide clean renewable energy to Earth, inflated stations for manned activities, factories for pharmaceuticals, and payloads for exploration of space. Lifters can be tested easily — to insure reliability and brought back if there is a problem. The reliability and safety of the space elevator is calculated to be much better than any rocket-based launch system. A second generation, larger space elevator (100,000 kg capacity) would allow for extensive human activities in space including a large geosynchronous station (hundreds of permanent residents) and settlements on Mars within the first few years of operation. […]

  • Matheuu

    Fuk. mericns ar dum! 1 big Feersum Engin. all U dum fuks, so meny and U gIs got MR bush and H boms. big bad combO. I m very woreed!!! hellp

  • mcv

    It sounds a lot like sounds fiction indeed. But then, much of our current technology was science fiction or even unimaginable once. So what do we need to bring this project from science fiction to reality? Two things:

    1) A cable that is not just theoretically strong enough, but has been tested and confirmed as being strong enough. And at least several meters long. As long as we don’t have a cable like that, it’s all just a very nice theory.

    2) A way to get the first strand of the ribbon up. Liftport and other sites have lots of details on how to get subsequent strands up and create a nice ribbon, but how do you get the first 100,000 km long strand up from your platform to geosynchronous orbit or vice versa?

    I think these are the two most important and unavoidable parts of the problem.

  • Sonicman

    You americans seem to be missing the whole picture. What makes america the big power and dynasty it is? Fossil fuels. E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G done in your country relies on these and EVERY decision is based on that.
    Yet you guys seem to be impressed by Bush’s decision to spend 100 B$ on old appolo rockets?!? Can’T you make the connection ? Rockets…….fuel…….billions of dollars!
    Complete electric cars are a reality since 10 years and more. And yet we still buy fossil fuel cars. Why? Because your country is NOT READY to abandon this fossil fuel industry and the trillions it generates each year. So they decided to use an old means of transportation to make sure fossil fuel economy goes on.
    I hate fossil fuels. In my deepest feelings I truely believe the space elevator is the way to go. But unfortunately it won’t happen soon since you guys keep blindly electing the wrong people “because they look good on TV”.

  • micrio

    Why not a loop? I always wondered why the elevator is assumed
    to be a static link from the surface to a satellite. Why not make it
    a moving loop. The loop would roll over large pulleys on the earth and
    in the satellite. This would allow a conventional power source
    to drive the loop through the ground based pulley. The driver would be
    on the earth. Its size and weight would not be an issue.

    Vehicles starting on the earth would grip the upward side and travel
    with the loop to the satellite. For the return trip the vehicles would
    ride the downward side of the loop. The vehicles would need no
    propulsion source of their own.

    The upward and downward parts of the cable could be widely spaced,
    perhaps many miles. This would prevent the upward and downward
    portions of the cable from rubbing.

    Since the cable is moving it can be inspected continually for damage
    and wear. The inspection and repair facility would be on earth.

    This would facilitate building the elevator. Once the first light
    duty cable is in place the cable can be reinforced at the earthbound
    base. As the light duty cable begins to rotate, additional
    layers would be added until it gains its full strength.

  • pxpx

    Being a “rocket scientist” myself and personally knowing people on NASA’s roadmap planning commitee, I would like to comment on this whole thing. Also, I will be having lunch with one of them today. I’ll bring this topic up and see what he says.
    First comment, about satellites running onto the “elevator”: Despite the number of objects in orbit around the earth, they are spread out beyond belief. It is a very rare occurance for any debris to randomly run into other debris or functioning objects. It does happen sometimes because there are “favorite” orbits out there where everyone wants their satellites. Very few of these orbit are around the equator. They all have some inclination and only pass the equator twice on each orbit. A quick calculation on the width of a satellite happening to run into the width of a space elevator and you’d see that it is very unlikely (statistically speaking). This is actually one of the first things you study for interplanetary missions. What is the survivability of a probe through the asteroid belt? It turns out to be less than 1/10 of 1% chance of running into anything out there. The GEO satellites (at about 40,000km) do not “orbit” like the lower satellites. Their motion is static relative to the surface of the earth. Once the top end of the elevator is stationed there, no other GEO’s will interfere with it. I’m sure, due to the fact that something could run into it, the cable will be designed to not sustain much damage from debris. Operating satellites could have their orbits changed to avoid the cable (very small del-V for a ~10km orbit change). The passenger car would also be timed to not be in the vicinity of near debris or satellites (thanks to our friends in the Air Force).
    There was also a mention of using lasers to “beam” power into space. I won’t even get into the issues with that. First, it is rarely lasers that do that sort of thing. They tend to use microwaves. Also, beaming power across a lab is a whole lot different than beaming enough energy to power a climber through the atmosphere. Granted, there is work being done to solve this problem.
    I’m not a materials person, so I won’t comment on nanotubes. They sound like a good idea if they can just get a good factory manufacturing process down to reduce costs.
    My last concern would be space weather effects on the elevators systems. There are some serious currents and potentials between the surface and GEO orbit. Those would have to be mitigated somehow.

  • loggy

    There are lots of “What about …?” comments here, raising possible
    problems with the elevator concept. They have been anticipated in this NIAC report by Dr. Bradley C. Edwards.

    Read it here:
    – especially chapter 10 “Challenges”

  • Nate Stovall

    Ugh, such brillance and stupidity in the same thread. First off EVERY country on earth is dependant on fossil feuls. I agree we need to change that, but this is about the space elevator, not a socio-political rant.

    Startup costs for a factory to produce the nanotube strands will be insanely high. How much did the first atomic weapon cost to build? The first 2 were built in a lab using a healthy chunk of the US’s GNP. Eventually we made factories to produce weaponized Pu ans mass-produce atomic and fusion weapons. Likewise, the first weponized antrax was very pricey until the earth’s goverments made huge biological factories to mass produce the bacteria.

    If we humans can use economies of scale to mass produce weapons, we certainly can make nanotubes a lot cheaper to manufacture.

    Part of that $4 billion in “extra” costs would have to be spent on education of the average american. They will hear some short-sighted politician crying how we will lose millions of jobs from the oil industries. Truth be told, we will net MORE jobs then we lose as the US adds other cables to drop power from orbiting microwave collectors that get power beamed to them from lunar solar cell fields. Thousands in jobs created for low-G manufacturing plants, building inter-planatary vessels. shipping and transportation infrastructure to get “stuff” too and from the bottom of the elevator. Space tourism and even jobs to dismantle and salvage the existing oil infrastructure. How much will the space-junk fetch on e-bay once we start cleaning up th “shipping lanes” from the top of the elevator?

  • Ben

    Joe Holland:
    “Dear Sirs,
    There is one reason, quite compelling that makes a full space elevator a non-starter. The reason, all satellites first have to be removed from orbit, otherwise they will eventually run into the elevator. You might want to look at partial elevators, i.e. rotating tether in low orbit. Then you only have to clear small ranges of altitude and the smaller elevator/tether is also manuverable. Take care.

    Joe Holland, Ph.D. (N.E.) ”

    …in all that time getting your Ph.D. did you ever hear of geosynchronous orbit? It’s the expensive little band that keeps your satellite from roving around the planet. That’s one of the spots liftport is trying to procure for their elevator. What’s your degree in anyway? Humanities?

    B.S. Comp Sci…not that it gives me any more credibility. If you think I’m just full of bs, look on Wired for their story on the space elevator from a few months ago.

  • Paul

    “These are just two of the biggest breakthroughs which will come out of our space elevator research and all of it can be ours for only $6 billion.”

    You’ve discovered how to precisely time and cost the effort required to research fundamental breakthroughs in technology?!? What are you wasting your time blogging for, man, you have a talent every researcher has dreamed of…

    …oh, you’re just pulling numbers out of your backside and ranting that because you don’t understand the problems, they must not be important? Too bad.

    (Here’s a hint: carbon nanotubes are NOT well understood, and we have NOT discovered how to create a strand of ANY size that can lift a car; high-altitude, high-power laser energy transfer suffers from serious atmospheric diffraction and dissipation problems; MPD (and all ion drives) have a very low thrust-to-weight ratio, and are largely useless for climbing out of a gravity well. Pretending you know how to solve all those problems cheaply and quickly just shows you don’t know much at all.)

  • Or how about we just put pressure on the American Military complex to release all the back engineered alien UFO technology and be done with it. If you think that’s crazy you better go do some serious research on the subject of UFos and this feild what has be docuemented as happening whitenessed, might sound like a clichè but start with the 1947 Roswell case, we have had very serious propultion and energy systems for a long long time, I agree with Dr Stephen Greer that the actions of those people in charge of this matter, and it is a subject worthly of respect and acknowledgement as a REAL subject, those persons had vaild reasons to black op it all and keep it in cell projects but now… lets just are self up to star trex level as soon as soon as possible, we as a race need to expand, look what we have done to this green orb of beauty, were all on the same page with are hopes and dreams, thats me/.
    Microsoft Systems Engineer Uk.

  • Eaton

    Who wrote this brilliant article anyway????
    I think NASA should hire him.
    Or the White House!!

  • john

    1) A Pully has wear, you’d want a static line, not a loop.
    2) I’ve read intellient discussions on the impact of a fall; it would not cause much (if any) damage–its not a concern.
    3) You launch the cable into orbit, and lower it down, then use a small machine to travel up and down and add more to the existing cable.
    4) A partial cable would be quite difficult. The major benefit is the tethered concept: turn in a circle while holding something on the end of a string.
    5) The structure doesn’t have to be rigid, it will be in tension, but quite flexible.
    6) Once a full cable can be lifted into orbit, it could pull up the cable, or lower down new cable.
    7) More important are the USES for inventions that this would provide. think about construction…

  • LabRat

    First to “Ben”: Before you flame someone, make sure you understand the physics of the situation lest you make yourself look like a complete idiot (too late, obviously, for you). Yes, the point of the space elevator is to have the endpoint in geosynchronous “orbit”, but guess what? The part between the surface of the earth and the altitude of GSO is basically a giant post in the “road” for anything that’s in low earth orbit. The elevator ribbon will maintain a 1:1 ratio of angular motion relative to the surface of the earth, but a LOE satellite (a few hundred miles altitude) circles the earth every 90 minutes or so. Obviously, as “pxpx” astutely pointed out, there are very few objects in a equatorial low or medium altitude orbit…and overall chances of collisions of those objects in inclined orbits are pretty slim…though definitely *not* zero of course. But in any project like this, risk-management is the name of the game…and issues like orbiting objects, since they are tracked and cataloged, are things that can be planned around in various ways.

    Next, about the materials science issues. The University of Texas recently announced a breakthrough in being able to quickly mass-produce arbitrarily long ribbons of nano-tube-based material. However, even though each individual nano tube is of course unbelievably strong, at the macroscopic level at which many small nanotubes are woven (or whatever the proper term would be for their technique) together the overall strength of the resulting filament/ribbon is several magnitudes of order less than what would be necessary to build a space elevator. I don’t expect that this is a permanent roadblock by any stretch, but as it stands *TODAY*, we don’t have anything “off the shelf” in the realm of materials that we could begin work on a space elevator. A lot more focused research will be needed…which means some real $$ being poured into the area. It’s something I feel we can solve should we actually be committed to it at some point, though we probably need to re-evaluate our priorities as a nation in order to scrape up the cash to do it.

    It is overall a very intriguing concept…as it has been for half a century or more. Even if the overall economic impact of the elevator itself proves to be less than what its proponents are currently touting…the technology advances in materials sciences needed to actually build the thing would certainly have spinoff effects that would revolutionize any number of earth-bound applications.

  • Thomas Yoon

    Theory and practice are two entirely different things, never mind reliability and cost effectiveness. As an experienced R&D design engineer and former systems testing engineer I can attest to the difficulty of implementing the most basic and fundamental technology we have worked with for decades, never mind advanced concepts nobody has tried before.

    That said, I would not say it is impossible or shouldn’t be attempted. Even if it ultimately isn’t completed, along the way enough will be learned to come up with even better solutions.

    Let me contribute this thought to the ones already stated by other commenters: what about the stability of the cable with respect to oscillation? The space elevator will only be anchored at one end. The rest of the cable and even the terminus are free-floating bodies which will move and accellerate at the whim of the sum total of the forces exerted on the cable, be it orbital mechanics or storm winds. A cable that was pulled taught by a massive cable terminus out just beyond geosynchronous orbit would provide some degree of lateral correction, like spinning a weight around your head attached to a rope, but vibrations in the line would not be damped. Any vibrational energy imparted to the cable from storm-force winds, for example would travel up and down the cable without dissipation in the relatively frictionless environs of space. Imagine the wind induced Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, with the bridge being tens of thousands of miles long and firmly anchored only at one end.

    There are solutions for this problem, and the thousands of other problems inherent in the space elevator or any other engineering task. It will probably require more than $6B and 13 years to solve them all, however.

    I admire the solution from NASA. Much cheaper than the original Apollo program in inflation adjusted dollars, using proven, workable technology and gradually leading to more and more ambitious goals in solid, practical steps. It’s not sexy, perhaps, but it’ll get us there.

    One last thought… for those who inherently distrust the wasteful bureaucracy of most governmental efforts, perhaps we should be looking to the Burt Rutan’s of the world instead of NASA.


  • Tom

    See the article:
    “A Hoist to the Heavens” by: Bradley Carl Edwards
    August issue of IEEE Spectrum Online

  • Any jobs going for X at liftport?

    Not Yet. Subscribe to our monthly annoucenment list – we will post there first when we’re ready to hire people. Having said that – what can you do and what makes you special? Send an mail with your resume to info at liftport dot com. Enthusiasm counts for a lot.

    I’ll say it again – Liftport is not ready to build a space elevator; there are questions that need to be answered first, some of which have been brought up in this post.

    It is worthwile to pursue the answers. If it truly is impossible – then we’ll know and we’ll have added that much to the store of knowledge, and we can retire from the fray knowing that at least we tried.

  • Jason

    One thing I have never heard addressed (including in the report by Dr. Bradley C. Edwards that’s linked to above), is what are the potential ramifications about running a highly conductive ribbon from LEO to ground in light of fairly recently discovered high-altitude electrical phenomena such as sprites, blue jets and other varieties of so-called “mega-lightning.”

    If a strike from a regular bolt of lightning (presumably with a negative charge) would likely destroy the space elevator, which Dr. Edwards acknowledges, one has to think an encounter with positively charged lightning or even mega-lightning would not be pleasant for anyone or anything on the anchor boat, on a lifter, etc.

    Does anyone out there have any thoughts?

  • Thomas Yoon

    One thing occurred to me as I was thinking about this concept last night: what about Coriolis “force”?

    Assuming you have a working space elevator cable, as you raise a mass from the surface out to the terminus, the requirement for increasing angular momentum in the lifted mass will result in a Coriolis “force” that will cause to mass to move perpindicular to the cable in the anti-spinward direction. This exactly reversed for masses moving down the cable which will be “forced”, relative to the Earth’s rotating frame of reference, in the spinward direction.

    One might balance the system by moving an equal mass down as the mass moving up, but this would bend the cable into a rather large S shape and change the stretch of the cable and the radius of the outer terminus path.

    How does one support perpindicular Coriolis loads with nothing more than a flexible vertical cable? Any ideas?


  • Jon

    NASA’s plan is the best solution to getting to the moon as soon as we can.
    The Apollo and shuttle systems have been proven. But, there is still no guarantee supersizing Apollo will work.
    Making one small change, like a different op-amp chip, in a system as complicated as the Shuttle or Apollo can result in failure.
    If nano-tubes are such a great idea, let private industry develop it. It will be done faster, better and cheaper.
    The first ships to the new world were not the most efficient or privately funded. Yet they soon were.

  • William

    What about a hurricane? Will the elevator be hurricane safe like the levees around New Orleans?

    And cost: This project will cost at least 10 times the 6 billion and more likely 100 times the 6 billion.

  • Jeff F

    I would think any tether into space would act as a lightning rod, especially carbon nanotube lines. High voltage in the upper atmosphere will turn even mostly non-conductive high resistance wires into voltage paths. Lasers will ionize the air and increase the lightning rod effect, I would guess.

  • Fta

    How much will the ribbon weigh? Will it break under its own weight?

  • And cost: This project will cost at least 10 times the 6 billion and more likely 100 times the 6 billion.

    Everyone says that. That is, everyone who hasn’t read the source material says that. People who take the time to understand what lofting an Edwards SE involves, and who grasp how much things cost in space generally seem to agree that while 6 billion is a low figure, it’s a realistic figure.

    Is it that we’re conditioned by thirty years of NASA to ‘know’ that things have to be expensive in space? Apollo was a ‘no costs is too high’ program, Shuttle was a political comprimise on all fronts, and ISS changed scope and plans so many times it’s no wonder the costs escalated. Here we have a laser focus on the project, we can avoid pork by letting private enterprise simply build the best system regardless of where the parts are manufactured and we can keep scope creep down. I might be guilty of wishful thinking.

    I’ll challenge you, William, or any other reader, to look at the source material, what the project involves and how much projected costs for sub-systems are and to come up with a pessimistic budget estimate – or a realistic one.

    To make it fair I’ll provide links to the NAIC document, white papers, and pointers to cost schedules. Ping me at brian dot dunbar at liftport dot com

    I’m bettiing it won’t be much north of 20 billion. But I want my assumptions challenged.

    I made this offer in another forum – one person took me up on that offer. I have yet to get back to him, but it’s only been a week and I’m a busy guy so some patience is in order.

  • Will the elevator be hurricane safe like the levees around New Orleans?

    I would think any tether into space would act as a lightning rod, especially carbon nanotube lines.

    How much will the ribbon weigh? Will it break under its own weight?

    I”m going to cop out and point out that all of these answers are in Dr. Edwards NIAC study on space elevators, in detail.

    But in short –
    yes – because hurricanes don’t cross the equator and are unknown in the region where the SE will be.


    look it up

    what would be the point of building a structure that snaps under it’s own weight?

  • Tom M.

    Interesting tech discussion, but the most important element has been missed… Politics. In the current and expected future political environment, where providing a safety net for the elderly, sick and stupid (who build below sea level or on the sea shore and expect other taxpayers to pay for them to rebuild, some more than once) NASA is not likely to get the money to either go back to the Moon or build the elevator. I expect NASA to be dramaticlyy downsized soon, and although I was involved for 7 years in the inital Lunar landing program, I believe NASA should have been eliminated many years ago.

    Most tax dollars will go to medical/biotech research to keep the elderly, sick and stupid alive longer. Not a bad thing as I fall in all three categories, but it leaves little to go for other research.

    But, $6 billion is a drop in the bucket in our capital markets. Recently Yahoo paid $1.5B for a small unknown software outfit, not to mention Google’s initial $23B IPO and current cap in excess of $80B. So, LiftPort, don’t forget to hire some good hucksters!

  • Kevin

    The one thing that may need to be readressed is the force of this thing falling over – while unlikely if designed right, the idea that it “is not a concern” should be a bit troubling. Anything, even of a low weight, coming down from that high up would have severe consequences to whatever it hits – and with a length like that, it could hit an awful lot of stuff. Careful.

    Atmospheric chemistry and electrical disturbances, along with those of the upper atmospher might need to be analysed a bit more before we pronounce this feasible, but I think it ultimately will be – just not so soon or so cheap. Best of luck, NASA.

  • Schmedlap

    What would be less complicated, in terms of stability, risk of flying debris, and electrical issues? Building the elevator on the equator or building the elevator at one of the poles?

  • rcrill

    LabRat is right about the need for many satellites to operate at low earth orbits which are not geosync. Also, GPS satellites operate in the range below the geosync. But any material which is strong enough to serve as a space elevator would have to be very flexible as well as strong. Why not anchor the bottom on a ship (it needs to be near the equator anyway) and move it to the side if the worst happened and a rare collision with a satellite was imminent?

  • rcrill

    Building at the poles won’t work. You need a geosynchronous position for the elevator to “hover” over one spot on the earth’s surface. The earth’s surface has to move under the elevator anchor point in the same time that the center of gravity of the elevator (at 22,500 miles) completes one orbit (24 hours). In other words, it must be at (or very near) the equator.

  • For reasons unknown, my news feeder suddenly delivered days old comments from this post. So it is possible no one is going to read these replies. Anyway . . .

    Kevin:The one thing that may need to be readressed is the force of this thing falling over –

    ‘falling over’ is the wrong mental picture. A structure under compression (say a building) falls over. A space elevator is (will be) a structure under tension, midpoint just above GEO.

    What happens when it fails depends on where it fails, and if it can be caught in time so a controlled failure can happen. More study is needed of course but worse case and the thing is severed just below the mid-point and the entire thing comes down?

    It won’t all stay in one piece. As the bits enter the upper atmosphere they’ll fly apart from the released energy, burn up. The bits lower down wil fall. Probably a mess, but not a catastrophe. The structure is feather light per hundred meters.

    But no it won’t come down in a solid chunk and flay apart the landscape.

  • Tiberian

    I have a proposal, could you combine the makings of project Orion that was abandoned in the 60’s (nuclear bomb-shell propelled spacecraft that would reduce cost to go to space and increase payload by many colorful factors —essentially we could start a space colony) with scramjets.

    PROJECT ORION + SCRAMJETS (another idea in case the space elevator does not follow through). Look up project ORION on the net; it was a spacecraft engineered to be propelled by nuclear bombs (I know it sounds shady, but it worked). It was abandoned because of the apollo program, and the fear that the soviets might concider it a nuclear threat.

    For the scramjet + project orion idea,
    we could use instead, a nuclear reactor, to ionize the stream of oxygen coming in and expand it as fuel—This would be a more efficient scramjet, it would also be more controlled. If any of you have a cousin in NASA, ask him about it, I would be really interested in finding out. I am a space enthusiast and would like to know more.

    My email is



  • Tiberian

    These are two sites for project orion (so you can go to them and know what da hell I am talking about):



  • Tiberian

    sorry, the first site is too short, it just describes the project in two sentences, the second one is more involved–like many pages—-

    so go to the second one—I just found out the first one is crap.


  • Tiberian

    scramjet website…The basic advantages of scramjets is that their fuel is the oxygen in the air, they don’t need to carry tons of fuel, the disadvantage is that the technology is not very controllable–it operates at very fast speeds and the aerodynamics become very sketchy–basically, the problem is that the scramjet only starts operating at very high speeds—the solution? you ‘simulate’ a high speed with an ion engine (nuclear power) to give it the necessary initial energy to be able to compress the oxygen right off the bat.

    The spaceship idea could have several stages—the scramjet and ion stage, which would initiate with an “ignition” or chemical explotion, which would start the scramjet, and the fissil material from the reactor would give the reaction enough heat to keep on compressing the air, which in turn, would become additional fuel and propell the spacecraft to space. Basically fissil powers the scramjet, the scramjet does the propultion—once in space, you can use the ‘ion engine’ (read on google) instead of the scramjet, or a solar sail that unfolds from the top—

    or you could just use this spacecraft (which could be very large, mind you—several football fields in diameter—to transport whole bunch of factories, supplies, and other spaceships, which could then be transported using ion engines in space.

    That is the basic idea, whether it would work or not, I have absolutely no idea—ask someone who does.


  • Tiberian

    furthermore on the idea to acheive ground to orbit transportation with a nuclear propelled spacecraft + scramjet and laser/light technology—picture:

    there could be one spacecraft that would act as an elevator, go up and down to carry things—like the space elevator—but it could continue to do this (because the only dependent fuel on board would be the uranium or fissil material used) the prollent (oxygen) would be gathered from the trip up and down the atmosphere—the engine would operate until the fissil material was used up—to prevent meltdown—there could be two emergency booster rockets inside this enormous spacecraft—which could propell the nuclear reactor to a specified location where it would cause no harm (aka, beyond orbit, or a specified crater in the midwest where it would slam into).

    This is the first space-stage—then after the elevator—you could have a “space station or colony” which was build with the help of the huge payloads from the ‘elevator’—this stage could then be a factor or ‘assembly plant’ —-

    things such as sattelites, communications, spaceflights, space hotels, and spacecrafts built for solar system travel could all be regulated, controlled and built or monitored from this assembly plant—this would be the “goverment” of higher orbit–which would be regulated by some international standard for safety.

    then the spaceships for longer range could be built—these would not be as large as the notorious ‘elevator’ —they would be ion engine based, and could use some solar sail technology—to propell to the moon, and to mars.

    A mars ‘elevator’ could exist and could be transported using ion engines and solar sails to its orbit, where it would descend and then ascend—–a constant supply of fissil material from earth would be necessary—This could be accomplished by enacting a “chain” between mars and earth—by which a powerful laser powered by the sun and constructed at earth orbit by the ‘assmebly plant’ would propell ion engines to accelerate spacecraft and payloads to and from destinations such as mars, moon, and elsewhere in the solar system.

    smaller ships, with small ion engines, and laser propelled ships could be used to explore the asteroid belt, or mine it—then bring valueble materials to earth (it is estimated that if we could bring an asteroid close to earth and mine it–the material worth would be billions—all it requires is a small constant thrust to move an asteroid the size of a football field–easily accomplished with an ion engine)—static asteroids (not moving) could be harnessed as energy producers, by mining to the center and placing geothermal generators—which would take advantage of the heat on one side of the asteroid and the cool side of the other—this heat transfer would pass through the generator–creating energy for whatever colony may be based in the asteroid—these could be assembly plants or repair depots– for further exploration into the solar system—maybe a staging ground or an amplifier for the “laser” based in earth orbit–

    Longer range ships would be larger, solar sail based with ion engine. These could be probes to alpha centauri–which would accelerate close to to decent light speed and reach our notorious neighbor in 40 years.

    ion engines, lasers, and solar sails, would reduce the need for the use of fuel in longer range voyages outside of the solar system. Probes would be sent to search for fissil material. If all fissil material is used up, the probes and spacecraft would operate on orbit based lasers–once they attained a high enough acceleration, the laser would stop pulsing at the spacecraft until it needed to slow down at its destination—if for some reason the spacecraft upon arrival at its destination cannot receive laser pulse to slow it down from earth, it could slingshot around a planet (or the destination if its the planet)–to slow it down by using gravity—computer systems would have enough power to accomplish this much. A backup system run by regular propellent, such as hydrogen would keep the spacecraft in orbit.

    To reach a far destination fast, an ‘elevator’ spacecraft, operated by nuclear bombs could be constructed in the ‘assembly plant’ at earth orbit—-these nuclear bombs would propell the spacecraft close to light speed, which in turn would get it to its destination faster—The spacecraft would go at a safe speed with faster probes just ahead of it to monitor for debris and evade small and large asteroids—a radar would be installed to monitor this throughout the voyage, all systems on board would be powered by laser based pulse from earth and a nuclear reactor on board for redundancy—this type of spacecraft is the one likely to be used with humans on board, or goverment exploration of off-world expeditions, etc.

    yea, hope you liked the story, I sure get carried away. lol


  • Alexa Wallace

    I think that we should work on gettting a better rocket build maybe the new rocket can pervent people from losing there lives doing something that they love to do. Yes it will cost alot of money but i pesonaly think that it will be so much safer than people that we train to lose there life and neverbeable to see there familys again and have the people that love them so much be sufferd by the mistake of NASA!!!!!!

  • […] Over at, they are anxious for NASA to get serious about Space Elevators. […]

  • jake

    I do think a space elavator is a very smart idea
    but not only would it have to go very, very high
    it would have to go very deep too. It would be
    cheaper and quicker to spend time thinking of a
    way to safeley launch a 1 billion dollar nucular
    powered spacecraft without out it turning into a
    nucular projectile. I do think they will build a
    space elavator one day.

  • I do think a space elavator is a very smart idea
    but not only would it have to go very, very high
    it would have to go very deep too

    Unh, no. An SE as envisioned by Liftprot is under balanced tension – hangs down (in) and up (out) from it’s midpoint. No digging needed.

  • to whom this might concern,
    my grandfather was an elevator inspector for in new york and i went with him sometimes to some of the contract accounts including the empire state building ,and my god father was the scientist who invented one part of the apollo programs rocket fuel ,I myself did some work in the 80 s for nasa and the air force and the us navy and the army .personally I think your idea is interesting but a solid link system wouldnt work and if anything would work at an affordable price it would have to be something like a nuclear powered electromagnetic projection system allowin a car to move inside a projected electromagnetic feild utilizing some kind of superconducting material to envelope the hull of the car not unlike the way the tiles coverthe shuttle hull only the composit could be molded
    over a carrage the powerplant would be ground based and the receiver would have to be in orbit
    with its own power supply and transit windows would have to be calculated for daily launch window use and possibly utilizing ion thrusters
    to correct orbiting alignment pre tansit launches that would definitely save alot of rocket fuel and machinists minds trying to rebuild the shuttle between launches and increase productivity
    to help assist with the iss and possibly other larger vessels for later deep space exploration.thanks for your time
    sincerely paul carlozzi

  • nrwing

    I just stumbled across this space elevator thing while doing some research and I am shocked and elated that its even being seriously researched. I remember dreaming about it in college but didn’t know it was this far along.

    I played around with a lot of numbers myself along with the technologies needed. I would bet the carbon nanotubes have a better chance than the laser powered climbers of coming to fruition anytime soon, although I could easily be wrong.

    My question is why not a pulley system instead? One primary drive pulley at or just below sea level, and the other drive “assist” pulley at geostationary orbit. From there would be two separate static tethers continuing on out to the counterweight. In addition, two smaller (say 2 feet in width) static lines would run in parallel, one on each side on each side of the primary lift system all the way from the ground station to the counterweight. These would be used to provide additional stability, tracking, etc. They would also be used as the track for interplanetary launching. Once the carrier module was hoisted up to geo-stationary via the primary pulley system, it would detach itself from the primary pulley and activate its small drive unit that is attached to the smaller full length tether which would send it onward using a small boost of some sort in addition to the now dominant centrifugal forces on out to the great beyond where it would fly by the counterweight at incredible speed.

    I see many beneits to this over a single thread such as maintenance and strength that I won’t bother getting into now, but I am more interested in exactly why this would not be feasible. I have seen this idea mentioned a couple times and then blown off, but the reasons were not given. A pulley is not as sexy as a laser propelled capsule, but its got teeth (literally). And there is no reason why the laser type could not be developed and used anyway later on if it becomes viable.

    The lift capability, reliability, maintenance, simplicity, and safety would seem to be far more reasonable using this method. The only question I can think of is if the carbon nanotubes could handle the trip around a 100 foot diameter pulley….and since we do not have a full understanding of this material yet that is not a good answer. Plus, if they are planning on clamping tank-like treads around the tether, I would think the wear and tear would be far worse in that situation.

    A 100 foot diameter pulley rotation at 200 rpm would get a load to geo in about 1.3 days at 713 mph, just as fast or faster than a laser powered unit could ever do. 200 rpm is nothing.

    Anyway…..if anyone has ANY idea of why this is out of the question I would love to hear it…..


  • Charles

    I see several comments about using a pully system for the elevator. In order to build a teather from earth to the counterbalance positioned at 2X geosyncronous orbit, the teather will have to be thickest at geo and tapor to a thiner cross section at both ends. How would you get such a line to run over a pulley?

  • This could be a great idea. only, one problem, you have the huge volage difference from the ionosphere to the ground. Thousands of millions of volts would stream from the sky to the ground. Thus, vaporizing the elivator and “Shorting out” the weather system. However, if you could manage the energey, you could use it to power the lasers as said before of an EM prepultion system.