06 October 2012

Scientific American: “Space Elevator Enthusiasts Push On despite Lengthy Time Frames and Long Odds”

The space elevator breaks the rocket paradigm because it does not carry its own fuel, Laubscher says. He believes chemical technology is near its limit, bound by the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation to deliver only about 5 percent of its initial mass into Earth orbit. Those inefficiencies meant that it cost $64,000 for the space shuttle to put one kilogram into low-earth orbit (LEO); an elevator, Laubscher calculates, could do it with 17.2 kilowatt-hours of electricity—about two dollars’ worth. David Appell

Somehow I always felt this kind of project will never see the light of day – or the darkness of space, in this case. It’s not necessarily about the technology – which isn’t there yet, but could be in a decade or so – but more about the politics. Where would you place the elevator? Who will control the massive influx of capital into the building and the ‘lucky’ country? And how will the potential risks be handled? If you read Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson you might recall the elevator on Mars was brought down by terrorist activity and wrecked havoc across the entire planet. Do we risk something like that happening on Earth? A space elevator would become the ultimate single point of failure for space travel; even small accidents that would require it to go through extended maintenance would halt all traffic and – assuming we start mining the Moon and asteroids – would cut supplies of raw materials, hurting the economy.

But a space elevator on the Moon, well, that’s another matter entirely…

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