A space elevator might arrive sooner, and cost less, than you think

I’ve always thought that Arthur C. Clarke’s space elevator idea was intriguing, but until recently I never thought much more about it. Then I heard that Microsoft was co-sponsoring, and hosting, the 2008 Space Elevator Conference. This annual event isn’t a science fiction convention. It gathers a diverse group of passionate scientists and engineers who have, in recent years, morphed Clarke’s original vision into something that could cost less, and arrive sooner, than you think.

I wound up doing two separate interviews on this topic. On my Perspectives show, I spoke with Ted Semon, a retired software engineer who runs a blog that chronicles the movement to develop this new version of Clarke’s idea. And on Interviews with Innovators, I spoke with Maurice Franklin, a Microsoft performance and scalability engineer whose passion for this topic brought the conference to Microsoft this year.

I have no idea whether a space elevator will be built in my lifetime, if at all. And while it would surely be a game-changer, I’m not sure just which games it would change, or how. Energy? Economy? Climate? All are conceivable.

If we could in fact do this for $10 billion (a small fraction of the cost of the Iraq war), and do it in 20 years (a small multiple — I hope! — of the final duration of the Iraq war), should we?

Again, I don’t know. But it would be an incredible option to have on the table. It’s fascinating to learn how an international coalition of innovators is working to create that option.

The fact that Microsoft hosted and co-sponsored this conference, by the way, does not imply any kind of corporate endorsement of the space elevator effort. This was purely a grassroots thing. Maurice Franklin wanted to help, George Spix thought it was an interesting event to bring to campus, and so it happened.

6 Comments

  1. Probably more than 10 billion. That estimate (in my opinion) requires that the builder leave out a great deal of flight and equipment testing that is required. It also ignores the cost of taking what are prototypes (the FE laser, for example) and turning them into production ready hardware.

    It also completely ignores the political and legal costs: lawyers are expensive, and anyone who wants to build an SE is going to need a lot of very smart ones.

    And we can’t even _make_ the material that must make up the ribbon. Could be along soon – there are enough other uses for it. Or it be along later. Twenty years is a good guess (Liftport’s informed guess is 2031) but it’s only a guess.

    On the other hand … the cost should be comparable to building a conventional launch solution – and a SE can scale in ways a rocket can’t. Plus your first SE can slash the cost for building a second SE.

  2. Good for the employees of Microsoft! It’s interesting to see how tech intersects with New Space (lots of former and current Paypal, Amazon, Google, etc. money going into this).

    If anyone does hit on a low cost space access solution, it’ll change many games. It’s all very exciting!

  3. The Moon landings cost, as a proportion of US GNP, $370bn in today’s terms (still a small fraction of the Iraq war) & at the end they didn’t have anything tangible. At say $20 bn a space elevator could be done by any country whose economy is 1/18th the size of America’s with no greater sacrifice than Kennedy persuaded America into then.

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