Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the pioneer scientist who formulated the Rocket Equation, is inspired by the Eiffel Tower to describe an imaginary tower so tall, that its tip would become orbital. If you were to step off from the observation deck at the top of this tower, just like in the cartoons, you will simply stay floating next to it. It is ironic that this inspiration paved the way to the Space Elevator, which is the only Earth-to-space system that can break the "curse" of the Rocket Equation
This is the seminal Space Elevator proposal by Yuri Artsutanov. This development is widely credited as the invention of the Space Elevator, since for the first time it is correctly identified as a Tension Structure - a taut tether rather than a tall tower. The concept of the Space Elevator was so radical that Yuri couldn't get it published. Instead, the article appeared in the youth section of the Russian "Pravda" newspaper. The article is technically light, but it is obvious that Yuri Artsutanov did go through at least some of the details, except that of course the youth section of Pravda probably was not the right platform for mathematical analysis... In the article, Yuri Artsutanov introduces the concept of the taper and the ribbon geometry, and discusses deployment and bootstrapping schemes. He also surveys other places to build a Space Elevator - the moon, Mars, and even Mercury! The advance made with this publication is that the base description of the Space Elevator is now physically correct. The tall tower was an unstable structure that would sink directly into the Earth under its own weight, buckle, and snap - probably all at the same time... The tension structure, on the other hand, is probably the most stable structure ever conceived - the world's tallest pendulum. Artsutanov followed up with another paper in 1969.
The team of Isaacs, Vine, Bradner, and Bachus publishes Satellite Elongation into a True Sky-Hook in Science Magazine. This is the first publication in a leading scientific journal, and is an independent effort from Artsutanov's. The paper covers most of the basics of the Space Elevator, including the proposal of a small scale Space Elevator.
The first robust mathematical treatment of the Space Elevator concept, by Jerome Pearson. This is also an independent effort from previous ones. Jerome Pearson, then working for the United States Air Force, describes the mathematical underpinnings of the Space Elevator in a rigorous and detailed manner. Pearson introduces the concept of taper, and calculates the profile of the tether, and addresses material selection ("perfect-crystal whiskers of graphite"). Pearson also describes the transfer of angular momentum from the Earth to the climber, interplanetary launches, preferred tether length, oscillation analysis, and discusses some of the hazards to the Space Elevator such as winds and lunar-induced oscillations. The bibliography section of this page points to other relevant papers. Pearson also advocates a Lunar Space Elevator.
The Fountains of Paradise by Sir Arthur C. Clarke is not exactly a technological step towards the Space Elevator but it is a huge step in terms of public perception. For the first time, the concept propagates beyond the small group of aerospace scientists into the vastly larger (yet still small) group of Science Fiction readers. Also published in 1979 - The Web Between the Worlds by Dr. Charles Sheffield. Sir Clarke publishes an open letter saying that this is more than a coincidence, but simply a case of an invention whose time has come.
This is something that happens less than once in a generation - Dr. Sumio Iijima discovered a new type of material, one that's been predicted before but never produced intentionally in a lab. Carbon Nanotubes are molecular-scale filaments of pure Carbon that exhibit a lot of interesting properties, not the least important of which is tensile strength - in fact, Carbon Nanotubes seem to be more than strong enough to build a Space Elevator. Carbon Nanotubes are only a few nanometers in diameter, but can be grown, theoretically, to any length. Carbon Nanotubes that are a few cm in length can be combined to create an infinitely long tether.
In Japan, Fujil Ishihara and Ryuichi Kaneko published Kidou-Elevator ("orbital elevator"), which may be the first technical book published on Space Elevators. It was republished in 2009.
Following a call by Arthur C. Clark, NASA investigates the concept of the Space Elevator. The study was conducted by Marshall Space Flight Center, and steered closely to the design depicted by Arthur C. Clarke in the Fountains of Paradise. The almost inescapable conclusion was that a Space Elevator with that design is not feasible within the foreseeable future.
Dr. Brad Edwards completes Phase I of his NIAC study about the Space Elevator. Many concepts that are now considered to be part of the 'baseline design' including an ocean-based earth station, carbon nanotube tether, various hazards, etc. are laid out in this study.
The first Space Elevator Conference is held in Seattle, Washington, USA.
Dr. Brad Edwards completes Phase II of his NIAC study about the Space Elevator. Concepts outlined in the Phase I study are now expanded. This study becomes the base of the book that he and Eric Westling publish that year.
Dr. Brad Edwards and Eric Westling publish this landmark book, the treatise that is the baseline for every serious discussion about a Space Elevator today.
Marc Boucher starts up this site, probably the first online reference site about the space elevator.
Michael Laine forms Liftport, a commercial entity intended to incubate Space Elevator related technologies. Liftport experiments with Carbon Nanotube production and tethered balloon towers, but is not a commercial success.
Ben Shelef and Meekk Shelef create the Spaceward Foundation and approach NASA with the idea of funding a Space Elevator prize. NASA buys into the concept and allocates a $400,000 prize purse for advances in tether strength and power beaming. The first games are launched less than a year after the proposal is accepted (2005) and are a great success. A tradition is formed, and NASA responds by increasing the prize purse to $4 Million! The games continue to follow a very aggressive roadmap.
These competitions, organized by the Spaceward Foundation and with prize money supplied by NASA, are intended to promote the technologies of Power-Beaming and Strong Tethers. While NASA does not endorse the concept of a Space Elevator, their need for these technologies, which are also key technologies to make a Space Elevator a reality, lead to a synergy between NASA and the Space Elevator Community.
Ted Semon starts up the the Space Elevator Blog in order to capture the real-time progress and experience of the Space Elevator community.
The first European organization with a focus on the Space Elevator is formed. This group holds yearly conferences devoted, in part, to Space Elevator activities. They also go on to, at a later date, organize the European Space Elevator Competition (EuSEC).
The first Japanese organization with a focus on the Space Elevator is formed. This group holds yearly conferences and workshops devoted entirely to the Space Elevator. They also host two annual space elevator competitions; LASER and JSETEC.
ISEC is formed by members of the Space Elevator community in order organize activities in the technical, legal, political, public relations, and business arenas.
The Japan Space Elevator Association hosts the first annual JSETEC (Japan Space Elevator Technical & Engineering competition) and LASER (Laser bricks Activity and Space Elevator Race) events. These are now held every year.
LaserMotive, out of Seattle, Washington, USA, is the first winner of NASA prize money in the Spaceward-organized, NASA-sponsored power-beaming prize competition, USD 900,000.
ISEC sponsors the attendance of these two pioneer Space Elevator researchers at the 2010 Space Elevator Conference. Their appearance comes on the 50 year anniversary of Yuri Artsutanov's original publication in Komsomolskaya Pravda, the document that set the entire Space Elevator effort into motion.
ISEC creates the Artsutanov and Pearson prizes, competitions designed to foster research into space elevator related topics.
ISEC publishes the first annual ISEC Report (Space Debris Mitigation - Space Elevator Survivability). These reports are an in-depth look at the current status of a particular aspect of space elevator-related interests.
EuroSpaceward organizes and hosts the first European Space Elevator Games (EuSEC).
ISEC publishes Volume 1 / Number 1 of CLIMB, the first Journal devoted solely to the Space Elevator.
The next development could be yours! Join the Space Elevator community, make the proposals.
A Space Elevator (SE) can be thought of as a vertical railroad into space. A cable (Tether) stretches from the ground to a Counterweight 100,000 km up/out in space. Elevator cars (Climbers), powered by electricity travel up and down the Tether and carry cargo and eventually humans to and from space. A longer description: What is a Space Elevator (in 500 words or less)?
Cargo Capacity: Using a Tether that is just 2.5 inches in diameter could support the lifting of three complete International Space Stations per day, the highly scalable nature of the elevator allow this capacity to be expanded almost infinitely.
Cost: Shipping cargo into space will be significantly reduced in price to the realm of dollars per kilogram compared with over $20,000 per kilogram today
Safety: Though much slower than a conventional rocket, the ride is much smoother, akin to riding on a high-speed railway line, this means there are no high-g forces or explosives
The Tether: This is the ‘railway’ that stretches from the earth to orbit, about 100,000 km into space. Made from carbon nanotubes, it will be stronger than any construction material today.
The Ground Station: This structure serves to anchor the Tether to Earth and as the loading and unloading station. It will be located on or very near the earth’s equator.
The Counterweight: This is a large mass located at the outer end of the Tether to keep the Tether taut.
The Climbers: These are the ‘elevator cars’ traveling up and down the Tether, carrying cargo and eventually humans into orbit.
The Power Sources for the Climbers: A combination of lasers and the sun will illuminate solar cells on the Climbers, giving them the energy necessary for the week long journey into space.
The Tether will stretch straight up 100,000 km from the Ground Station to the Counterweight. Someone looking at this from the earth’s surface will see an impossibly thin cable standing straight up from the Ground Station and quickly vanishing into the sky above. Several lasers will shine up from the base of the Tether like giant pillars of light to provide power for the Climbers that can also be seen slowly working their way up to space. From farther away, the only proof that the Tether is there at all will be a slight glint from the sun as the light is caught at just the right angle.
Periodically a Climber carrying cargo or people will be attached at the Ground Station. The Climbers will ascend the Tether, quickly leave the atmosphere and begin to make their way past Low Earth Orbit, between 160 and 2000 km up. While passing through this zone, cargo can be jettisoned to enter its own orbit around the earth. After four to five days, the Climber will reach Geosynchronous Orbit where more cargo will be detached. The cargo that remains on the tether above Geosynchronous Orbit will be moving faster than required to stay in orbit and can be detached and sent to destinations such as the Moon or Mars. The Climbers will then ascend to the end of the Tether where they will become part of the Counterweight. Several Climbers will be on the Tether at all times, each carrying their own small propulsion systems to ‘move’ the Tether out of the way of orbiting satellites and large space debris. Smaller space debris will be allowed to impact the Tether with the resulting damage taken care of by the Maintenance Climbers. Maintenance Climbers will be a constant companion of the Tether. They will travel the tether, continuously inspecting it and making repairs.
Imagine you are holding a rope with a weight attached to the end. If you swing the rope in a circle at a sufficient speed, the rope will become taut, revolving about your hand. The force pulling the rope taut is known as centrifugal force. This same centrifugal force, generated by the rotation of the earth, will pull the Space Elevator Tether upwards into space (outwards from the earth).
The idea of a Space Elevator can be attributed to several different visionaries spread over more than one hundred years. In 1895 a Russian scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first proposed a tower into space. In 1959 another Russian scientist, Yuri Artsutanov came up with the idea of a tensile structure, something being pulled away rather than built up, to get into space. This idea used a satellite in Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) to send a Tether down to the earth. In 1966 the idea moved in the U.S. with four American scientists writing an article about their “sky-hook” in the journal Science. American Jerome Pearson independently ‘discovered’ the idea of a Space Elevator and, in 1975 published his concept of the “Orbital Tower”. By 1979 the concept was being spread to a larger audience by Arthur C. Clark in his novel The Fountains of Paradise.
The project will start with an initial ‘seed’ ribbon, about 80 tons of material, which will be lofted into orbit with conventional rockets. The parts will be assembled in Low Earth Orbit and then boosted to GEO to a point above the Ground Station. Once stable in GEO the seed ribbon will be built both upwards and downwards to maintain equilibrium at the center of mass of the structure. Since the Tether being built away from the Earth is being pulled by less gravity the longest part of the Tether will stretch away from GEO. Once the ribbon reaches the Ground station, it will be captured and downward deployment will cease. With this basic ‘seed’ ribbon is in place it will be possible to add more Tether material to increase carrying capacity. A Tether just 7 cm thick would be able to lift more than 1000 tons of material per day. In other words, the International Space Station that the entire world has spent over a decade building could be lifted to orbit in less than one day.
The first important term for this question is Specific Strength. A spider web might not seem very strong but it has a high Specific Strength because of what it can hold versus its thickness. This is very important for a Space Elevator because all of the material will have to be lifted into space and because the Tether will have to be able to hold itself together over a great distance. The standard unit of measurement for Specific Strength is stress/density or Pascal/(kg/m3), for our purposes this can be adjusted to be GPa-cc/g (1Gpa-cc/g = 1 million Pascal/(kg/m3)). For simplicity ISEC has adopted the measurement scale of Yuri’s, named after Yuri Artsutanov, where 1 MYuri is equal to 1 GPa-cc/g. Steel wire has a specific strength of about .5MYuri. Now we enter the realm of what is technically needed to build a Tether into space versus what is required to make a practical Space Elevator. A Tether with a specific strength of 25MYuri could be built but it would require a lot of mass and would not really be able to lift much. In the Space Elevator Feasibility Condition, the Spaceward Foundation's Ben Shelef discusses this problem in detail and shows how several factors enter into the question. The bottom line is that stronger is better with 30-40 MYuri’s being the best bet for a practical Space Elevator, well within the predicted limits for carbon nanotubes. Less initial material and more payload to orbit will increase the rate at which a Space Elevator becomes a profitable venture.
ISEC is a central organizing force for the Space Elevator. We sponsor academic prizes for research, contribute to conferences and seek partnerships with international groups to assist in our goals. ISEC is also developing a library of papers and articles on the SE to provide a ready source of material for research use. With its “Four pillars” (Technical, Legal, Business and Outreach), ISEC is working to answering all the questions and solving all of the problems necessary to make this concept a reality.
A more detailed FAQ can be found at the Spaceward website.
See also: Why do I want a Space Elevator?
There are several other resources available if you want to learn more about the Space Elevator.
ISEC annually selects a 'Theme' to focus its activities around for that year. One of the yearly activities of ISEC is to commission a Report based on the annual study focusing on the ISEC Theme. Each report is not intended to break new ground but is, instead, designed to provide a broad, definitive and current look at the topic in question. It's also intended to counteract some of the misinformation that is so prevalent about the Space Elevator.
This ISEC Study can be conducted among the auspices of any ISEC’s activities, depending on the topic. If it is Technical in nature, it falls into the purview of the technical leads.
Each ISEC Report is directed by a Report Team Lead. This person is selected by the ISEC Board of Directors and responsible for the year long study, to include: assemble a team, research the available literature, analyze the information, and prepare the report. Once the preliminary Report is completed, it is sent out to a broad list of people (including attendees at the International Space Elevator Conference) for comments. These comments are then incorporated, as appropriate, into the report and then a more formal review process takes place. The reports from each of the studies based upon yearly themes are:
Direct links to all ISEC generated Study Reports can be found below.
More detailed page is: ISEC Space Elevator Reports for Download
This report will be available from the ISEC web site, ISEC store, or directly from the publisher, Lulu.com [after publication in March 2017].
There is a lot of activity in Space Elevator Research:
Studies: Chair – Dennis Wright
2010 Space Debris: Skip Penny, Peter Swan, Cathy Swan
2011 Search for 30 MYuri: Bryan Laubscher
2012 Ops Concept: Skip Penny, Peter Swan, Cathy Swan
2013 Tether Climbers: Peter Swan, Skip Penny, Peter Glaskowsky, John Knapman, Cathy Swan
2014 Architectures: Fitzer Fitzgerald, Skip Penny, Cathy Swan, Peter Swan
2015 Earth Port: Vern Hall, Skip Penny, Sandee Schaeffer, Peter Glaskowsky
2016 GEO/AA/Comm’s: Paul Phister, Fitzer Fitzgerald, Vern Hall, Skip Penny, Peter Swan, Peter Glaskowsky, Ron Cole, David Ackerman, Chris Malek
2017 Design Considerations for Space Elevator Simulation
Most recent ISEC Space Elevator email newsletters:
Click for more ISEC Space Elevator Newsletters.