Going Up, WAY Up

tethered satellite experiment STS-75 Space Shuttle Atlantis
NASA
Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers are proposing an elevator reaching 62,000 miles into the sky to launch payloads into space more cheaply than the shuttle can.

"The first country that owns the space elevator will own space," said lab scientist Bryan Laubscher. "I believe that, and I think Los Alamos should be involved in making that happen."

One of the first to broach the concept was major science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, in his novel "Fountains of Paradise" in 1953. In his introduction to a later edition, Clarke wrote in 2000, "the space elevator does indeed seem to be an idea whose time has (almost) come."

Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis conducting an experiment with a tethered satellite had a copy of the novel with them.

Some Los Alamos scientists are so convinced it can be a reality that they are working on their own time on technical details.

Five to 10 scientists at any given time are analyzing the economics, technical specifications of how the elevator would work and possible health risks to those using it. Laubscher said the grassroots effort hopes the U.S. Department of Energy could someday use the information as a start for investing in a space elevator.

The elevator shaft would be made of a very strong, thin, lightweight material called carbon nanotubes attached to the Earth's equator. The shaft, really a 32 million-story-tall cable, would be carried into orbit on a conventional spacecraft, then gradually dropped down to Earth to be attached to a platform similar to an ocean oil-drilling rig.

Solar-powered crawlers would move up and down the shaft, carrying payloads of satellites or probes to be placed in Earth's orbit or beyond. They also would attach additional cables to the main shaft that eventually would become new elevators.

"It would create huge, huge savings over how we launch stuff now," said Ron Morgan, a health scientist working on the project. "From the top of it, we could throw things off to Mars or to the inner solar system. Launching those things on conventional rockets costs a fortune."

Significant technical questions remain.

No one has made a carbon nanotube cable longer than a few feet but Laubscher said technology is improving daily, and a cable could be possible in a few years.

Earth's magnetosphere, far above where the shuttle typically travels, could be a radiation hazard. Scientists say that doesn't rule out equipment launches or space tourism in lower orbits.

"We don't have a lot of experience sending people through those radiation belts," said Anders Jorgensen, another lab scientist on the project. "In fact, the Apollo astronauts are the only ones that have gone through there, and they went through much faster than the space elevator will go."

A payload on the shuttle costs about $15,000 per kilogram to launch into orbit. A 150-pound person weighs 68 kilograms.

A payload on the first space elevator likely would cost about $1,000 per kilogram, which could drop to $50 to $100 in time, Laubscher said.

"Space is not really being exploited or used as a revenue opportunity because it's so expensive to get to space," he said. "The space elevator is the only thing that could really meet that economy of scale. It gets cheaper every time you use it because none of the parts is destroyed."

Backers say the elevator would make it affordable to launch solar power satellites.

Such satellites could collect as much energy as a nuclear power plant and beam it anyplace on Earth, they said.

That would make people "less dependent on other, dirtier power sources," project scientist Mervin Kellum suggested.

The researchers believe their time on the project is worth it.

"None of us can imagine how the space elevator will change the world," Morgan said. "I'd love to be here 15 years after the first one is built to see how the world changes. I think it will change everything."