Some of you may have heard awhile ago on KickStarter about one project, that although wildly funded, and a project that made headlines, a project that was never delivered on its backer requests: The LiftPort Space Elevator project. I was hired on with LiftPort as IT after the famous/infamous KickStarter attempt. And I won’t be speaking to a lot of stuff about what happened at LiftPort due to NDAs that I’m still under. (I will say that we got amazingly close to setting out what we set out to do, but the biggest barrier was, and remains for most R&D projects, money-related.)
The question remains… ‘why’? We have rockets, we can fly a man to the moon. Why something as big, difficult, and ambitious as a space elevator? Doesn’t what we have work?
The short answer is.. “No.”
Rockets don’t work. Sure, they work in they operate as they are designed to, but what they don’t do is succeed in their intended purpose: To get humanity to be a spacefaring species. They’re just too expensive. I cannot personally save up and take my family to a vacation on the moon. I can’t sell my car and buy a little glass dome on mars. I can’t go to Jupiter and visit a city in the clouds. This is all stuff, back when we had the first moon landing, that we thought we’d be able to do by now.
The space shuttle program was an attempt to bring the costs down… it actually increased them (although did increase reliability and payload size).
A space elevator is much easier to build than you’d think. The majority of the tech already exists, and for the first-gen elevator, the payload size you need to get into space weighs about as much as a Tesla, which is deliverable even by the private space industry. (The initial build is little more than a tiny satallite with an unspooling motor and two large spools of a specialized string).
The hard parts are climbing robots which already exist in multiple varieties, and the tether string (which exist in strong enough forms for one on the moon, but are still in the some final phases of research for one strong enough for an Earth space elevator. The material already exists, carbon nanotubes, it’s more an issue of quantity.)
Really, at this point, the limiting factor is our willpower as a species.
Once we have functioning space elevators, everything changes:
- Living space. If there’s one thing space isn’t short on, it’s… well… space. There’s room enough for everyone and then some.
- Global warming can be addressed in a big way. Heavy industry would benefit greatly from lower gravity environments. Heavy industry on the moon would be easier than on Earth (the Lunar surface is covered in regolith, which is basically raw minerals, pre-ground-up, ready for the taking, and the lack of an atmosphere makes cold welding possible, drastically lowering the cost of lots of manufacturing). Further, there’s the advantage of this is there is no environment on the moon. There’s no life. It’s a dead world, which means there’s nothing to hurt. In fact, a lot of heavy industry would actually benefit the livability of the environment on the moon. And without environmental regulations there, heavy industry can move off Earth, giving both a much needed breather.
- More Global warming solutions are available with space access than on Earth. Solar panels are MUCH more efficient in space than on Earth, due to the atmosphere. Solar shades can be deployed to lower heating. All of these require heavy payloads moving back and forth, which is only possible with a space elevator.
- Any refugee situation. Refugees always have the problem of where they flee to, displacing local workforce and homes. going back to the “Plenty of space in space”, there’s an obvious place for refugees to go… start a new colony all of their own. This leads to the next point…
- It’s really hard to oppress people if they leave. Oppressive regimes, if there’s a reliable place to go, will have a really hard time keeping a population to feed off of. In short, governments have to work more on “carrot diplomacy” rather than “stick diplomacy” to manage their population.
- Depopulation — The Earth is overpopulated. Rockets can’t move enough people to make a dent in that population. In fact, there’s not enough fuel in the world to rocket everyone off the planet. However, space elevators, with their low energy cost to reach orbit, means everyone on Earth could leave and come back for the occasional family trip. And with that opportunity, many will just find a home they like better elsewhere, meaning much needed breathing-room for the Earth.
- Resources — there are plenty of resources in our solar system that are rare or completely unavailable on Earth. One of the biggest of these is Tritium. It’s abundant in the solar system, and worth not only more than it’s weight in gold, but more than it’s weight in lots of more expensive things as well; but it’s abundant on the moon. And it’s a much more powerful (and cleaner) fuel source than any fossil fuel. All of our energy needs would literally be instantly solved.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s massive amounts of resources in asteroids, amazing possibilities on the moons of the gas giants, energy being able to be harvested closer to the sun, and much more. Cheap space travel opens up more than world of opportunities to us. To put it simply, it’s worth it to us as a species. Not just because it’s cool (although it’s definitely that) but because it lets us fix most of our problems.