Our Place in Space: An Elevator to Space

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, E is for…

AN ELEVATOR TO SPACE

It takes a lot of fuel to get to space.  We’ve talked about this before, and we’re going to talk about it again (and again and again).  In order for the human race to take our rightful place in space, we’re going to have to dream up some clever and crafty ways to reduce the fuel costs of space travel.  One idea—an idea so crazy it might work—would be to build an elevator to space.

So how would we build a space elevator?  Here’s one method: the first step would be to place a space station in geostationary orbit.  Next, our space station would lower a cable all the way down to Earth’s surface.  For the purposes of gravitational stability, the space station would also have to extend a second cable straight out into space, to serve as a counterweight to the weight of the first cable.

Once both cables are fully extended, an elevator carriage could be attached to the cable here on the ground.  Then just press a button, and the elevator takes you to space!

This whole space elevator system would still require an enormous amount of energy.  Also, a ride on the space elevator would take a really long time.  Some sources I’ve looked at say reaching the “top floor” would take several days; others say it would be more like several weeks.  And safety concerns should not be overlooked, because if that elevator cable ever broke, it could become a big problem all around the world (or at least all the way around Earth’s equator, if you catch my meaning).

Still, compared to launching rockets, this would be a far more cost effective and fuel efficient way to transport people and materials from the ground up into space.  As for the safety concerns, we just have to be sure we make that cable out of some really, really, really, really, really, really, really strong material, to ensure that it never breaks!  One problem: no such material is known to exist yet.  Carbon nanotubes and other experimental nano-materials might be strong enough, or they might fall a bit short of being strong enough.  It’s hard to say at this point.

So this is definitely not a thing we can build right now, but maybe someday in the distant future, going space will be as easy as riding an elevator.  I just hope they come up with better elevator music by then.

Want to Learn More?

I’m going to recommend this short video from Kurzgesagt (In a Nutshell) on space elevators.

I’m also going to recommend this slightly longer and slightly more technical video from Real Engineering.