Building a Space Elevator - History, Theory and Practice

The idea of a space elevator has captured the imagination of humanity for over 100 years. As time has gone on, it has become apparent that it is not a question of if we will build a space elevator, but when. As the greatest obstacle for humanity in colonizing space is escaping Earth's “gravity well” cheaply and efficiently, the construction of a space elevator is of utmost importance and significance for humanity's space future. From the sub orbital level of a space elevator, it will be much easier to travel on to the Moon, Mars and Asteroid Belt, than if these missions had originated on Earth. This is due to most of the rocket fuel and energy for space missions actually being used to escape Earth's gravity and atmosphere - so if we can easily reach Earth orbit with a space elevator these costs will be dramatically reduced. It will also be possible to construct spaceships in Earth orbit (of any size), which will not have to be designed to enter and exit Earth's, or any other planet's, atmosphere. Exciting times!

If I was a billionaire I would actually build the first space elevator: imagine owning the only cheap and easy way to access space! From here it would be (relatively) child's play to mine Helium 3 from the moon, harvest resources from the asteroid belt, launch missions to Mars, establish a permanent human colony on the moon, set up space hotels in Earth orbit, give the public access to different levels on the space elavator (imagine hotels all the way up at different levels), launch intergalactic missions and probes, and much much more. If we could work on an open source space elevator, who knows, maybe one day Devcoin will offer a bounty to help develop a space elevator and perhaps even be a partial owner of such an endeavour. Once imagined, nothing is impossible.

The History of Space Elevators

A space elevator sounds like a science fiction based concept, or “stairway to heaven” about which we may have read so many times. But it’s not just a flight of fancy; the greatest space scientists are now trying to make this dream come true. The concept of a space elevator was first imagined and inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Through this section you will come to know about the entire history of the idea of building a space elevator; enabling easier access to space for all of humanity.

In the Year 1895

A renowned scientist who had established the rocket equation first imagined that if the Eiffel tower became long enough and its tip became orbital, then it was possible that we might remain floated by the side of it. This simple idea helped in the upcoming years in conceiving the space elevator.

In the Year 1960

In 1960 an engineer Yuri Artsutanov came to a final decision to build the entire structure of the space elevator. But he did not dare to publish it. But it came in light through the Russian “Pravda”. The concept was very sound but there were some errors in the structure. The error was that the elevator might drop back onto the earth because of its weight.

In the Year 1966

In this year a famous group of scientists along with John Isaacs proposed the concept of a space elevator again. John Isaacs was the leader of a team working at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography . But there were some defects in their final design. Their design of the thin wire was the main defect as micro-meteorites might cut the thin wire in seconds, and the idea was fully dependent on imagination with no practical foundation.

In the Years 1967 and 1969

Many proposals came to light in these days, but they could not be built as they were not able to establish their long cable satellite method as a space elevator. Then the scientist Jerome Pearson also came with his unique content and thesis on the space elevator.

In the Year 1974

The president of STAR, Inc. Jerome Pearson’s angle on constructing a space elevator was unique. It got an appropriate mathematical abbreviated in 1974. Then he was in the Air Force research laboratory and published his concept in the international journal. Finally the concept of a space elevator began getting attention from the entire world. Then it began to be studied and worked on in earnest. Pearson developed his concept extensively. describing the taper, and calculating the profile of the space elevator's tether. He also talked about angular momentum in his thesis paper.

In the Year 1979

The famous science fiction author Arthur Sir C. Clarke published a science fiction work called “The fountain of Paradise”. Through which the concept of a space elevator began to reach the mainstream even more, rather than just the scientists. Not only this but also many science fiction works were published which featured space elevators, such as Dr. Charles Sheffield's “The web between the worlds”.

In the Year 1991

This time a very different and interesting matter came out with huge ramifications for the construction of a space elevator. A very unique material was discovered by the Dr. Sumio Lijima. This revolutionary material was called a carbon nanotube which was perfect to use in the structure of the space elevator. This material was so useful due to its unique properties of possessing a very, very high tensile strength. As a space elevator would be subject to astronomonical centrifugal forces as it is slingshotted around the Earth - Carbon nanotubes offered a solution in possessing the necessary qualities to withstand these forces. Carbon nanotubes can be turned into any shape as needed, as they are only a few nanometers in diameter.

In the Year 1999

After getting a reminder from C. Clark NASA finally takes the concept in their hand to investigate it. The NASA Space Flight Center took the project under their consideration and designed a stable space elevator on the earth which was so close to the concept of Arthur C. Clarke according to the “Fountain of Paradise”. The proposal of Pearson also was possible to be established then, which might be used to communicate with any future bases on the moon.

From The Years 2000 To Present

There were so many important events and inventions related to constructing a space elevator in these years of science. The first case is the NIAC-Phase I in the year 2000. When Dr. Brad Edwards had completed his NIAC on space elevators; he came out with the basis for designing parts for a space elevator. The ocean-based earth station and the carbon nanotube tether were included in those proposed items.

The Space elevator conference was also held in this period in 2002. It was organized in Seattle, Washington, USA and it was the first conference on this matter.

Then in 2003 Dr. Brad Edwards had completed his NIAC –Phase II on space elevator construction. This time he expanded the concept in a huge appearance and even published a basic book on it along with Eric Westling. In 2003 they published the great book named “The Space Elevator-A revolutionary Earth-to-space transportation system”. Almost every aspect of a space elevator's design and function was described in this book.

In 2006 an important event took place when two great scientists, Jerome Pearson and Yuri Artsutanov met. They met and discussed the topic when they sat outside the Hermitage Museum in Russia.

Also there took place many events and experiments on this unique and pressing topic of constructing a space elevator. So many organizations came forward to make experiments upon this for the entire world. So many websites and blogs were made to build a community focussed on constructing a space elevator. Though the concept of a space elevator has existed for a long time, previously the actual construction of a space elevator was still a pipe dream. But now it’s really possible to build a viable space elevator with the invented materials and theories.

Where The Idea Of a Space Elevator Came From

The Scientific Basis of The Space Elevator

At first the idea of a space elevator was scientifically in the mind of the great established scholar Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. But it was just an idea. There was no scientific basis to his ideas. But the person who first dared to try to establish a theory on space elevator construction and operation was Yuri Artsutanov. But again it was not a complete thesis. By the way, though they were failing in their attempts, their ideas paved the way for much progress to be made on ideas regarding easier access to space for humanity. When Yuri was working, another great scientist Hans Moranov was also walking the same path. He proposed the rotating tower of space.

Space Elevator Concepts From Ancient Times

If you want to know from where the concept of a space elevator came from originally then you have to go back to the period of bible. Since then the idea of a “stairway to heaven” has been prominent. From that time people have wanted to touch the heavens above. The Stairway to heaven is similar to the Jacob’s ladder and the tower of Babel. All of these were imagined to make a connection between the Earth and heaven. Perhaps modern science and scholars have unconsciously drawn their inspiration from these archetypical stairways to heaven.

Ideas From Science Fiction

In today’s world so many intelligent people are working on it. They are writing science fictions on these ideas which help to make this concept reach evermore people. Such as the famous authors Arthur C. Clarke or the great Isaac Asimov.

Credit Goes to Arthur C. Clarke

The fountain of Paradise is one of the most famous science fiction works depicting a space elevator. There was a description and story of a man named Morgan who dreamed of having a link from earth to heaven. For that purpose he wished to build a tower 24000 miles in height. The scientific issues described in this book were a big help for space students to know and understand the concept of a space elevator. Arthur C. Clarke wrote this great fiction consulting with the researcher Jerome Pearson. Now you can see how realistic it may be.

Credit Goes To Isaac Asimov Too

Arthur C. Clarke was not only a writer but also a researcher. He proposed so many laws of science and social science. From which one was supported by another great author / researcher named Asimov. It was C. Clarke’s third law. This indicated that any high technological invention is not so far from magic. Upon which Asimov had studied a lot and he also published a science fiction on the space elevator. Isaac Asimov has many books on space journeys or space elevators like Foundation or Prelude to Foundation. Both of these books were based upon the 3rd law of Arthur C. Clarke.

Isaac Asimov mainly wrote about Gravity Repulsion in his science fiction. He described how any elevator can move with gravity and it would make the weight zero of the passengers. No other author was so fluent in describing the fiction so realistically that it could inspire others to explore the subject matter in more detail. He beautifully warped the concepts of gravity and a space elevator together. He also discussed many possible aesthetic features of a space elevator, and the materials used in its construction. Some people might not believe the concept and grant them as false fantasy. But gradually new technology is developing and making those fantasies come true. Though these books are just an imagination - now the ideas are helping to infuse the project with a new spirit. Imagination always inspires and precedes reality.

Latest Ideas

From biblical times to present the present day, many ideas have been raised regarding a space elevator. Some of those are less helpful but they always paved the way for what was to come, such as Yuri’s theory which was full of disadvantages. One of these failures is the disastrous failure of the tower because of its weight. NASA seems to be the best space research center, but their proposed design was also unfit due to the defected design of the wire which may be destroyed.

Starting from the beginning of the space elevator concept, it is now getting more enriched. Lots of improvements in the theories have been made and even the structures necessary building materials (carbon nanotubes) are being presented. So it might be not far off when we will actully see a space elevator.

There is also a developing concept of a space railway. NASA is considering launching a space transportation system which will be connected to Earth. So many old theories and discovered materials are being used to establish a successful structure and make a sound design. If you want to make your journey though you might have to count on spending a good amount of money. And with this new feature the science fictional appearance is becoming grand, the fantasy of the science fiction writers is becoming true in these times.

So if we want to take the one event or one specific name where the idea of space elevator came from; this would be very difficult. And every single idea or proposal took this concept to new heights. Not only the scientists but also the authors added new features to this concept; inventing new materials or new scientific imaginations. The science fiction writers contributed greatly to the concept of a space elevator as they often do regarding emerging scientific endeavours. They described the impossible (in a possible way), inspiring scientists to work on it and make it happen.

The Biggest Challenges Which Need To Be Overcome

Though a space elevator might be the greatest invention ever conceived by the human brain, making a complete space elevator is not as easy as writing about it. The inventors, researchers, scientists and the astronauts have to face different difficulties to get it built. The main goal is to reach the point where they would not have to face the difficulties. I am going to tell you the biggest challenges which need to be overcome to build a space elevator. There are some challenges which need to be overcome to build a space elevator described below.

Finding The Perfect Material

Dr. Sumio Lijima did discover carbon nanotube many years ago and all scientists prefer this to build the structure of the space elevator, but there are more matters related to it. Scientists are not 100% sure about this material is perfect for building the elevator. Its tensile strength is so great that it can be given any shape, but they are not sure whether it can be turned into a 100,000 mile long ribbon and how stable it would be. So it is a great challenge for them to overcome this uncertainty.

Facing The Vibration

Another serious issue is that of extreme wire vibrations and oscillations. Lubes Perek of the Substantial Institution at the Czech Academia of Sciences has cautioned that gravitational pulls from the Celestial satellite and Sun, along with stress from squalls of solar breeze, will vibrate the wire. These unforeseen and possibly aggressive movements could steer the tether into satellite traffic or space debris. Perek says this twisting will have a powerful effect on the elevator's balance, both in its early constructional stage as a geostationary (GEO) satellite, as well as in its functional stage as a “sling.” As a possible solution, thrusters could be connected to the wire to make adjustments and help stabilize the tether, but as Anders Jorgensen of the New South America Institution of Exploration and Technological innovation stated, that would be a “serious annoyance”


The visitors who are going to visit the space can create wobble. It’s because of the Coriolis force. This force makes things rotate, that’s why both cable and climber would be pushed toward earth which will create an opposite force with the Earth's rotation.

Economic And Environmental

There are many economic problems with it. It will cost a lot to make an elevator. And the environmental attack such as wind storms, corrosion and the radiation effected ionization on the ribbon is very dangerous, and possibly enough to cause a disaster for the entire system. The plan has to be made to omit these effects which is a big challenge.

Despite these problems, much progress has been made. As we shall see we are closer to building a space elevator now, than at any other time during human history.

Concepts For Space Elevator Design

The concept of a space elevator has been taken from so many sectors. Since then the concept of a Space elevator has been enriched and updated. Many new features are being added, and problems overcome, with every new innovation. Let us look at how the design is getting well-developed.

First Concept of Space Elevator Design

The first space elevator was proposed by Konstantain Tsiokovsky. He was the person who described the rocket equation. He proposed it to be a long tower inspired by the Eiffel Tower. He thought of a tower which had an orbital tip. Obviously it was not even a partial design concept but at least it was a start for the idea of a space elevator. It opened the door to designing the elevator as a very large structure indeed.

Concept of Space Elevator Design According to Yuri Artsutanov

Yuri Artsutanov first proposed a simple round cable design. But there were many problems with the design. If the elevator was based upon the round wire plan, then it would be destroyed by the micrometeorites at its base. It would be affected by windstorms or by radiation. But there is a solution: if we can establish the anchor at a specific point on Earth and make the anchor mobile, the collision may be avoided.

Concept of Space elevator design according to NASA

When NASA took this matter into hand, they began to invent new features. According to Marshall Space Flight, a workshop of NASA, It is clear that they are all set to declare the full design of a Space elevator. According to them the orbit of the space station is important in elevator design and they also believe that the center of mass of the entire system has to be in geostationary orbit. The tether station also needs to be rotating in geostationary orbit, as without this orbit other objects may intersect with the space elevator of Earth. Their plans include making the long ribbon with carbon nanotubes because of the materials tensile strength and light weight.

Concept of Space Elevator Design According to LiftPort

Michael Laine's LiftPort suggested the space elevator be a 62000 mile long ribbon, and this would be made with carbon nanotubes. They proposed that a counterweight may keep the carbon nanotube ribbon tight, if placed at the orbiting end of the space elevator.

Concept of Space Elevator Design From Science Fiction

Finally, we have to say science is indebted to science fiction, from where scientists get many new ideas such as C. Clark conceving the synchronous orbit and the 24000 mile long tower. Isaac Asimov also spread the concept of gravity repulsion.

Current Attempts To Build A Space Elevator

The Space elevator is now being heavily discussed in the science arena. It has become the most important matter for the scientists to explore all the pros and cons about building the space elevator. To build this, so many people have been working on it for so long, and conceived so many necessary ideas like building materials, possible and working structure of the space elevator etc. Today the topic and ideas of the space elevator and space travelling are not limited to science fiction and Hollywood movies. It's going to be real sometime soon now.

A few years ago Michael Laine's Liftport suggested a lunar space elevator on the moon instead of Earth. But then they came around to the idea of an Earth based space elevator. They concluded it would be possible to build a space elevator with current materials and the proposed ribbon to the space from Earth. The ribbon would be made of carbon nanotubes. But unfortunately, their idea failed economically. They also proposed a robot which would climb up to space with visitors, and also the building of a tethered platform for testing purposes. They also arranged many trials and volunteers but unfortunately at this stage the project has not moved forward.

Now from the head office of NASA, employees are saying they are very close to building a space elevator. They have arranged many conferences and workshops on the topic. David Smitherman has gone on record stating NASA has the know-how to build a space elevator. Smitherman also said that the structure required involves the center of mass being in geostationary orbit.

NASA and many scientist are now focusing on many issues concerning the space elevator. They are trying to work out new ways (beyond carbon nanotubes) to apply the energy that will help to maintain the integrity of a space elevator's design. It should be done from the Earth to the satellite in orbit; as efficiently as possible.

The economic cost would be very high. According to NASA the weight of the elevator also needs to be light, and it also needs to be able to withstand the energies of its high speed pendulum swinging around the Earth. Smitherman said that carbon nanotube may help them to build the structure as they are very strong and light. Carbon Nanotubes are 100 times more powerful than steel. With electromagnetic propulsion the space elevator may also have a very, very high transport speed to the station in geosynchronous orbit at the end of the space elevator.

The required technology is being refined day by day and the actual construction of a space elevator beckons ever closer. But so far all serious trials have involved a computerized simulation and that’s all. Scientists are working tirelessly on new and novel ways to make a space elevator a reality.

Competitions To Build A Space Elevator

In this section you will learn about the competitions to build a space elevator; as there are so many competitions held worldwide to help bring the concept of a space elevator from the realms of fantasy - to a reality right here on Earth.

Competitions From NASA

Many organizations like the Spaceward Foundation are arranging space elevator competitions; and the prize money is coming from NASA. NASA wanted to support and explore new ideas for strong tethers and power beaming technology. They wanted to help ensure the space elevator prokect was one day successful, and began sponsoring the project in 2005. In 2009 the first winner of the Space elevator prize was Laser Motive, from Seattle, Washington, USA. They won 900 000 USD from this Power beaming competition, sponsored by NASA. Several US companies, and groups of university researchers, have vowed to bring their devices and put them to the test at future Space Lift competitions.

Competitions In Japan

When it comes to building a space elevator, the country of high-technology, Japan, was not willing to stay on the sidelines. They formed a Space Elevator organization and began to arrange competitions, conferences, and associated workshops. There are two space elevator competitions hosted by Japan each year: LASER AND JSETEC.LASER, which stand for Laser Bricks Activity and Space Elevator Race. JSTETC meaning Japan Space Elevator Technical & Engineering competition.

Prize From ISEC

ISEC proposed the Artsutanov and Pearson prizes. They designed these competitions to encourage space elevator research, and to help take it to the next level.

There are many competitions which are being held around the world like the 2009 space Elevator Challenge, 2011 Strong Tether Centennial Challenge, and JSEA 2013. They are all tackling different design issues like the tether composition, climber vehicle, and propulsion.

What a Space Elevator Might Mean For The Future Of Humanity

A fully constructed and operational Space elevator is going to be a huge success for the builders of this project. It will definitely affect humanity a great deal in the future.

Space Tourism For Commercial Purposes

Space tourists will be able to access space much more efficiently and cheaper than ever before; as enormous amounts of fuel will not have to be burnt to get humans into low Earth orbit. Some have proposed setting up a medical facility on the space elevator station, so that the wealthy can make the journey and receive better medical treatment - far from world pollution and contaminants. The moon could also be one of your favorite vacation destinations; in fact, from the low Earth orbit of a space elevator it may be relatively simple to then travel onwards to Mars, Venus, the Asteroid Belt and beyond.

Setting Off To Explore Earth-Like Exoplanets

The current environmental crisis may well one day be resolved through ever accelerating technology; but currently pollution levels are still extraordinarily high and anthropogenic climate change may irreversibly alter the Earth forever. Whether it is due to these reasons, economic reasons (such as discovering an Earth-like exoplanet is rich in certain minerals), or simply due to our eternal desire to keep exploring; a space elevator will make it much easier to embark on an intergalactic mission to an Earth-like exoplanet. The spaceship could be made as large as is necessary, built in the zero g environment in orbit around Earth with raw materials from the Asteroid Belt and the Moon. It may even be powered by Helium 3 from the Moon. It is possible that to build a space elevator will be a great gift for humanity’s ability one day leave the Earth.

Economic Benefits

Mining Helium 3 on the Moon as an energy source, and also mining mineral rich Asteroids would be much easier to achieve with a space elevator. The positive economic, environmental and spiritual effects of this would be phenomenal.

Spiritual Benefits

Upon returning to Earth, many astronauts such as Edgar Mitchell have reported experiencing a phenomenon known as “the Overview Effect”. This is an overwhelming feeling of seeing the Earth as one, and the fragile web of life, the blue speck, which is Earth floating in space. Many have also reported feelings of spiritual oneness with the universe, and a new concern for humanity's and this planet's intertwined futures. With the easier access to space a space elevator would cause, it is possible to speculate that more and more people experiencing the Overview Effect may help trigger humanity's evolution to a higher state of consciousness. Many would argue this is desperately needed at this stage in our collective evolution; for we have the tools to achieve anything (such as colonizing space), but we are held back by outdated social, financial and political structures which are a legacy from an old world which no longer exists.

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